“Be Emotionally Self-Sufficient So You Can Draw Closer to Other People.”

Further Secrets of Adulthood:

This reminds me of a line from Bob Dylan’s haunting memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, where he write, about his wife:

“The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She’s always had her own built-in happiness.”

Do you agree–that being emotionally self-sufficient helps you to be closer to others? Or disagree?

  • Happiness shouldn’t depend on other people, but it most certainly does, in that almost nothing feels more exhilarating than to be understood and loved just as you are. In my own life being too self-sufficient has been damaging and anxiety-provoking. I’m someone who is struggling with reaching out more to others and being more “real” so as to feel less alone, more connected and understood.

  • Being emotionally self-sufficient leaves you free to engage in relationships. You can choose to make yourself vulnerable to people, instead of needing them for your completion. Gretchen, you might enjoy reading what Bowen Family Systems Theory has to say about this. Roberta Gilbert’s book Extraordinary Relationships is a good introduction.

  • peninith

    This paradox is one of those easy to understand when you are ‘there’, and almost impossible to comprehend before you get there. In the many years I spent being lonely and in great emotional need of comfort and support, I absolutely could not wrap my mind around how much my emptiness influenced my choices — my difficulty dealing with myself, my kids, my attractions to unsuitable or unavailable people. I was fortunate always to have had a strong and solid core of good and understanding friends, and I worked my way into a satisfying career. Eventually, after a lot of suffering, I did come to the conclusion one day that I might not have the life I had dreamed of, but I had a ‘good enough life,’ and I started to lose my bottomless need. After that, better things happened. It was incomprehensible to me in the past, and isn’t really easy to explain now, but when the balance shifted from bereft to good enough, the balance of my life shifted strongly toward better. If it is any comfort to those suffering now–I counsel you not to blame yourself or try to force yourself to be where you are not. Just keep doing what is genuinely good or better for you day after day, don’t be afraid to grow stronger, and you may be given the gift of openness to healthy relationships. This comes about as you turn into an independent person capable of inter-dependence rather than dependency.

    • Growlight

      I absolutely understand this concept–I just don’t know how to actualize it. Thank you for the wise counsel…I needed to read that today. 🙂

    • Ana

      This is so wise & true. Thank you for sharing & for expressing how slow & gradual a process it can be…not the quick fix most of us want, but still satisfying and wonderful.

  • Anne

    Once again, I’m taking the position that the concept is good in moderation, but can be overdone. Neediness is a problem in relationships, no doubt, but so is aloofness. To a certain extent, it’s fashionable now to denigrate needs and admire the person who is “cool.” But “cool,” carried too far, is just plain cold.

  • Chi
  • So many wise words here and peninith I think you are so right in that it is easy to undertand when you in that space.
    It is the goal to take care of self first and then others, so that you are not being an emotional vampire and so that you can then share your feelings openly without dumping onto other people your expecations.
    However I believe that the journey of getting there is just as important and to do that you have to make a mess and practice by asking for too much or too little or giving too much or too little until you find the balance. To find that place of balance you have to be willing to sit with the emptiness, pain and suffering you would like others to rescue you from and rescue yourself.

    • Erin

      Beautifully said, Joanna! I’m finally learning these days to be with me and my feelings and try not to run away from them.

  • My experience is the opposite. I’m emotionally self-sufficient and have been told that it distances me from people who want to connect by helping or in commiseration or through some other crack in that self-sufficiency. I have focus on opening up, rather than on self-sufficiency, in order to be closer to people.
    Joy’s Book Blog

  • Nicole Cohen

    As a grateful member of Al-Anon (a 12 Step program for codependents), this is something I’ve worked hard to do. Until recently, I could only be happy if other people are happy. Now I know that I can be happy no matter what other people in my life are doing or what circumstances they or I are going through. They’re on their own life journey, and I’m on mine, and we are here to love each other, not carry each other.

  • Michele

    Since reading Chronicles, I’ve never forgotten Dylan’s description of his wife and what a wonderful quality he described. Thanks for sharing it with others.

    • Lynn

      It is a lovely quality he described, but he and his wife divorced. I have not read the book , but wonder what happened

  • You’re right – if we’re not emotionally self-sufficient and look to other people to fill in our empty spaces then all our relationships go awry. I write about this on my blog as well.
    Diana Bletter

  • When you are not desperate for someone else’s approval, or for someone else to act according to your expectations, you are instead freed up to observe the world and the people around you, have an open mind to absorb and understand how they behave, and thus will get a understanding of the world and its people that is closer to reality – *that* is what brings you closer to other people.

  • Molly D

    I wish I could be more like Bob Dylan’s wife, but I’m just not. I wish wish wish I were emotionally self-sufficient, but I’m just not. It was nice to read others’ comments, including the people who said that being emotionally self-sufficient has gotten them into trouble. I never thought of the opposite problem. I guess it’s true that we have to learn to be emotionally interdependent rather than dependent, on the one hand, or too independent, on the other hand. (Life is probably easier for an individual, though, who errs on the “too independent” side. I think!)

  • This is the first time I’ve ever really disagreed with you, Gretchen. But doing so makes me smile for some reason!

    There is such a thing as being “terminally self-reliant” and such a thing as being emotionally needy and dependent. Between the two is a space where one is strong enough to ask for help when needed, to share emotional triumphs as well as setbacks, and where true intimacy is forged when people are strong enough to support – and offer support to – one another.

    My fear is that “emotionally self-sufficient” could be read by others the way that I read it: Going it alone when it comes to emotions. I’ve seen this literally kill hundreds of people, and I have seen perhaps too much to view this ever as a worthy goal. I’d rather have a fit spiritual condition that allows me to ask for help when I need it and offer support to those who seek it, in an atmosphere of growth and clear boundaries.

    • pjhype13

      Jackie, I like your answer, but I am a bit perplexed. I viewed the quote to mean that if you are “emotional self sufficient”, you could stand on your own, but others will be drawn to you for emotional strength (not vice versa). So, if you are known by your friends as not needing the emotional support of others to to make you happy, how do you effectively “cross the chasm” and obtain support when you really need it? What exactly is this “spiritual condition” that you allude to? Also, in your opinion, doesn’t this really mean that there is really no such thing as “emotional self-sufficiency”? That we all need support (every now and then)? And that the term “emotional self-sufficient” is perhaps a mask that some of us hide behind?

  • Lauren Webre

    I think this all depends on which perspective you’re coming from. If you’re naturally lonely lacking in self confidence, it’s important to find some inner security and inner light so that you have something to give to others. It helps them want to be near you and begin to create the support and approval you so desperately need. Seeking approval usually results in a lack of it. On the other hand, happiness doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you’re naturally self sufficient, you may find that your life is more fulfilling when you embrace needing others, and learn to make room for them in your life.

  • pjhype13

    Gretchen, you have provided a very
    interesting quote and present a bit of a dichotomy that is thought provoking.
    The answers below are equally interesting, especially those of Joanna,
    peninith and Jackie Danicki. However, I see a lot of good explanations
    for the former part of your quote, but no one appears to address the latter

    I agree and respect many of the opinions
    on why it is important to be emotionally self sufficient — no one should
    define your state of happiness for you, you should not be dependent on others
    to be happy, your state of happiness should come from within, etc, etc, etc.
    However, what about the latter part?

    If you are emotionally self sufficient,
    why is there a need to draw closer to other people? What is the
    motivation for that? Aren’t you (and others) saying that if you are
    emotionally self sufficient, others will draw closer to you? Why would
    you want that? Does this not imply that if/when you become emotionally
    self sufficient, others will begin to depend or rely on you to attain their
    sense of emotional self sufficiency (i.e. become closer to you)?

    Don’t get me wrong. I think
    emotional self sufficiency is a key to becoming closer to other people, and a
    recognition of one’s emotional needs and “sense of self” is essential
    to becoming closer to others (which is a desirable end goal). I posit
    that “Emotional self sufficiency enables closeness to others”. You cannot have one without the other.

    • ravioliglue

      pjhype13 – emotional self-sufficiency is something I’m working on quite a lot right now, and I think I’ll be working on it for some time to come. So I’m more a student then a master, but I’d still like to share my thoughts on this.

      Several months ago, my relationship that had lasted over a decade ended. It was a relationship that I had as a needy person with another needy person. It was difficult for us to be happy together because neither one of us new how to be the source of our own happiness – we kept looking to the other person to make us happy, and this led to conversations like “I wish you were more affectionate. Why can’t you just be more affectionate?” These conversations obviously spoke to a sense of dissatisfaction in the relationship.

      What I’ve been learning – and to be very frank, what my therapist has suggested to me – is to look to my friendships, not this and other past romantic relationships, for the way to feel happy in a relationship. I’m not a needy friend. I don’t become friends with someone because I need them to make my life feel complete. I make friends because I enjoy those people. Over time I’ve learned to enjoy the insight they bring to my life and have learned that they are good listeners and dependable people when I need help, but what came first is that we liked talking to each other and doing stuff together. I was satisfied with those relationships even before they proved that they were useful people to have around (Of course, there are people who are also needy friends – I guess it’s fortunate for me that I don’t have to work through that as well).

      The point is that when you are emotionally self-sufficient, this doesn’t mean that you won’t want other people around you. We are social animals. We want to be around other people. And of course there are times when everyone has needs that are not about emotional completion – it’s not needy to want someone to spend time with you after you’ve suffered a tragedy, any more than it’s needy to ask a friend to help out with something that is physically demanding like a move. It means that when you know how to be the source of your own happiness, you won’t expect other people to fill that in for you. In my case, I see this as meaning that I will have romantic relationships only with people who I like as they are, not “fixer-uppers” who I happen to find sexy but wish they would learn to be better at fulfilling my needs. And it means that I will make those choices based on finding a person that I genuinely want to share my life with, instead of looking for the person that I believe will “complete me”.

      • pjhype13

        Wow… I’m speechless… Your words (both of you) spoke directly
        to my soul. It is as if you looked
        directly into my life and heart and told me exactly what I needed to hear. How is that possible? I read and re-read your messages several times,
        and after getting over the astonishment, your messages (or my interpretation of
        it) began to set in. Ever since college,
        I have always been the steady, stoic, dependable and reliable one, which I
        interpreted to be “emotionally self-sufficient”. I didn’t think I needed anyone to establish
        my personal happiness. But you know
        what? I became a “magnet” for needy
        people, who have become romantic relationships for my entire life. I have always been the handyman or fixer for
        “broken” lovers or friends, thinking that “fixing” them was an altruistic and
        noble endeavor. It never occurred to me
        that perhaps I needed these people or sought out these people to establish a
        purpose in life, to satisfy a need for companionship, or to instill a sense of
        happiness. Wow. Thank you for that incredible insight. I don’t know what to do with that yet, but it
        was certainly eye opening!

    • peninith

      In looking at many of these posts, I think that perhaps the words “emotional self sufficiency” are calling up pictures of Mr. Spock from Star Trek–a person who appears outwardly emotionless, and almost allergic to self revelation or intimacy of any kind. That is not how I think of self sufficiency, but seems more like a highly overdeveloped defensiveness–as Spock’s occasional volcanic breakdown moments declared for him. Self sufficiency doesn’t mean being surrounded by a wall keeping everyone out–it means being able to be comfortable with yourself, not feeling ‘unmanageable’ with respect to your daily life, your finances, dealing with a car or a commute, relating to your children, keeping your kitchen up, being unafraid to go for a walk or to a movie by yourself if a friend doesn’t happen to be available, getting into bed at night tired and ready to sleep, not miserable to be turning in alone, and above all, NOT spending all your time painfully wishing to BE someone else or to be WITH someone else as an escape from yourself.

  • Ange from Far East

    I like time with myself and also time spent connecting with other people. Sometimes I wish, I’m able to be a bit less self conscious of my emotional self, to allow myself to be better understood and also get closer to other people. Isn’t it at the end of the day, those who has been with you through good times and bad (emotional) times, accept you as you are, emerged as the ultimate true friends? I think it’s too idealistic to be emotionally self sufficient all the time. I think what we should strive to achieve to be contended with ourselves when we have to be alone (and not feel lonely).
    I believe at the end of the day, happiness is about accepting who we are and go with the flow of ups and downs in life, including times to be alone, times to be needy. I believe that people who doesnt need to have people around them all the time, who are able to enjoy their moment of solitude happily definitely draws people closer.

  • Cathy

    It’s taken me a long time to understand emotionally self-sufficiency and how it applies to my life. In college, I went through a period of desperately trying to find happiness in various romantic relationships. I pursued some men relentlessly, somehow thinking they were the ones who would answer this need in me. Only when I stopped this desperate behavior did my life begin to fall into place.

    Once I started a family, I started to put myself last after my family’s needs. In the last year, I realized that I was waiting for my life to come together and magically bring happiness. Finally, I came to terms with the fact that my happiness depended on me. The only one to blame for my unhappiness with my life was me. That’s when I took action and began to pursue things that were important to me. I feel much more content with my life now. I am less judgmental about the things that I don’t achieve and more congratulatory about what I do accomplish. My family has had to adjust to the “new” me, but that’s also an important part of them appreciating me as an individual and not just their caretaker.

  • onehoonose

    Oh my goodness yes this is sooo true. In fact I just recently formulated this thought on my own before I ever looked at The Happiness Project. Dealing with my inlaws made me come to this realization. They depend so much on other people making them happy. There are so many little things you have to remember with them or cater to their preferences all of the time and look out if you don’t or they will get mighty unhappy. I am sad to say it but they are real energy vampires. The important lesson for me is to watch carefully and make sure I don’t do the same to others.

  • HopeRestored

    Hi Gretchen – I appreciate your book so much; thank you for having the courage to engage in this journey and share what you have learned along the way! I just wanted to share your idea of emotional self-sufficiency intrigued me because I grew up in a home in which the emotions of one were always everyone else’s to deal with. So, its taken me a long time to get to a place where I am “awake enough” to learn that there is another way to consider!
    For me, emotional self-sufficiency is not quite where I think I will achieve the greatest peace and joy. Instead, I am finding “emotional God-sufficiency” to be best. It reminds me I am never truly alone and can always seek comfort or celebration from God, especially when others are not able to be there for me. Like so many of us, I know I will always be one who connects with others emotionally. Nevertheless, emotional God-sufficiency means I no longer NEED another person to care for my emotions (because God and I are doing that together) so I can be more available to others no matter whether they need to cheer or complain or receive comfort. Thanks for listening and for all that you do!!