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Mental Health Involves Reaching In and Reaching Out


Because our culture is so very either-or and one-way-or-the-other, it’s often difficult to value the concept of “and” rather than “or.” I see this with clients who are counter-dependent and co-dependent. These folks either have to do everything themselves or feel as if they’ve failed, or have few inner resources and a diminished belief in their ability to handle life on their own and are, therefor, overly dependent on others.

My client Kayla is self-assured and believes she needs no help from others. When she gets into a tight space, she grins and bears it—sometimes with the help of alcohol and often with the help of food. “It kills me,” she insists, “to have to ask others to give me a hand. I was raised to be independent and fend for myself.” Yet deep down she knows she needs people to help her. Intellectually she understands that reaching out to others is in her best interest. But doing so is antithetical to what she was taught and believes.

Ricky, another client, is Kayla’s mirror opposite, afraid to take a step in any direction without the approval of others. If he’s considering a new job, he’ll poll friends and family to see what they think. He doesn’t believe he can make beneficial choices alone and be successful relying just on himself because he had helicopter parents who managed his every move—whether to go to private or public school, what camp he’d attend, and which friends were “good” or “bad” for him. He was undermined so much growing up that his faith in his ability to reach inwards or function on his own is close to zilch.

The truth is that sometimes we can do things on our own and sometimes we need to reach out. Why is that such a big deal to so many? We want to be independent and dependent. When we reach out, we find others who understand our pain and difficulties and are there to help us. Not everyone, of course, but the carefully chosen, mentally healthy folks we know we can count on. You know: they do for us and we do for them. 

We reach in because we believe (even if we’re not positive) we can handle something on our own—what career to follow, where to take vacation, who to date. We have confidence that we possess the skills for the endeavor. In addition, it helps to know that if we get into trouble, we can ask people for help. Neither way is better than the other: doing something alone or with help are both fine, value neutral and situation-dependent.

For example, today I asked one neighbor for computer help and decided how I was going to handle another difficult neighbor by myself, without consulting anyone else. It feels healthy and empowering to be able to both reach out and reach in without giving either a second thought. Learning to get comfortable with both is a great skill set.