The Secret Sadness Of Being Independent

I was calmly holding it together in the campus psychologist’s office until he asked, “Are you lonely?” Involuntarily, tears started pouring down my face and I stammered that yes, yes, I was lonely. I made the appointment to talk about how I screwed up every relationship I’d been in, but this revelation was unexpected. I did not return to find out how to fix it.

I am independent to the point of fault. I’m an only child whose parents are aggressively self-sufficient, and I was not brought up to need other people. Want to play? Make up an imaginary game! Need help? Pay someone rather than asking a favor from your friends! I am used to being alone and am perfectly capable of entertaining myself with a book, a diary, or swirling my own thoughts around in my head. At 22, I moved across the country to a city where I knew no one. Six months later, I moved to another continent where I, again, knew no one and only sort of spoke the language. And I barely even thought twice about it. Maybe it was that sophomoric idea of invincibility, but I wanted to go, and so I did, figuring everything would work itself out. Another point towards my motto, “This will be good, or it will be a good story.”

Other people seem to think I am brave for striking out on my own, but for me it was just natural. If you aren’t depending on people, why would you be tied to a specific place? I love the freedom of being able to do what I want, and whenever people show a heavy reliance on others I am confused. Why would you only do something if your friends do, too? Why do you need a girlfriend’s input on your outfit to a party? Why do you ask your friend to hold your purse? I take care of my shit, I trust my own judgment and if I want to do something, I do it—end of story.

My friends and boyfriends can sense this lack of need, sometimes to detrimental effects. I think my friends can sense that there is this part of me that will be OK without them, and as a result they hold me at a distance to give space. They definitely don’t feel the need to check in on me, as they might with someone more fragile. Sometimes people don’t understand my willful independence—I had a boyfriend call me selfish when I didn’t rely on him for help: “God dammit Erin, you can’t go through everything in this world by yourself.”

And it’s true. I can’t.

There is a duality to this independence that almost no one sees. I live by myself. I mostly stay in my own office. I communicate via messaging. I haven’t had a real relationship—the kind where there is always the option to wake up next to each other, the kind where grocery shopping is done as a team—in years. I spend so much time in my own head that when I start to spin out of control, there is no one to stop it.

My friends have their own shit. All of them are in long-term relationships and I don’t want to bother them to say I need help. Hell, I survived moving to another country. I am independent, OK by myself, I can survive this. With their ever-present other half and their roots contrasting my freedom, they wouldn’t understand my problems anyway. So what happens when I break down?

I hate that half of my bed is always empty. I hate having no one ask about my day. I hate seeing couples at the store, sharing a cart, arguing over which pasta sauce to buy for their week’s meals, together. I hate that my planning mind is anxiously counting the decreasing amount of time available for each stage in the relationship → marriage → baby timeline. I hate that if something happened to me, or if I did something to myself, the first people to notice would be my co-workers.

Being independent doesn’t always mean being lonely, but sometimes it intensely, acutely does. And when that happens, because of the way I’ve set up my life, I have no one to tell about it.

On the Myers-Briggs test, I am never definitively introverted or extroverted—I need both to be happy. My friend recently asked me to list my relationship needs, and the first thing I said was, “Someone who can leave me the hell alone every once in a while.” I need my space to write, to regenerate, to avoid feeling stifled. But I need other people too, to pull me out of my own spirals, to believe in me, to remind me that I matter.

Life is always a balance of push and pull, and I understand that it sounds like I am asking for a paradox, or being hard to please. But there is one, simple thing that has helped me immensely: Someone asking, “How are you? Are you happy?” And listening to the response. I am incredibly fortunate that both of my parents do this, even though it is not always the best source of relief because there is only so much I can divulge. Sometimes this help comes from unexpected places: A friend I haven’t talked to in years, or a one-night-stand living in another city, whose check-ins saved me more than he will ever know. Even now, my independent self cautions that no one can save you, you can only save yourself, but if you ask me what got me through, I have to admit it was knowing I would have a text when I woke up, knowing someone cared.

I am not asking for help—though this year has been difficult, I am in a much better place. I’m not saying every strong, independent person is secretly in pain. I’m not saying you should be someone’s psychiatrist if they are having serious problems. But I am saying, asking how someone is doing, even or especially if they seem fine on their own, can go a long way—further than you may even be aware.

View Comments (14)
  • Wow, this is so incredibly spot on. I’m going through a break-up and while I really am doing okay, I’ve also been disappointed to see how little my friends and family feel like they need to check in on me. I try not to get upset, because I know this is the image I’ve cultivated of myself — I’ve got it under control, I don’t like to talk about my feelings, etc. But now it’s difficult for me to express myself when I do want to talk, when I do need help. I’m vowing to be a little less independent from here on out (even if I KNOW I can be) because I do think it’s healthier to live within community.

  • This was me last year in a nutshell (even that Myers-Briggs result). Independent has pretty much been my middle name since childhood, and while it’s nice to be able to rely on myself, to pick up and move anywhere, it can be horribly lonely at times. I remember last semester in my last year of college, I was going through these same feelings and days like you. My friends and family (never even had a boyfriend/one night stand/date…)seemed to have bigger problems, and very rarely did they ask how I was or if I was doing okay (in fact that was MY job if anything). Heck, I’m writing this while living in a foreign country! Since graduation, everything has really been about recognizing these traits and working on how to find a better balance.

    Off topic side-note, I just want to say I love that grammar is important to you, and you remembered the oxford comma in your bio.

    • Oxford commas are the best. AP standards can kiss my ass.
      My last semester of college was the worst because everyone had a job but me and it was just a 24/7 freakout. Living in a foreign country is definitely an experience, hopefully you are enjoying it! I think it helped teach me to be more willing to put myself out there and ask for help if I need it. Life is definitely about finding your balance.
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  • I really enjoyed this piece. It reminds me of me at times. Having grown up moving around (Tokyo, Dusseldorf, Johannesburg, Vienna, Hamburg all before the age of 18) meant that we learned to never get too attached to people, schools, cities, places. And this means we also had to rely on ourselves. I moved to Boston alone at 18 to start a Bachelors and again I had to rely on myself to meet new people, get accustomed to the place, and adapt to the US. I then moved to New Zealand for 6 months, and later London, and I’ve always had to start over again. It’s so true what you say. That if people understand you to be someone who knows how to cope on their own. The more likely they will leave you to it. Great post. Look forward to reading more from your blog.

  • Thanks for writing this Erin! It’s a great article. I can relate with you 100%, in fact I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Reading this I wish it was a book. I hate reading, but for some reason this relative stuff to my life is so great and uplifting that it makes me happy knowing people out there can idenetify with your self issues also. I don’t really have or like making friends because I tried that in high school and it turned me into a overly-judging monster. How funny, the only people who would really notice some things wrong would be my co-workers. My own boyfriend can’t even realize when something is wrong nor does he really seem to care that much. Sad to admit but I’m starting to realize this, doesn’t really ever ask how it’s going or anything.. no one really does. Sometimes I just cry to myself and wonder if I will ever improve or have a better future.

    Thanks Erin R.

    • Hi! I never know what to say to people who like this article… I mean, I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way, but I’m not necessarily happy that other people feel like this too. But thank you for the compliments.
      As far as “it gets better,” I think that part of it is learning that comes inevitably with more experience from getting older – learning how to communicate to your boyfriend that something is wrong in a way he can understand, learning the kind of people you want to be friends with, learning how to reach out when you need help. Life is never going to be totally perfect all the time, but you’ll learn how you need to cope when times are bad, and seeing what you’re able to get through inevitably tips the scale towards creating more good times for yourself. Hope you are well :)

  • Awww, I feel your pain! I hate the reality that I won’t be able to be around my very compassionate and loving mother much longer also. She is not self-sufficient nor aggressively so. We get money to help but the responsibilities and realities of life are just tearing me up inside. I almost quit in a deep depression. My also very loving but deceased Dad said you have to be a lion to survive and he was very right, but I am not. Matter of fact, I barely have the chemical makeup to survive on my own :'( I just recently turned 30 as well.

  • iv lived in dependency pretty much all my life its ruined everything lost what could be perfect relationships ,friends having fun mostly my living of life its the point that i dont control it even know i see and know what is doing to me and i know it bits like it goes on its own like its normal iknow the right way but dont ever make it happen like im a puppet it took my life away and even that like i dont care that it did cause inside o know that i dont need a life that i can live with only me its fucking weird to think that but its loke that most people don’t even know the sadness of being independent

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