The Myth of Self-Reliance

The idea of being a self-made person, accomplishing things on one’s own, and being self-reliant has been a frequent subject in my life lately so I thought I’d write about this myth and what a disservice to humanity it is to perpetuate this notion of self-reliance. 

This is a uniquely American notion which has a lot of surface appeal.  The first myth about this notion is that it emanated from the time of Western migration. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Those who migrated to the Americas did not do so independently, for that matter, those who settled the land did not do so independently, nor did those who commenced and won the American revolution, the western migrators and land grab adverturers did not do so in isolation or independently either. All of these events occurred because of significant interdependence, social reliance and collective effort. None of these things were accomplished by individuals pulling themselves up by the boot straps.

The myth of pulling-yourself-up-by -the-boot-strap was propagated, as was the myth of the Western Cowboys, in the early years of industrialization when barons and magnates had to find a way to convince those they subjugated that they-the masters—were superior to those whom they enslaved. Later, these notions were glamorized and further perpetuated by Hollywood. The singular hero rising above obstacles etc. etc.  what a romantic and bigger than life notion. There is an insidious purpose to this myth and its origins are dark. The message of this concept is as follows: If I am successful, it must be because I am more capable since I, and only I, am responsible for my wealth and success. And if YOU are working for ME and are poor and can’t make ends meet, then YOU are somehow weaker and need ME to give YOU bare sustenance.  By perpetuating this myth those in power put themselves above others not just economically but as a way to convey superior qualities and therefore being deserving of their wealth. What a powerful psycho-social tool to place blame and burden for subjugation on the backs of the subjugated. What a great way to convince them to never look at their oppressor and always feel shame about their inadequacies as evidenced by their lack of wealth and power.

As I type this essay I would like to take credit for it.  I’d like to think that I, and I alone, am coming up with these ideas, writing MY blog, on MY computer, during MY time.  How wonderful it feels to OWN this accomplishment. But, frankly, that is all bullshit. 

Let’s start with my ideas: They did not suddenly generate out of thin air.  They have come about as a culmination of reading OTHER people’s work, observing OTHER people’s lives both living and dead. I owe my ideas to everything and everyone who has taught me directly or indirectly.  My parents, clients, students, spouse, children, writers, thinkers, complete stranger on the subway and people of all ages. And, by the way, my thoughts were generated by my brain and I owe my brain’s existence to my parents. And, of course, by extension, I owe my existence to generations before me who survival many hardships and celebrated life.  

In that same vein I did not make my computer, generate my own electricity, build my own internet for my blog (or even come up with the notion of a blog) and certainly am not using just my time for this essay to exist.  YOU are reading it, and for this essay to have life I need YOUR time from YOUR life…thank you.

There is absolutely nothing we have done that we have accomplished on our own, singularly and individually. I have been taught this powerfully from an early age in a culture that does not subscribe to this narcissistic vision of self. I remember being very excited and feel self-important about getting a good grade in school and expecting to be glorified by my parents.  My mother’s response, while not dismissive and encouraging, was always to remind me that my good grades were the result of not just from my efforts and brain power but the work of my teachers, support at home and opportunities given to me to for that achievement.  This approach always grounded me every time I accomplished something.  We absolutely need countless elements to go right and many obstacles to be removed, multiple opportunities to be offered for anything we accomplish.

Why am I writing about this? Well, in both my past professional work in counseling and current works as a personal and executive coach, and my teaching career I have been blessed with the experience of facing individuals who are mercilessly self-punitive because they feel somehow less than adequate in achieving their goals. Indeed, many are so terrified of asking for help and so bent on self-reliance that they don’t even attempt at success feeling that success achieved with help is not worth celebrating or even having.  Clients avoid counseling literally because they feel ashamed of their weaknesses, or don’t show up for sessions because they did not or could complete a task they may have been asked to do. Students fail to attend class because they are afraid they may be asked a question they don’t know the answer to.  Somehow, we have convinced people that avoiding failure is a better option than asking for help and in the process have completely ignored the fact that EVERY success is literally failure transformed. This incredibly limiting mindset massacres our real sense of self. And our sense of self is highly dependent on our sense of belonging.  

Those who believe in the Darwinian theory emphasizing the survival of the fittest and apply it to individuality of humans have the theory fundamentally wrong.  Humans are, at the core, an interconnected species.  Our survival is in our connectivity and not individuality. We succeed only if others help us and we survive only if we help each other. Nothing we have invented, improved upon or use we have done alone.  Indeed, our very evolution has been based on incremental change and advancement founded on the accomplishment and creation of those who came before us and those around us who help smooth the path and keep things moving forward.  

When we insist on self-reliance, we devalue others in our life.  We disconnect the bonds that make the human network, we destroy the strength in multiplicity of minds, experiences and effort.  When we stop sharing our vulnerabilities, we tell those around us to do the same.  And they, in turn, do the same. We present a fake persona which we then spend enormous amounts of energy and resources protecting against being discovered.  We worry constantly that we are not good enough because we don’t know that others, too, struggle with the same things. And then, when we have accomplishments, we feel like imposters.

There is enormous power in “I don’t know”.  The phrase “I need your help” is an invitation for humanity to flourish. The freedom in “yes, I will be happy to accept your help” opens you up for success that is legitimately shared.  A shared success is not a diminished success.  It is in fact evidence of a more profound success than whatever the task was which was accomplished. It is evidence of success in humanity, it’s a celebration of the capacity to be vulnerable, and successfully connect with other human beings in achieving a common objective.  So, when we succeed in anything with help, we have actually accomplished two successes. We have perpetuated humanity, learned in the process and achieve our goals too.

Next time the thought crosses your mind that says “I have to do this myself” ask yourself why. Ask yourself, what have you ever truly accomplished on your own? Ask yourself, why you are so bent on denying other humans from the joy and success of sharing in your accomplishment? Ask yourself, what makes you so inhuman as to not need other humans. Then, just ask for help and say yes, thank you, when offered it.

To my family and friends who were with me and discussed this notion tonight, thanks for helping me write this blog. I’d love to hear your feedback, stories, comments…