Excessive Independence: Why We Overwork Ourselves and How to Strike a Balance

As I looked in the mirror and combed my fingers through my hair, the unexpected burst of gray hair was undeniable. I was only 32 years old but had aged several years in the past six months. 

I was head under water overworking myself and experiencing the worst burnout of my life. 

This wasn’t a one-off incident. It was the culmination of a lifetime of self-sacrificing independence and a relentless need to stay busy.

Stressed out and stretched thin in my job, I suffered from chronic muscle pain that contributed to regular skeletomuscular injuries. As a Highly Sensitive Person, I was overwhelmed and overstimulated daily, my nervous system was operating in survival mode.

When I wasn’t at work, I found it hard to rest. Intending to be as lazy as possible on my few days off, I somehow ended up scrubbing floorboards or reorganizing the furniture instead.

Feeling like I had reached a breaking point in my job, I finally mustered up the courage to tell my boss,

“I need you to remove some of the responsibilities off my plate.”

I didn’t wait painfully long to make this request because I thought my boss wouldn’t be supportive. She was one of the most supportive supervisors I’ve ever had. 

I simply didn’t know how to ask for and receive help. 

It felt uncomfortable and embarrassing to admit that I couldn’t handle my workload. It felt safer to push through and figure it out on my own.

Though I wasn’t ready to admit it yet, I was battling addictive tendencies to overexert myself and be hyperproductive. I know that I’m not alone in this problem. I see people around me everywhere, especially women, who are ignoring the signs of their bodies and suffering from the sky-high standards they set for themselves.

We’ve been programmed to DIY our way to success to our detriment. We unconsciously seek validation and acceptance through being overly helpful and productive. 

We overcommit ourselves to avoid the feeling of unease that rears its ugly head the moment we try to relax and unwind. And yet, our deep inner scarcity keeps demanding more from us.

The Body’s Wisdom

Looking back, knowing what I know now, I have so much compassion for the younger me. Conditioned to be a hyper-independent workaholic, I was too terrified to ask questions in class as a graduate student and too stubborn to ask for help doing laundry when I suffered a double arm injury. 

My body was showing up in ways that it believed would best serve me. It’s known as the “body’s wisdom.” 

Simply put, the brain and nervous system are self-protecting mechanisms, that influence your habituated impulses, beliefs, and behaviors in such a way as to ensure your safety and survival, also known as “conditioned tendencies.”

Just because your body is conditioned to refuse help to stay in the comfort zone of self-sufficiency, your body isn’t always right. Your brain is typically relying on outdated or incorrect information from your childhood conditioning and other life experiences.

We’re emotional creatures driven by a deep innate need for safety, dignity, and belonging. We go to extraordinary means to ensure these needs are met.

When I was at the height of my stubborn independence, I overworked myself to the point of injury. I developed a permanent partial disability in my dominant arm. 

Almost three years later, I’m still managing chronic pain regularly, which I anticipate will affect me for the rest of my life.

My “stubbornness” wasn’t a personality defect. It was an unconscious impulse that was programmed in my body. 

To admit I needed help or to show any sign of weakness felt like a threat to my own survival.

If you feel, think, or do anything with repetition, it becomes streamlined and automated in your brain. We’re wired this way to save energy. 

In fact, our unconscious minds account for about ninety percent of how we show up in life—meaning that our decisions and behaviors are largely driven by our past.

If you also struggle with overworking yourself or asking for help, it’s probably because you’ve been conditioned by society, caregivers, and other influential figures to believe you have to fiercely rely on yourself or that being productive is what makes you valuable. This creates a deep-seated belief that your self-worth and self-esteem are conditional — which is a big fat lie.

Perhaps you’re ashamed to ask for guidance because you learned as a child that you’re responsible for finding your own answers. Or maybe you feel guilty asking for help because you were taught never to take up other people’s time and energy. 

There are myriad reasons why refusing help and overworking yourself may feel safer than healthier alternatives.

You’re not broken, and your habits aren’t personal failures. There’s nothing “wrong” with you. 

Long ago, you probably learned to behave this way, which eventually became habituated and unconscious. At a certain point in life, we have to come to terms with our tendencies so that we can learn how to grow into who we are underneath those patterns. 

Transforming your hyper-independence or any other self-limiting tendency starts with self-awareness of the problem’s nature. Here are a couple of questions to help you explore your body’s wisdom:

  • What qualities or traits about myself tend to limit me or get me “in trouble” — how I think, feel, and act?
  • If these tendencies have their agenda, what’s the positive intention beneath that agenda? How do they keep me “safe”?

This is an important first step in inner work because it allows us to remove the shame for being how we are. When we criticize and judge ourselves, we create another set of problems that take us further away from healing and growing. 

Likewise, when we convince ourselves that our conditioned tendencies are a sign that we’re somehow defective, we get lost in a shame spiral that makes it impossible to love ourselves.

The Wisdom of Your Unconscious Mind

Your unconscious mind does more than drive your everyday patterns. It also safeguards all of your abandoned parts that you’ve been pushing away and avoiding.

When we’re conditioned to be hyper-independent and self-sufficient, for instance, it forces us to neglect the parts of ourselves that threaten these traits. People who struggle with hyper-independence often find that they push away certain qualities in themselves such as laziness, helplessness, dependency, incompetence, and emotional neediness.

And thus, we unconsciously avoid these qualities because they feel highly despicable and triggering. And yet, they’re hiding in the shadows of your psyche, desperately wanting to be brought into the light and accepted. 

Once you stop pushing them away and start integrating them with loving self-regard, you’re already on the path to deep transformation.

This is about developing radical self-love for everything you detest most about yourself.

The point of integration isn’t to become your shadow self. 

Our minds like to create polarities and make clean distinctions between opposites — liberal vs. conservative, good vs. bad, young vs. old. This kind of thinking helps us sort information and categorize, but it also sets us up for disconnection, finger-pointing, shame, and a lot of other troubles.

Exploring your shadow and overcoming your self-limiting tendencies is about learning to hold two opposites at once — accepting your independent side while holding space for your most vulnerable side which needs support, love, and validation.

For instance, if you find that selfishness is in your shadow, you might find it very difficult to carve out time for yourself to rest, play, and indulge yourself. You might also struggle with saying “no” to people out of fear that they will be disappointed and judge you as selfish. 

However this shows up for you, this behavior is largely unconscious and automated. You might intend on spending a long, relaxing weekend by yourself, but somehow you manage to agree to help your sister-in-law with her yard sale instead.

A quick way to learn more about your neglected parts, such as selfishness, is to list out the traits you’re most proud of about yourself, especially the qualities related to your independence and self-sufficiency. Then, ask yourself what would be the opposite of each quality. 

The latter list is a good indication of what you’ve pushed away and neglected in yourself. 

This isn’t to say that you’re stuck with your habits or that you can excuse yourself for ever being able to change them. Quite the opposite is true. 

Your body’s unconscious wisdom is always learning, adapting, and updating.

5 Ways to Unlearn Excessive Independence

Once you’ve gotten a taste of your unique body wisdom and shadow side, you can start changing yourself free of shame and self-blame. Remember, it’s not your fault you have conditioned tendencies, but it is your responsibility to do the inner work to transform them.

1. Mentally Rehearse Asking for Support

Mental rehearsal goes a long way in helping your unconscious mind get used to the feeling and act of showing up a certain way. When you use your mind’s eye to imagine yourself in new ways, the brain lights up the same way as if you’re actually doing it. 

It builds new neural pathways, making it easier to transfer those actions into real life. Take 2-3 minutes a day in a quiet, uninterrupted space to visualize yourself asking for help in specific scenarios, and be as detailed as possible.

2. Ask for Low-Risk Favors

Start with small wins in real life. 

What is a low-commitment favor you can ask someone you trust, someone who would be delighted to help? What is something you can delegate to someone else in your job or at home?

Pick anything, and it doesn’t matter if you even need the help. It’s more about the practice of letting someone provide support in real life, so you can learn to get comfortable asking for it.

3. Practice Saying “Yes” the Next Time Someone Offers to Help You

Open your mouth, utter the sound of consent, and voila — help is on the way! It can be that simple. 

This exercise isn’t necessarily about whether or not you need the help. It’s about practicing receiving it. 

Even if you know you’re fully capable, give someone a “yes” right now to teach your body that it’s OK to do so.

4. Mindfully Sit With the Discomfort

Your shadow parts can stir up a lot of unease and discomfort when the rejected parts of yourself attempt to surface. Learn to be with the discomfort. 

So much of our actions in life revolve around avoiding what’s uncomfortable. Sit with the discomfort, let it pass, and you’ll build more capacity in your nervous system to take on more challenges in life. 

As you sit with the bad feelings, remind yourself that your body is ready and willing to learn how to feel safer and more at ease.

5. Practice Physically Reaching for Help

This little-known sensorimotor exercise is a somatic practice that can influence the emotions created in the brain. We know that most signals move from the body to the brain, not vice versa. 

If you physically move or position your body a certain way, it can change how you feel. 

Imagine a scenario where you want to ask for help from someone with whom you’d normally refuse it, and then reach your arms out, similar to how a small child reaches for a parent. Notice what comes up and sit with it, letting your body move through it. 

Each of these practices works best with repetition. That means committing to doing this work every day, little by little. 

Your unconscious mind will have no other choice but to update your tendencies and integrate your abandoned parts. 

Honor Your Journey

I’m proud of my gray wisdom hairs. They remind me that my body has an intelligence that shows up in my feelings, impulses, and actions. 

I don’t need to feel ashamed about my habits, and neither do you. Accept how you are in the moment with a loving curiosity. 

Know that you can change and become the person you truly are underneath the layers of conditioning. This is the prize worth fighting for.

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