Decades ago, I participated in an experiential exercise that the facilitator called The Relationship Dance. That exercise gave participants the opportunity to feel the difference between dependent relationships, independent relationships, and interdependent relationships.
First, we each picked a partner. During the Dependent section of the exercise, one person in each dyad leaned against their partner and they walked around the room in that state. One person had the experience of being completely dependent on their partner to hold them up, and the other person had the experience of being totally responsible for their partner’s well-being. In the Independent section, partners wandered through the room having essentially no contact with each other or with the people in the other dyads. Interdependence was demonstrated by having the pairs separate to do some individual activities and at other times walking shoulder to shoulder.
I’ve never forgotten that exercise. The experience of being Dependent was not familiar to me, and was not at all inviting. I was more familiar with having people be dependent on me. Being Interdependent was inviting but not familiar. When I experienced Independent, I felt lonely and it was all too familiar. Since this post isn’t about my relationship with a partner, I’m going to broaden the definition of interdependent so that it includes being in give-and-take, supportive relationships with many people.
I grew up as an army brat. It was very hard for me to make friends since we moved at least every three years. If I wasn’t leaving, then my friends were. Also, my mother once told me that I would make one friend at a time, and then was devastated when that person became friends with someone else. To compound the problem, in my opinion, our family had a very low level of connection with each other.
As a child I became very independent. Over the years, I have made significant changes in that part of my life and now have many friends who could potentially be a large support system. While I have moved a significant distance along the continuum that goes between independence and interdependence, I still have a way to travel before Interdependent becomes my primary way of being.
I have had an abundance of opportunity to watch my struggle in this area as I heal from breaking my wrist. My recovery was made harder than it would normally have been because I also had considerable pain from bruised ribs caused by a fall two weeks earlier. The rib problem made it painful for me to get up and lie down, and the fact that I needed to overuse my left side when I couldn’t use my right hand, prolonged that pain. (Be assured that I am looking at, and committed to changing, the factors that caused me to get hurt twice in two weeks.)
I have long marveled at how people who live with physical limitations are able to overcome them. I decided to use this experience to see what I was able to do on my own. One of the accomplishments that I am most proud of occurred on the second day after I broke my wrist. On that day, I was able to pry open tight hooks on a bra and put on the bra using only my non-dominant hand. I soon discovered I could do my own laundry, get dressed in carefully selected clothes, cook using the food I had in the refrigerator and freezer, and crack an egg open. I also felt proud the day I changed the cloth waist ties on two pairs of Indian pants to elastic. With the cloth ties, I would have had to tie a bow, an impossible feat at that time.
While I was able to figure out how to do almost everything on my own, I did ask for help when it was impossible for me to do something that needed to be done. The best example of that was being unable to lock my deck door at night since I had to pull it towards me with one hand and turn the key with the other. I tried but I couldn’t do it. The temperature was in the 80’s and 90’s in Seattle that week and I couldn’t open any of the windows in my living and dining rooms with one hand. Leaving the deck door shut as well would have been unbearable.
I wouldn’t have felt safe leaving the door open at night so that was not an option. I asked one neighbor to lock the door each night before she left town. After she left, I knocked on different neighbors doors each night, asking them to lock the door for me. I rationalized that asking a number of people would cause them less of an inconvenience. Another example is that I asked a friend to bring my vacuum cleaner up the steep stairs from my basement since I knew it wouldn’t have been safe for me to carry it, but I didn’t ask for help vacuuming even though it was difficult for me to do with bruised ribs. And instead of asking for help to bring it back downstairs, I eventually took the vacuum cleaner outside and rolled it around the house and in the back door.
I did accept help from two friends who wanted to bring a meal and from another who offered to come cook some meals that would last for a few days. I also accepted help from a friend who offered to go grocery shopping for me and asked another to take me to the places I needed to go to get ready for my trip to India.
For the most part, however, I told the friends and neighbors who offered help that I was fine, but would let them know if I needed anything, and then for the most part didn’t ask.
While I did accomplish many things on my own, I was also abundantly aware how different my experience would have been if I had been living with someone or if I had taken full advantage of my support system. I was aware of the message in my head that said Don’t bother anyone, an adult version of Children are to be seen and not heard. I also heard You should only bother someone if you really, really need it; You may need surgery for your arm or you might get sick sometime in the future, so don’t ask for help now, you might need it more later; and You choose to live alone and that decision has consequences, which was short for “You made your bed, now lie in it. As I write these messages down, I realize how immersed in old unhealthy ways of thinking I have been. I knew these messages were still alive in me to some degree, but the injury brought them out full force.
Just before I left for India, I attended a potluck in the Seattle area. I witnessed my reaction when the friend who drove me there offered to help me put food on my plate. I told her I could do it. I even resisted when she gave me reasons why I should let her help. Seeing such a blatant example of my resistance stuck with me. On my second day in India, a man offered to help me wash my dishes after a meal. I told him I could do it. He watched me struggle with that for a minute, and then took the dishes away from me and washed them. The incident made me aware once again of how I push help away. It also gave me the experience of how good it felt to get it. The next day another man asked if I wanted help washing my dishes. I said thank you and handed them to him. Since then, I have accepted help when it is offered and have been more willing to ask for it in the first place.
I dread the thought of ever being completely dependent on anyone. I hope that is not in my future, but I have no control over that. What I do have control over is whether I live my life alone now or instead create a life style that includes a mutually supportive community.
Even though this injury has highlighted my tendency to be overly independent, I know I have come a long way in this area. I also know I will have an abundance of opportunities, perhaps on a daily basis, to choose between an action that would support my tendency to be overly independent and one that would lead to an experience of interdependence. It is my intention to increase the number of times I choose the road that leads to interdependence.
To view the previous posts in this series click here.