The Disease of Self-Sufficiency

Safe People

My (Dr. Townsend) three-year-old son, Benny, is now firmly ensconced in the "I can do it!" stage of life. The other day we were getting ready to go out to dinner, and everybody was ready but Benny. He'd gotten all ready except for his pesky Velcro-strapped tennis shoes. They just wouldn't cooperate.

Being the helpful father (actually, the hurried father), I bent down to fasten his shoes for him. He quickly pushed my hands away, protesting, "I'll do it! I'll do it!" And he meant it. So we negotiated. I put him in the car and let him put the shoes on while we were driving to the restaurant. It was win-win.

Now, Benny is in love with autonomy, task mastery, individuation, and a lot of other developmental aspects of his growth. He is working on self-sufficiency, especially in the functional, "doing" parts of life. But Benny's self-sufficiency is a little different in the relational, "loving" areas of life. Instead of task mastery exhilaration ("Look, Ma! No hands!"), he is still dependent on attachment. He needs snuggles, holding, soothing, and comforting. He certainly disagrees a lot more, and he likes to spend more time away from his parents, but the need for connection is still there.

That need for attachment will keep changing over time, and eventually, if things work out, Benny will have enough of us inside him (literally, he'll have "had enough of us"). Then he will get his emotional needs met by peers and finally, by his own family. But he'll continue to grow in his functional self-sufficiency.

People who avoid relationships have problems not with functional self-sufficiency but with relational self-sufficiency. The problem with the relationally self-sufficient person is that he operates in his own relational world. He runs his emotional affairs like a one-man business. His emotional philosophy is the following:

  • I take care of my problems.
  • I don't burden others with my problems.
  • I can handle my problems myself, thank you.
  • I'm fine, really.
  • No, really, I'm fine.

What's wrong here? God doesn't create us to be relationally self-sufficient. He loves us to need each other. Our needs teach us about love and keep us humble. True self-sufficiency is a product of the Fall.

If you've got the disease of self-sufficiency, you've probably had it a long time. And you've probably described it in positive terms like responsible, independent, and grown-up. Indeed, self-sufficiency has lots of advantages, because you get to avoid all the uncontrollable problems and risks that needy people can't get away from. Here are a few examples:

  • You don't have to experience your incompleteness, which is painful.
  • You don't have to go to the trouble of finding people to love you.
  • You don't have to show other people the hurting, imperfect parts of yourself.
  • You don't have to look anyone in the eye and say, "I need you."
  • You don't have to risk asking others to comfort and support you.
  • You don't have to humbly receive what they offer, in gratitude. And you don't have to do it again and again and again.

No wonder giving up self-sufficiency is so difficult. Life seems to have many more problems when your needs start leaking out.

What to do? If your self-sufficiency is driving you away from relationship and into isolation, begin the process of confession. Confession is telling the truth, and the truth is, you need people. The reason people say confession is good for the soul is because it brings unloved parts of our character to places of love.

Find people that understand self-sufficiency. They'll know you can't "feel your need" for them. But they'll help you state your isolation, talk about the reasons you're disconnected, and discuss how hard it is to give up your independence. As you confess this problem to safe people, a wonderful miracle happens: over time, self-sufficiency melts and gives way to need. You are then reconciled not only to God and others, but also to yourself.

Let the love God has provided begin to melt the cold, hard ice of your self-sufficiency.


Taken from Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Learn more about this helpful book.

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