How To Tell if Your Desire To Be Self-Sufficient Is Actually Toxic Hyper-Independence—And What To Do About It

Photo: Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt
Self-sufficiency is, in plenty of cultures, a hallmark of successful adulting. And the allure of being perceived as a self-made success can make independence the ultimate goal. Perhaps you've witnessed it in a friend who smiles away every offer of help. (Virgo much?) Or maybe you've found yourself striving to avoid asking for support. It's only natural to do so in a world where living alone is the desirable standard (for uncoupled adults), solo travel is on the rise, and creating your own career or side hustle—launching that podcast, newsletter, or channel from scratch—is heavily praised. But what happens when self-reliance goes too far? Enter: hyper-independence.

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The urge to constantly do it yourself can easily go unexamined, and what was once a reluctance to ask for help can become a near inability to do so. Once you find yourself teetering toward the latter, it's likely that your once-healthy level of independence and self-sufficiency is on the verge of becoming toxic hyper-independence.

“A hyper-independent person takes their sense of independence to the extreme and chooses not to seek help or guidance from another person when in need.” —Katrina Leggins, LCSW, therapist

A hyper-independent person “takes their sense of independence to the extreme and chooses not to seek help or guidance from another person when in need,” says therapist and self-care educator Katrina Leggins, LCSW. Often, this person's refusal of assistance comes at their own harm or detriment, she adds, because they're pushing away support at times when they could genuinely use it.

Certainly, that's not to say that attempting to figure things out for yourself—and learning from the mistakes that inevitably happen when you do so—isn't a valuable and worthwhile quality. But it's important to distinguish between these healthy self-help tendencies and behaviors that involve striving for independence to a fault.

Why is hyper-independence problematic?

To understand the potential effects of hyper-independence, it's useful to consider its origins. According to naturopathic doctor and holistic anxiety coach Courtney Paré, ND, hyper-independent behaviors typically begin as a protective mechanism, designed to provide a person with a sense of safety. So the (faulty) thinking goes: If they aren't reliant on anyone but themselves, they can have full control over the outcomes in their life.

Over time, this protective mechanism can invite a host of repercussions, including “an increase in loneliness and burnout, which also raises the risk for developing anxiety and depression,” says Paré.

Though hyper-independent folks might think they're protecting themselves from being let down by others (if they don't ask for help, they can't be disappointed when they don't receive it), "they're actually preventing themselves from creating healthy and fulfilling relationships," says Paré. It's only through participating in the natural give and take of helping and receiving help that you can develop a sense of intimacy and connection, after all.

Even those who initially feel proud of their self-sufficiency will eventually lose steam, says Paré. But rather than let others know how they're feeling—whether that's exhausted or lonely or anxious—hyper-independent people tend to continue to self-isolate, which can have lasting effects on their well-being, she adds. An April 2023 review of research on loneliness and mortality found that social isolation is linked to a higher risk of premature death.

What are the key signs of hyper-independence?

Being able to adequately recognize toxic independence is the first step in preventing further escalation. Below are a few key signs of hyper-independence, according to Paré and Leggins:

  • Having difficulty delegating
  • Becoming suspicious or annoyed when people show an effort to get to know you
  • Preferring to work alone rather than in a group
  • Engaging in perfectionistic tendencies
  • Needing to stay busy all the time
  • Refusing to ask for or accept help from others
  • Struggling to share needs or feeling frustrated or resentful when other people share their needs
  • Finding it challenging to be vulnerable
  • Not being able to trust
  • Engaging in coping behaviors to numb feelings

Additionally, one of the biggest early indicators of hyper-independence is an aversion to feeling or being perceived of as needy, says Leggins, which feeds into the tendency to avoid asking for help. “Often, hyper-independent people identify as the ‘dependable’ or ‘strong’ friend or partner,” says Leggins, which is why it's important to take note if you (or a loved one) present as highly capable in nearly every scenario.

The link between hyper-independence and trauma

A conversation about hyper-independence isn’t complete without mentioning the role of trauma. As noted above, hyper-independence often springs from a protective mechanism—and the need to protect one's self (at all costs) may come from having experienced a traumatic event.

“It’s essential to highlight that hyper-independence can develop from trauma or modeled behavior where the person learns that self-reliance is the only way to cope or survive,” says Leggins. Consider a person who had an emotionally abusive parent or one who failed to meet a core need. Over time, they may internalize that asking for a need to be met is futile or could put them at emotional risk, leading them to stop asking. That tendency can then be difficult to turn off in adulthood, even when they're in a relationship with someone willing to meet their needs.

Instead, this person may default to not relying on anyone and similarly resist anyone relying on them. “They don’t want to be let down again and want to protect themselves,” says Leggins, emphasizing that the fear of others disappointing or hurting them can be a strong motivator to stay guarded and wholly self-sufficient.

Steps to take to counter hyper-independent tendencies

Learning how to heal hyper-independence can improve your well-being and close relationships, romantic and platonic. For Paré, it starts with redefining what it means to accept support and softening dominant thoughts around independence. “If you believe accepting support is an act of courage, strength, and growth [rather than a sign of weakness], your brain is much more likely to get on board with the idea,” she says.

Changing your belief system is a process that takes time, though, which is why Leggins suggests easing in at a pace that feels safe with reflective activities like journaling. Extending self-compassion and grace is a more fruitful strategy than expecting an immediate mindset shift.

“If you believe accepting support is an act of courage, strength, and growth, your brain is much more likely to get on board with the idea.” —Courtney Paré, ND, naturopathic doctor

You may also need to examine the root cause of your hyper-independent tendencies in order to work through them. “If your hyper-independence stems from childhood trauma, for example, working with a trauma-informed therapist who offers trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, or somatic therapy can help,” says Paré.

Leggins also highlights the importance of community care. Learning to trust your inner circle, leaning on your community, and being open to the idea that genuine support exists, are all tactics worth embracing. “Start challenging the hyper-independent behavior by pushing yourself to make small requests from close friends or family members,” she says. Eventually, larger requests for support will feel more natural and less daunting.

To help reinstate your ability to trust others, you might also consider volunteering, says Paré, “which is a great way to witness how connecting and fulfilling it can feel to work with other people toward a common goal.”

As you take on these new behavioral habits, it's important to acknowledge that feeling some discomfort and apprehension is normal. “While there is always the possibility that you will get let down or hurt, there is also a huge possibility that you will feel supported, loved, and connected,” says Paré. “And the more loved and connected we feel, the more equipped we are at handling life’s inevitable ups and downs in healthy, sustainable ways.”

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