Why Self-Reliance Is Not The Solution For Emotional Health
A balance of self, God, and others all matter.
Disclaimer: I am not a therapist or doctor. I write purely from the perspective of my own mental health experiences, therapy, relationships, healing, recovery, teaching and research, and want to comment on what I see as a recurring theme in the media around the promotion of emotional self-reliance above all other forms of healing — a concept that I think can be dangerous when it becomes the primary mechanism for which we rely on growth and well-being.
For me, emotional health is about cultivating a balance among self-reliance, relying on God or your higher power, and relying on other people. Self-reliance by itself can lead to isolation, denial, and avoidance.
An unshakeable foundation of inner strength for me, is first and foremost based on my relationship with Jesus Christ, who embodies the concept of unconditional love. The role of my higher power allows me to step outside of myself, to be comforted by Him in my pain, to not feel alone, and to treat myself with gentleness and loving-kindness.
As many of us learn in successful therapy and Recovery programs, calling on a higher power to support us through life, as well as having a sponsor, accountability partner, therapist, or support group is integral to staying healthy, happy, and sober. I would argue that this is important for anyone, not just those who grapple with addiction and mental health illnesses.
The concept that we have to be entirely emotionally self-reliant in order to be “strong” or “healthy” is what can lead people to feel weaker and weaker, and to become isolated. This can be particularly detrimental for addicts of any kind.
Utter self-reliance sometimes translates into a person feeling like they have the power alone to solve all their own problems. This can lead to great frustration when old patterns, habits, feelings, impulses, behaviors, or addictions reappear, and the individual feels helpless to overcome them by himself or herself. This can range from habits such as smoking, to verbal abuse, to binge eating. There is a wide and diverse spectrum of illnesses that many of us struggle with.
The individual feels like a tremendous failure when he or she cannot overcome the addiction or habit by his or her own strength. This leads to a feeling of self-loathing and shame, which only perpetuates the cycle of destructive behavior.
Self-reliance can also lead to avoidance or denial of one’s challenges and weaknesses, particularly because there are no other voices (i.e. a friend, therapist, sponsor) providing input and helping an individual to stay aware of their shortcomings (and triumphs, for that matter).
Reaching out to other people for help is actually an act of self-support.
For me, picking up the phone to call an accountability partner or sharing about my day in a support group when I’m not doing well is often the hardest thing to do. My ego wants to believe I can figure it all out for myself, and an old habit of wanting to look perfect and to protect my image still surfaces at these times.
Though it’s much easier now, in the past I never wanted to appear vulnerable to others, particularly if I felt embarrassed or upset about how I was feeling or behaving. I didn’t want other people to know about my weaknesses and struggles.
And yet, what I’ve learned over the years is that after a therapy session, a call with an accountability partner, or by sharing my feelings in a support group, I generally leave feeling hopeful, optimistic, and strengthened. I am reminded that I am not alone. I am encouraged. I see myself clearly.
Oftentimes, my “share” also strengthens the people who are listening.
At the same time, I recognize there is immense value in acts of self-reliance and healing that occur when I turn inward and do things by myself — such as journaling, volunteering, practicing yoga, pursuing my career goals, gardening, cooking, exercising, writing, and meditating. Yet these things alone are not enough to help me live a healthy lifestyle. I need to connect with God’s loving presence every day, and to draw on the nourishment that comes from healthy relationships with other people and mental health professionals. In some cases, the role of medication is also very beneficial to helping an individual live the fullest life possible.
Emotional regulation for me is thus really about knowing when to rely on myself alone (i.e.: taking an action by myself such as a walk in nature), when to call on God (i.e.: prayer and worship) and when to ask for help from others (i.e.: meeting up with a weekly support group). A balance of these choices has helped me to build and maintain a healthy lifestyle for myself and my family.
I feel deeply fulfilled and content with who I am, as a result.
Each day, we have the opportunity to make choices that support our emotional well-being, and tangentially, the emotional well-being of those connected to us.
A generous mix of self, God, and others is — for me — a successful combination that enables me to meet life’s challenges with grace and love.
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