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how can we be the right kind of together?
Alexei Jawlensky, Murnau, 1910
A couple months ago, a friend asked me about being more independent. That’s a loaded topic for me, since historically I haven’t been as independent as I’d like to be. I’ve done things that make me seem independent—leaving college, living alone, traveling alone, working on things by myself—but it always felt like posturing. I don’t know if I really enjoyed those experiences as much as I should have—if I was really present with myself in the time I spent alone. I was a lonely child and even as an adult I was always afraid of real solitude. I’ve never liked being all by myself on a Friday night. I was always dating someone (the longest I’ve been single since I was 15 is probably six months). To me, that’s clearly the sign of someone who doesn’t enjoy their own company.
I think it’s only this year that I’ve started to actually feel independent, and I’ve been trying to understand the difference. I think the biggest thing I’ve realized is that I used to externalize way too much. Like, if I felt bored or antsy or upset, I would seek out a friend to help dull the acuteness of that negative feeling. I felt like the world wasn’t safe—when I was all alone, trying to distract myself by reading a book or watching a movie, I felt untethered and uncomfortable. I wasn’t good at self-soothing. So in a way I was super dependent on my friends and partners because I needed them in order to regulate my emotions. At the same time, I’ve always been headstrong, individualistic, and reluctant to compromise. “You always think you’re right” is the criticism I get most often from people who know me really well (I can sometimes fool people who know me less well into thinking I’m reasonable, lol). So for a long time this created dissonance in my personal life because 1) I needed people too much and 2) I resented needing them, since it was incompatible with my values.
For most of us, the story of independence is the story of giving up codependence. In order to change, I had to accept that other people aren’t fundamentally responsible for my emotional state. I’m responsible for my emotional state. I think I’ve realized this most acutely through writing, which is so individual and painful—no one can really help me with it. It has to be self-generated. Other people can help you edit, and give you feedback, and read over your drafts, but it has to come from you. That’s how everything works, right? No one can help you self-actualize except you.
When I’m upset or uncertain, I feel so alone in my sadness. But sometimes those are the most important moments—those are the moments that shake me loose. To be able to breathe through them, to watch them pass through me, reminds me of the true nature of things. We are both wildly alone and completely interconnected. Even when I am apart from people, they are always with me, in me. I just don’t always see it. (I’m remembering the day I tripped too hard in a Californian seaside motel and wandered out at night to get pizza convinced I was fused with everything in the universe. What a feeling.)
In an essay from Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today she writes, “getting clean off of people isn’t the same as getting sober off of alcohol and drugs. Since I’m an alcoholic, there are very clear boundaries as to what I don’t do. I can’t text alcohol. Dealers don’t send nudes. What’s more, alcohol and drugs are pervasive in America, but people are even more pervasive. People are everywhere. Hot people. You can abstain from alcohol and drugs. You can’t abstain from people.” Being independent in a healthy way doesn’t require avoidance, it requires self-differentiation: staying yourself in the presence of people who are important to you.
The question of how can we be the right kind of together is for me the question of how we can love people and depend on people while also taking full responsibility for ourselves. From Conscious Loving by Gay Hendricks and Kathlyn Hendricks:
One of our co-dependent clients in recovery put the problem very eloquently after a breakthrough session: “Now I feel a center of light and God-consciousness in me, but I’ve never been able to contact or express it before. Instead, all my thoughts were about how I could manipulate people to give me what I want or how I could get them to like me. I’ve never had a single pure thought before.” This man had made a profound discovery: When you can break through your approval and control programming, there is a natural, organic spiritual essence within you that can be consciously experienced. As long as we try to control ourselves and others, and as long as we strive to get others to like us, that spiritual essence is obscured. When we wake up and start loving ourselves, we claim our divine right.”
Being alone in the correct way seems to be about this inner knowing: a compassionate, accurate sense of who you are, and with that, an ability to be close to others without wanting to control their decisions. The ability to express need (“I’d like to see you tonight!”) without dependence (“My week is ruined if I can’t see you tonight”).
I still don’t know if I’m as independent as I would like to be. I think I have a truer sense of self than I did two years ago (which is weird to say because I don’t really believe the “self” exists the way most people conceptualize it. Language is tricky. But you get the idea). Less approval-seeking, more sincere. Less hysterical, more rooted. When I make decisions I need less input from others. But I still need people. Paradoxically, I think I had to admit how much I need people in order to have a healthier relationship with them. We are all interdependent and deeply connected (you must be sick of me saying this by now, but: love is the point of living). When we recognize how important it is to love others, we recognize that we can love people better if we know who we are. At the end of the day we can’t live without other people. But we absolutely can’t live without ourselves.