It’s Time to End the Myth of Emotional SelfSufficiency

Posted on in On Our Radar by Rachael Vaughan


There’s something more dangerous out there than the next big flu. It’s a virus, but it’s not a tiny microbe; it’s a meme. It’s the prevailing myth of emotional selfsufficiency.

It says that people who need people are pathological, that a deep longing for relationship is sick, and that caring for others is codependent. It says you should be able to meet all your own needs and whispers that if you loved yourself, you wouldn’t need anyone else. It shames you for feeling lonely.

I am so tired of battling this myth alone. I need you with me on this. And here’s why: humans did not evolve to live alone. It’s not our natural state. We evolved in closely knit bands that hunted and gathered in groups. We sat together around communal fires, shared food and stories, and slept snuggled up against the cold. It was safer to be part of the pack. Some of the unpleasantness of loneliness is the trace of ancient fear when we’re alone—the outliers were the ones that got picked off by leopards and lions.

So I need you. And you need me. We need each other. It’s in our DNA.

We Were Born to Be Relational

Day-old deer can run and jump, but humans are helpless when we’re born. For the first months of our lives, we rely completely on our mothers. Mom’s good attunement to baby builds trust and love, and what’s called secure attachment—the inner confidence that you are loved and will be responded to. Secure attachment creates confidence in exploring the world.

The myth says that somewhere along the line, we grow out of this. But that’s not true! Our need for relationship is literally a lifeand-death issue: we live longer if we’re happily married or have a network of close friends.

Our need for touch is part of it. Loving, caring touch causes us to secrete oxytocin, often called the bonding hormone—it makes us feel calm, safe, and happy. Just 40 seconds of being hugged by someone you like causes oxytocin release. But you can’t hug yourself. You need to get it from someone else. Try it. Hug someone and count—you’ll feel the relaxation response switch in. Far from being self-sufficient, we physically need each other.

Scientists are now finding that all mammals are programmed for altruism and love. Our previous view of the world as a jungle full of selfish creatures fighting for survival is giving way to one of the world as a tightly knit tapestry of reciprocal relationships.

two girls are holding each other

It’s ridiculous to think we don’t need each other. In fact, the opposite is true—the more you give and take love, care, attention, and contact with others, the happier and healthier you will be. So how did a meme based on avoidance become such a fervently held belief?

This Meme Is All about Fear

We become avoidant because of fear. If people have been mean to us in the past, we may carry the scars of that trauma. So we turn away from love because it’s twinned with the fear of betrayal. All of us have been betrayed at some point. So all of us harbor a little fear connected to the vulnerability of opening ourselves to love, and therefore this meme is seductive. But at a deeper level of feeling, you know this meme is wrong.

Don’t Isolate, Inoculate

The solution is not to open less to other people. The solution is to open more. The idea that we can—and should—provide for ourselves in every area of our lives is one that has been sold to us. It’s part of the ideology of the consumer society.

We are increasingly reduced—reduced, not empowered—to buying services that used to unfold from natural human relationships: home health care, babysitting, massage therapy, spiritual counseling, sexual fulfillment, entertainment, and so on. All these things used to be available to us for free because we lived with and among other people. Community gatherings met layered sets of needs, in a rich texture of transactions.

Markets, barn raisings, harvest times, village dances, and weekly religious services provided opportunities for sharing information, trading, making friends, getting help, courtship, and entertainment. Now we’ve lost that collectivity, and most transactions have become one-dimensional. Even cafes and bars are no longer meeting places—they’re full of isolated individuals staring down at screens, updating their status on Facebook.

Fight the meme. We don’t need more selfreliance. What we’re blocked in is our relationality: our readiness to receive and our willingness to give. We’ve become so infected with consumer values that we think we should only give if we’re going to get, and that we should always try to get the most return for the least investment. God forbid we love someone more than they love us. Or give our love for free.

We think we should provide for ourselves because otherwise we’d be relying on someone else. And that means taking a risk without any guarantee. This is what has us feeling both lonely as hell and ashamed of feeling that way—we’ve been told it’s wrong to need people, and we’re scared that our normal attachment instincts are sick.

Trust Your Feeling

Instead of going inward and trying to meet your own needs, go outward and build yourself a robust network of relationships, a community of like-minded souls that you can laugh with, cry with, listen to, care for, and love. Then when the inevitable betrayals, bereavements, and disappointments happen, you’ll have support. Because no-one makes it alone. And no-one—unless they’re the sole survivor of a plane crash in a jungle—should even try.

Inoculate yourself from the virus by smiling at people, saying hello, getting involved, keeping in contact, leaning into differences, sticking with a friend who’s in hard times, offering to help, forgiving your lover, sending a card, giving a hug, picking up the crying kid, calling your mother. People need people. You’re perfectly normal.

Rachael Vaughan is a marriage and family therapist with offices in Marin and San Francisco. She also teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.