The paradox of one “strong” friend in your life

I’ve known for most of my life that I am an independent person. I’ve always been the go-getter. The one who speaks up. The one that just goes out there and does things.

I seem fearless to everyone around me. Whenever someone asks why or how I would do the thing that they would or could not, my answer is one of two things. It’s either that it doesn’t occur to me that I can’t or that I don’t have a choice.

It’s not a persona I manufacture on purpose. Most misunderstand the meaning behind either of those statements, especially the latter. On the surface they seem brave, even egotistic, but that isn’t what they are at all. Their root isn’t in independence, but hyper independence. The bad kind.

I am both a hyper-vigilant and hyper-independent person. Both are a result of trauma in my life, mostly from childhood and adolescence. We often think of trauma as things that happen to us that should not have. It is also what should have happened but did not.

My hyper-vigilance comes from trauma that happened to me, events outside of my control that disproportionately impacted me. I learned to scan and assess for the danger they wrought. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an “off” switch. My trauma brain knows that if someone can hurt me, they will.

My hyper-independence, however, is how the trauma of all the things that should have happened but never did manifests. I should have had a stable home where I felt safe and loved. But because I was being harmed, exploited, and manipulated by my caregivers, it never happened. I should have learned that relationships are not one-way and I can ask for support and care from others. But because I was expected to provide that support to those in my life who were tasked with teaching me, it never happened. And when I did ask for things from others, I was consistently let down and left to my own devices.

I grew up in a world where I was only valued for extrinsic things. My looks, my talents, my intelligence, my physical skills. So long as it could benefit another person, my presence was wanted. If my presence did not fulfill a purpose, one would be created. This resulted in parentification and emotional incest caused by my mother’s alcoholism that started as early as age eleven for me. Sexual abuse followed soon after. When I regained control of myself in young adulthood, I was discarded and scapegoated.

I was not nurtured the way children should be or guided in a way that teenagers need. I never knew that I was meant to rely on those entrusted with my care and well-being. The only way for me to respond, to even survive, was to care for myself. Over the years, I learned how to give that support to others. I was the person anyone could call at 2 a.m., but there was no one there to care for me at five when the emergencies were over. I lived emotionally drained, devoid of anything for myself. I sincerely did not know that it was something I could not only want but need for myself also.

I believed I was just wired differently. That I was fine on my own. In my mind, I never consciously believed that I didn’t need anyone, it was just how the cookie crumbled for me. It was just the way things worked. I never thought twice about how silenced and uncomfortable I felt when others mentioned support they received from friends and family during hard times, or even that it meant anything of substance. When I would catch up with someone and I shared about my life, I would shrug when they would drag out a low whistle in surprise. Everyone would tell me I was carrying too much for one person, but none ever offered their shoulders to share the load. If they did, it wasn’t enough. It confused me: if not me, then who?

My hyper-independence is not all bad. I’m planning a somewhat long trip. I’m not sure I will actually get to embark on it the way I envision it right now, but I know I’ll do something for it. I’ve missed traveling in the years I spent clawing my way back to ground level. No one is going to stop me from enjoying it. When people gasp at the fact I am doing it all solo, I shrug. My richest adventures were usually ones I designed and navigated myself. Maybe they don’t know what I know: that no one can stop you from doing what you truly want.

My hyper-independence saved my life. When I was 27, I sold and donated almost everything I owned, packed the rest into three suitcases and a backpack, and boarded a one-way flight to Los Angeles. I didn’t have the words at the time to describe how I felt. I did know I was running out of time and that I would die if I remained in Minnesota. Alarms were going off in my head and they wouldn’t stop. For months I kept “daydreaming” about jumping off the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge that crosses I-94 in downtown Minneapolis, nestled between the Spoonbridge and Cherry and Loring Park. It wasn’t until I thawed out in L.A. from the bone-chilling winters that I could finally put a word to those urges: suicidal. I only knew that I could rely on myself, and nothing else.

But: my hyper-independence has run me at an emotional and relational deficit. A couple of months ago, I found myself ill from stress at work. It was unusual for my job and workload. I was overburdened with the results of poor planning from the powers in charge. It was temporary but still left an impact. The moment I stepped outside the office for the day, messages busied up my phone. My sister and her partner informed me that their sweet, elderly dog had died without warning. The comfort they needed from me was implied in their dry statements. It was in that moment my job to figure out they needed me to call and console them. The same people I had dropped everything for and run to the bedside of simply because they’d asked two months prior, only to then be later blamed for their own misbehavior and codependency. I had already spent my lunch break comforting another friend in the midst of a terrifying escape from her abusive husband, grappling with impossible choices and fear that only a master manipulator can inflict.

By the time I boarded my bus fifteen minutes later, I had burst into tears. Not for my loved ones and their pain, but my own. I needed, more than anything in that moment, someone to lean on and cry to myself. Someone who would greet me at the door with a warm hug and a kiss on the forehead. With my pajamas and heating pad already waiting on the bed. Someone who would have already known how my day had unfolded because they cared about my well-being enough to ask and sincerely wanted to know, good or bad. To check in. To share. Someone who would simply want and care for all of me, not just when I could provide for them.

These are things I have never had once in my life, not even as a child. And they are things I likely will never experience. I didn’t have a choice but to walk in to a dark apartment with dishes to wash and laundry to fold. No one ever told me I could have anything else.

Strong, hyper-independent people in your life do not need to hear that they are resilient, that they have it together, that they are resourceful. We already know. It isn’t a compliment—it is only a statement of fact.

What we need to know is that it is okay to not have all the answers, the solutions, the resources to problems. We need to know and be shown that it’s okay to let the ugly things out. That sometimes things fall apart and it’s not our job to repair them. That others will put us first sometimes, even without us asking. Hyper-independent people resort to a default that deprives everyone around them of richer experiences that we don’t even know are possible. We need people to show us once in awhile and to return the gift we have shared for so long.

The next time you see a strong friend being strong, don’t reinforce it and invalidate the need for vulnerability. Check within yourself if any of your relationships are one-way like this. Reflect on it and reach out to those who seem to never need anything. I promise you we do. And sometimes we don’t even know it: because we don’t know anything else. No one told us that we could, and we may not know we have a choice.

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