The Myth of the Independent Woman: Unravelling the Fear of Dependency
Achieving the balance of interdependence (by Nathalie Cordell)
Do you recognise her? The fiercely independent woman? Armed with intellect, determination, and unwavering autonomy, she stands tall in her personal and professional domains. Whether single or in a relationship, she asserts her financial independence, always. She doesn’t need her partner to validate her, let alone look after her.
Maybe you know her. And maybe you aspire to be her. She is a symbol of feminism and the progress that women have made in their quest for equality with men. Or maybe you are her. And if so, maybe it’s not a surprise that, beneath the surface of this empowering archetype lies… a lie!
In this article, I delve into the myth of the ‘independent woman’ and explore how, paradoxically, it can often be a reaction rooted in a deep fear of dependency.
The Quest for Independence
The concept of the independent woman emerged as a powerful and inspiring ideal—an aspiration for countless women striving for self-reliance and fulfillment.
Raised in an environment that placed a high value on self-reliance, I felt that university and a thriving career weren't just hopes; they were expectations. Being a ‘stay-at-home mum’ never felt like an option or valid choice for me. My mother’s professional journey wasn't out of necessity but choice, setting a precedent for what being an independent woman looked like.
Over the past century, women (and men!) have worked tirelessly to break down societal barriers and challenge gender stereotypes that looked to restrict men to the role of family provider and women to the role of homemaker. And as a result, women have increasingly pursued an education, careers, and a life beyond the traditional confines of domesticity. The concept of the independent woman emerged as a powerful and inspiring ideal—an aspiration for countless women striving for self-reliance and fulfillment.
Constantly promoted in the media, the independent woman manages to balance her career and family life perfectly. But this is only on the surface. If we look deeper, we find a different picture.
Societal Pressure : The Superwoman Myth
Society presents women with a conundrum. Women are championed for independence and ambition while also being tethered to age-old roles of caregiving and homemaking. This juxtaposition is not only
confusing and exhausting, it can create deep inner conflict. Combined with this, the idea that we are supposed to fulfill all of these expectations perfectly and seamlessly, and you get what Joanna Martin, Founder of One of Many®, calls the ‘Superwoman Archetype’ (https://oneofmany.co.uk/blog/warrioress-vs-superwoman/).
This culminates in a significant revelation: the superwoman archetype is nothing more than a myth! Like all archetypes, we can embody them or their qualities for a while, but we can never truly be them. They are like a character, a persona that we can put on and borrow. But if we try to keep them on for too long, they burn us out.
Recognising the Superwoman
Still not sure who she is? Let me paint a picture for you:
Each morning, she effortlessly coordinates her own routine while also prepping her kids for their day. Perhaps there's also a pet to walk or feed. She's always on top of each child's schedule, from classes and clubs to assignments and other obligations.
With multiple to-do lists and calendars at her fingertips, she seamlessly manages every family activity. She's a master of optimization, perhaps starting the laundry before dinner so it's ready to fold before bedtime.
Professionally, her numerous reminders ensure she's consistently ahead, attending meetings well-prepared and always ready for the next challenge. No matter her workload, her reply to offers of assistance is consistently, 'I've got this' or 'I'm fine, thanks’. Always efficient and reliable, she always delivers to a high standard and expects the same of others.
Seems impressive, right?! Well let’s delve deeper and examine her from within.
She’s exhausted, highly stressed, and likely suffers from headaches or other physical ailments from ‘carrying the world on her shoulders’. She resents having to do everything. She longs for other people to take over and offer help – but when they do, she can’t help but refuse, because of the belief that she’d be perceived as a failure and/or a fear that ‘they won’t do it as well as me’. And, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy as they rarely do given her perfectionistic tendencies and outsized expectations.
See the pattern? Her unrelenting pursuit of 'independence' and perfection has become a trap
Why we get stuck - The Fear of Dependency
Let me clarify from the outset – I am in no way downplaying the importance of healthy independence. Indeed, the journey toward independence is a critical component of our human evolution. It dominates the first phase of our lives as we both literally and metaphorically learn to stand on our own.
However, as the renowned executive leadership coach and author Marshall Goldsmith aptly puts it, ‘what got you here, won't get you there.’ There comes a juncture when our unwavering attachment to independence begins to impede our growth. While we might achieve a lot individually, no person can truly excel in isolation. We might manage to survive, but thriving is a different story altogether.
So, it is essential to examine the underlying motivations behind this pattern. Whenever we feel stuck, it is usually because we are attached to something that prevents our natural urge to grow. And when we get attached to something, it is because we fear its opposite. So, we get attached to independence because we fear dependency, or vice-versa, we get attached to people/relationships because we fear being on our own.
This fear can stem from various sources, such as past experiences, cultural expectations, or personal insecurities. Understanding the psychology behind this fear can shed light on the complex dynamics surrounding the myth of the independent woman. So, let’s take a closer look:
Even as adults, behaviours rooted in our early years linger in our subconscious.
Without going into a lot of psychological theory, our early childhood and how secure our attachment to our primary caregiver(s) was plays a key role in our default pattern around relationships as adults. Primary caregiver attachments that are not secure will result in an insecure attachment pattern in adulthood. These learnt patterns of behaviour become deeply engrained in us because our lives literally depended on it.
For me, being born the youngest of four siblings in a family whose parents were in almost constant conflict meant that I learnt quite early on that being self-sufficient was the best way to get my needs met. I also learnt that relying on others was not safe, which was no doubt reinforced by my mother leaving the household when I was ten.
Even as adults, behaviours rooted in our early years linger in our subconscious.
-Other Personal Experiences
Individual experiences, particularly those involving unhealthy or co-dependent relationships, can reinforce the fear of dependency. And equally, traumatic events involving emotional abuse, or abandonment can leave deep scars, prompting women to prioritize autonomy and self-reliance as a protective measure. The 'independent woman' archetype often serves as a defence against vulnerability and past pain.
And, while society has historically encouraged dependency for women in the family structure, it has also depicted dependency as a weakness, perpetuating a parallel narrative that independence is the only path to success and happiness. Cultural conditioning therefore plays a significant role in shaping these beliefs, leading women to internalize the fear of being reliant on others. The pressure to be self-sufficient can be overwhelming and can trigger the need to prove oneself and assert independence at all costs.
True empowerment emerges when we strike a balance: embracing healthy ‘interdependence’ where meaningful connections that allow us to be vulnerable and rely on others coexist with our individual autonomy.
This is a choice. And it takes practice. So, as you work on strengthening your interdependence muscle, here are some things to try!
-Acknowledge the fear
Acknowledging our insecurities is the first step towards addressing them.
And when you do so, be kind to yourself! This is one of the most important things I always go back to.
Whenever we uncover something that has been holding us back, there is a tendency to beat ourselves up about it. We berate ourselves for being like that in the first place, and not having already figured it out, or overcoming it. In other words, we beat ourselves up for not being perfect. It's often that inner Superwoman voice aiming for perfection. Remind yourself that while no one, including parents, is flawless, like the most brilliant gemstones, there's beauty in our imperfections.
So please, please, please, when the negative self-talk shows up – be kind to yourself! You’ve developed this protective personality for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with it. It just doesn’t serve you all of the time anymore. Whenever the fear rises up, practice self-compassion: do something nice for yourself: give yourself a hug, go for a walk, take some deep breaths, whatever works for you (more self-soothing techniques here: https://positivepsychology.com/self-soothing/).
By cultivating self-confidence and self-worth, women can approach relationships and dependencies from a place of strength rather than fear.
-Honour your needs
Learning to identify your own needs, means you can communicate them better and set clearer boundaries.
It’s harder to relate to others when we don’t relate to ourselves in a healthy way. Learn to identify and honour your own needs. This might be saying no to playing with your children because you need to take a nap or going for a 10-minute walk to clear your head. It might mean carving out 30 minutes every day for 100% unadulterated ‘me’ time, where you are not in charge of anyone other than yourself! It might be acknowledging that you have too much on and need to identify things to drop or delegate.
Learning to identify your own needs, means you can communicate them better and set clearer boundaries. Rather than shut people off, it will allow you to navigate relationships with greater awareness and empathy (with yourself as well others). And you can build healthier and more fulfilling connections.
-Embracing Community and Support
Recognizing the value of support networks and community is crucial. It is important to acknowledge that no one can be entirely self-sufficient. Seeking help, guidance, and collaboration when needed fosters personal growth and resilience.
But building a network or a community is a choice – an active step towards interdependence and the realisation that, even though we are all individuals, we are also inter-connected.
I’ll be honest - this is a lot easier said than done! Asking for and receiving help is still one of the hardest things for me to do. Every time it feels like a leap of faith, and taking the risk of being let down (because I still have high expectations!). But every time, I remind myself that it’s ok, no one is perfect and neither am I. And while I can cope with being disappointed, more often than not, I am not!
The truth is that even when we hang on to the myth of independence, it is nothing but an illusion. We fear dependence because we feel out of control, insecure and trapped. But when we react against something, we are just as controlled by it.
Evaluating the Superwoman Myth: A Self-Assessment
Human survival instincts are deeply rooted in our psyche. Overcoming these patterns requires a conscious effort to reshape our thought processes. But it starts with self-awareness which is the key to growth. Do you strive for perfection, handle every challenge alone, and suppress vulnerabilities?
To assess if you are trapped in the Superwoman myth, take a few moments to reflect upon the following questions:
How do you feel about the idea of asking someone for help when overwhelmed?
How do you typically respond or feel when someone proactively offers you support or help?
What would it take for you to pause your ‘automatic reaction’ and choose a more considered response?
If you find discomfort in asking for help, try starting small. Ask a close friend or family member for assistance with a minor task and notice how it feels.
Or practice saying yes or thank you when help is offered, even when you don’t feel like it.
Keep a journal to track your responses to these questions over time. Noting down your feelings can provide insights into your growth and areas that still need work.
Seek the help and support of a life coach or counsellor.
Most importantly, embrace the journey with patience and compassion for yourself.
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