Think of a time when you felt let down by someone you cared about – maybe because they acted indifferently, selfishly, unsympathetically or lacked understanding. How did you feel? I’m guessing your upset spilt over into, and affected many areas of your life – leaving your entire outlook on life flat-lined and marred with negativity.
Take the classic example of a relationship breakup. I’m sure you, like me, have felt the emptiness that arises from the breakdown of a long-term relationship; an emptiness that seems to strip the very meaning out of life.
Hardwired For Dependency
There’s no escaping that we derive a great deal of our emotional wellbeing from other people – from their support, understanding, appreciation, affection and approval; and we do so because we’re social animals. It’s hardwired into us; even the most independent of people aren’t immune.
When we feel let down by our nearest and dearest, demotivation quickly sets in. We become vulnerable to self-pitying rhetorical questions such, “What’s the point; nobody cares…so why should I?”
To make matters worse, that sense of despondency can quickly spawn a succession of even more damaging emotions such as resentment, anger and depression. It’s as if you feel betrayed by those ‘important’ people, as if they should know how much you rely or need them as your source of motivation; and that sense of misplaced expectation just exacerbates the despair.
All of which can leave life feeling pretty bleak and futile indeed.
Give Me Sunshine
I’m glad I learned sooner rather than later that such utter dependency is the root to a very unhappy life; one where your mood is entirely dictated by the attitudes of other people. If they’re enthused, supporting, encouraging and appreciative, then you’re happy and motivated; if they’re not…well neither are you.
The root of the problem of course, is that you’re placing your happiness in the hands of an external factor that is beyond your control. Just as if you relied on warm, sunny weather as your source of happiness (I don’t know about you, but that would be a real problem where I live) relying on other people for your emotional wellbeing puts you in a very unpredictable and tenuous position. In fact, if you’ve ever suffered from this type of mentality you’ll know how insecure and vulnerable it can make you feel.
There’s only one option open to you if you want to circumvent the vulnerabilities that arise from such dependency; and that is to take full and unequivocal responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing and your destiny.
The simple truth is that you are ultimately the only person you have any guaranteed control over and therefore, you are the only person you can rely on.
The above probably sounds a bit cynical. But it’s not cynicism born out of bitterness; it’s born out of reality, maturity and personal responsibility; so think of it more like tough love. It’s more like positive cynicism in that it’s a vital attitude to nurture in order to make your life all that it can be – paradoxically including having rich and loving relationships.
How much conflict and resentment is caused in relationships because of the ill-effects of emotional dependency, when one person starts to think, “They don’t give a damn about me.”? Likewise, how emotionally draining is it when you feel that someone’s reliant on you for their emotional and physical wellbeing? These are issues that lead to relationship breakdown not building; they lead to people becoming defensive, closed off and running the other way.
Although I’m protesting an entirely non-cynical stance on self-reliance here, I’ll nevertheless resort to an extremely cynical example to illustrate the point further: – that suave, sophisticated master of emotional detachment…James Bond.
The theme song from Casino Royale goes, “Arm yourself because no one else will save you” – lyrics which reflect Bond’s sentiment once he discovers that the trust and emotional dependency he placed in the austere but nevertheless alluring Bond girl Vesper Lynd, has been betrayed. In that moment he realises that he is the only person he can ever fully trust or depend on; to put his faith in anyone else is a recipe for manipulation, control and emotional instability.
His grand epiphany is closely followed of course, by the merciless ‘up close and personal’ assassination of one of his former friends…an unfortunate sinister by-product of his new found conviction.
007 Took It Too Far…
Now, before I get complaints that I’m advocating pure emotional detachment to the point of sociopathy here, let me make one thing clear, I am not advocating that anyone should derail their innate human need for companionship, emotional support or affection.
Bond’s disconnection from the rest of humanity may have made him suave, sophisticated, fearless, entirely self-sufficient, impervious to emotional manipulation and irresistible to women, but ask yourself one question, “Is it really worth it?” Ok, don’t answer that.
Taken to the extreme such an attitude would of course make you uncaring, cynical, ruthless, compassionless, cool and cynically calculating – more the hallmarks of a psychopath than of a well-balanced human being.
Interdependency, in the form of both giving and receiving affection, appreciation and approval are central to being human; as the 16th Century poet John Donne put it, ‘No man is an island’; and I’m not suggesting otherwise.
Be a Bit of an Island
But in order to steadfastly ride the tide of other people’s fluctuating attitudes so that you maintain your strength, composure and control no matter how stormy the sea, it helps to be a bit of an island; maybe one with a causeway.
It’s about developing a mindset where you welcome and sincerely appreciate emotional support, encouragement and approval from others when it’s forthcoming, but you don’t rely on it or expect it to be there all the time. Neither do you feel like a bloke with a broken leg who’s had his crutches nicked when it’s not forthcoming or taken away.
Returning to my previous ‘tough love’ cynicism, the truth is that you can’t rely on anyone for anything…and I mean no one. Your parents, your best friend, your other half, your cousin twice removed, not even the dog (OK, maybe the dog) is a guaranteed, unconditional source of support or understanding.
Putting anyone on the “I need you to be proud of me” pedestal (or ‘approve’, ‘appreciate’, ‘support’, ‘understand’ or ‘love me’ pedestal) is a recipe for disillusionment and vulnerability.
I am the only variable I can control…
Accepting that you can’t control other people’s attitudes towards you, and that doing so puts you on some pretty shaky ground, is the key to developing that softly tempered form of James Bond-like emotional resilience and self-dependency.
When you start to appreciate how insecure and vulnerable you’re making yourself by out-sourcing your sense of contentment and fulfilment to the whims of an uncontrollable third party, it simply becomes nonsensical to do so; no matter how much you may think they should be there for you in principle.
Principles only get you so far, practicality is far more important…
Like James Bond, by working with, instead of railing against the fact that you are ultimately the only person you have any guaranteed control over, you tap into a tremendous source of personal power: the power that comes from the recognition that you have to take charge of every facet of your life if you want to control its quality and the outcome. You have to derive your sense of worth, your sense of purpose, your motivation, your emotional stability and the meaning you attribute to your life from your own values, principles, hopes and dreams because there simply is no viable, stable alternative.
If you don’t, if you rely on other people, you make yourself child-like dependent on them; and to that end, you’re not in control of your own life, they are. Unless you’re one of those people who derive a sense of self-righteous martyrdom by blaming other people for the state of their lives (and hoping they’ll feel guilty in return), it’s obviously a very self-destructive and self-defeating mindset to live by.
It’s become a mantra of mine that, “I cannot control other people, I can only control myself”; which constantly reminds me that I have to be my own source of approval, my own source of motivation and that my life has to be a product of my actions, not the hopes and expectations I place on other people. It’s a milder form of James Bond’s, “Arm yourself because no one else will save you” philosophy; more in line with the sentiments of Rudyard Kipling’s inspirational poem ‘If’, which reads, ‘If all men count with you, but none too much”.
Life, as I’m sure you will agree, is far too short and precious to squander; but squandering it you’re at risk of doing if you abdicate your exclusive control over it; if you gamble your happiness and your destiny on your expectations of how other people should treat you, or on their the fluctuating attitudes and support.
Given everything that’s at stake – your happiness, your sense of worth, your emotional strength and stability, your future dreams and your ability to take positive action – you need some surety that you’ll get where you want to go; and that surety can only come from within.
So develop a healthy indifference to other people’s attitudes; appreciate their support but don’t rely upon it or expect it. Remind yourself over and over again that, “I can only control my own attitudes and behaviours; I can’t control anyone else’s”; use that to drum home the precarious futility of putting all your hopes and dreams in your expectations of other people.
There’s no need to be as detached as James Bond to effectively do so; just remember Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’: ‘If all men count with you, but none too much…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And what’s more, you’ll be a man, my son.”