Autonomy vs Dependency
By Tina B. Tessina on June 07, 2014
Self-determination and self-respect are the necessary keys to take full responsibility for and control over your own life. Without these keys, it’s easy to be caught up in the fantasy that there is someone else who will make it better, who can or should take total care of you, who is able to be responsible for you more effectively than you can yourself.
We have this dream for two reasons:
1) when you were little your parents took care of you and made it better; and/or
2) overloaded or incompetent parents failed to teach you the skills necessary to take care of and feel capable of being responsible for yourself.
You start to learn autonomy when you realize how false and destructive this dream is. When you understand that no one can take care of you better and that only you are responsible for your life and you start to learn effective methods for doing these things yourself.
Autonomy can be called several things:
• self-government: this is the dictionary definition of autonomy; making your own rules and living by them; also called self-reliance.
• self-trust: being able to make a promise to yourself and keep it, as you would a promise to a respected friend. Extending the same careful consideration to yourself that you would wish from a friend.
•self-determination: deciding your own future through planning and careful action.
• self-confidence: the security that comes from having a sense of purpose, and the confidence to accomplish your purpose.
• self-esteem: appreciation of your talents and abilities, the recognition that you are a healthy, capable and loveable person.
• higher purpose: self-motivation, a desire to create and accomplish, regardless of outer rewards, but for the satisfaction of accomplishment.
• self-love: the healing of old pain and resentment, comfort with your own feelings, self-nurturing and self-support.
By achieving the ability to take care of and be responsible for yourself, you acquire:
1) The emotional tools necessary to free yourself from dependency. When a problem arises, instead of blaming someone else, or “running away” through denial or addictive behavior, as an autonomous person you learn the skills it takes to face it squarely, find out as much as possible about it, consider many options, weigh the possible outcome of each option, and perhaps seek advice and counsel before reaching a decision. As an autonomous person, you can ask directly for help, but you remain in charge of how much and what kind of help you accept, and you make clear agreements about what is expected in return.
2) The role models that enable you to choose appropriate friends and a suitable mate. The interaction you have with yourself is a role model for all your other relationships. Learning about autonomy in yourself also helps you see it in others. When you have a caring, responsible relationship with yourself, you develop an internal relationship model to use as a basis for your friendships and intimate relationships with others.
3) the understanding that you are responsible for yourself and must learn whatever you need to make your life successful, functional and happy.
The popular idea of parents' “responsibility” for children can be counter-productive. Because parents think in terms of owning and controlling their offspring rather than teaching them to make choices on their own, many children are taught dependency, not autonomy. These parental attitudes prevent children from learning self-esteem and the pleasure of self-love. Children who don’t learn self-love and self-control (rather than guilt and duty) become addictive adults. Those children who are taught self-esteem and autonomy and therefore take care of themselves are viewed with disbelief (she can’t be that good) suspicion (yes, but if we only knew...) and envy (some people have all the luck) by the others.
Another reason autonomy can seem difficult is because most of our society actively discourages it. Media images of love and caring, a parental “I know what’s best for you” attitude among helping professionals, religious and political figures, and the generally accepted idea of parents’ duty create an atmosphere in which autonomy appears to be selfish and alien. We are influenced to value caring for others to the point of martyrdom, and to regard caring for ourselves as self-centered and egotistic.
Contrary to these beliefs, independence and autonomy actually enhance relationships with others, and allow giving and receiving to be truly unconditional. Only a person who is fully able to care for him or herself can be free to love and give freely; deprived people give grudgingly. The following chart will help you compare what autonomy is and isn’t:
Here are several situations, which are common for people who have dependency problems; first as they are usually handled by dependent people, and then as they are handled by those who have achieved autonomy:
• You find yourself letting your exercise routine go, because your new lover doesn’t exercise. Dependency: You notice this, but you do nothing about it. Autonomy: You notice it, and go on to discuss the situation with your lover, explain how important your routine is to you, and discuss possible solutions until you find a mutually satisfactory plan.
• Your raise is due, and you deserve it, but it hasn’t been mentioned. Dependency: You’re afraid to ask about it. Autonomy: You request an appointment with your supervisor, and calmly remind her of the due date.
• You call a plumber to fix a stopped-up drain, and he wants to tear out the whole wall and replace all the pipes. Dependency: Even though you think he’s wrong, and you’d like another opinion, you let him do it. Autonomy: You ask him for a clear explanation of why he wants to do the extra work. When you find out that boring the drain out would be a temporary solution, you ask him to do that, and give yourself time to get another estimate on the larger job. When you have two or three estimates, you make your decision.
• You feel anxious, and you go to the doctor to see if your thyroid is overactive. Your physical says everything’s OK, but the doctor prescribes Valium to calm you down. Dependency: You don’t think it’s good for you, but you take it because he said so. Autonomy: You tell her that you’re unwilling to take tranquilizers or relaxants, and ask for alternatives. She recommends therapy, yoga or meditation. You ask your friends for recommendations and join a class in relaxation techniques.
• Your friend, who has had a number of accidents, asks to borrow your car. Dependency: You worry about it, but you give him the car keys. Autonomy: You say, “I'm sorry. I'd like to help, but I can’t loan you my car. Can I drive you somewhere?”
• Your brother, who’s always in debt, and never pays you back, asks for money. Dependency: You resent it, but you give it to him. Autonomy: You explain that you don’t have extra to give away, and carrying the debt he owes you is beginning to hurt your relationship. You care too much about him to let it go any further.
• Your wife always wants to spend Thanksgiving at her mother’s. Dependency: Even though you miss holidays at your family, and they complain that they miss you, you give in to keep the peace at home. Autonomy: You tell her that you miss holidays at your family, and they complain that they miss you, so you want to talk about other options. Together, you discuss the problem, talk to your respective families, and decide that this year you’ll go to your parents on Thanksgiving, and your wife’s family on the Sunday after.
• Your husband is much harsher with your children than you think is right. Dependency: You say nothing because you're afraid of him. Autonomy: You call a child psychologist to get an independent opinion, and when the psychologist says the behavior is abusive, you request that your husband go with you to family counseling. If he refuses, you go to counseling yourself to find out how to protect yourself and your children.
• Your former roommate has too much to drink at your party. Dependency: You don’t think she should drive home, but when she insists, you let her. Autonomy: You don’t think she should drive home, so you call a taxi and keep her car keys. The next day, you call and make arrangements for her to get her car.
• You hear that your friend spread a rumor about you. Dependency: You’re hurt and confused, but you don’t ask her about it; you just let the friendship deteriorate. Autonomy: You’re hurt and confused, so you ask her to have lunch with you. At lunch, you tell her what you heard, ask her if it’s true, and get an explanation that clears things up.
“Autonomy, wrote Denton Roberts in Able and Equal, “is the knowledge that we are the owners of our lives. We are not owned by parents, bosses, government, church, neighbors, spouses, children or cars....we are not, sometimes much to our dismay, victims of people and institutions. No longer being a victim means we determine our lives and what to do with them. Our ability to respond to life is both and asset and a challenge. Without the indulgent feeling of being victimized by the world or circumstances, we take possession of life.”
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.