Self-sufficiency syndrome is a threat to our sanity

Oct 9, 2015 at 9:00 a.m. ET
Image: Jessica Peterson/Getty Images

“It’s OK, I’ve got it. I’ll do it. It’s all under control.” Sound familiar? If those words are constantly coming out of your mouth, you could be prone to self-sufficiency syndrome, a condition that affects a large number of women who are actually doing themselves in by trying to do it all solo.

“Many of us have been socialized to believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness," says Peggy Collins, speaker and author of Help is Not a Four-Letter Word. “Because we are such an individualistic culture, so competitive, ‘If you want it done right, do it yourself’ is a frequently heard household mantra, and many women have felt they could show their abilities by ‘doing it all’ without assistance.”

Other tendencies of the self-sufficient include never delegating (because no one else can do it as well) and helping others all the time (to make human connection), but not being able to ask to have the favor returned. “Some might suggest this person is a control freak, because control is very important,” says Collins. “They’re also likely highly intelligent and they build a huge arsenal of diverse and powerful skills from attempting to do everything themselves.”

More: Important ways to protect yourself from stress

Unfortunately, what happens with this mindset is that burnout becomes a real issue for self-sufficients. “Who can maintain this pace indefinitely?” says Collins. “Stress is an everyday companion.” Other “symptoms” of people suffering from this condition include a feeling of overwhelming pressure, sleeping issues, digestive problems and panic attacks.

“Self-sufficients construct a wall around themselves through their behavior that never allows them to show their vulnerability,” says Collins. “Until they decide to change their behavior, they literally separate themselves from others and themselves.”

So, what’s a self-sufficient to do (aside from everything) if they would like to find more balance? Fortunately, Collins offers some actionable steps that will move a recognized self-sufficient rapidly towards recovery.

1. Awareness is the first step

Often times just recognizing this tendency in yourself can help you to combat it. When you find yourself stressed or panicking, check in and see if you’ve tried to take on too much solo. “Just the awareness that this behavior is self-defeating puts one on notice for the first time,” says Collins.

2. Make C grades

Instead of always having to do everything to an A or A+ level, challenge yourself to do something just adequately instead of superbly. No one is giving you extra credit in life, so stop still trying to get a 4.0 GPA.

“Self-sufficients use black-and-white thinking, in other words, something we do must be stellar or we’ve failed… there’s no in between,” says Collins, who also suggests recovering self-sufficients take all the things they do and see what can be done averagely to create more balance. “Maybe the beds don’t have to be made, the children in every activity known to man, the cookies baked at 2:00 a.m. — every project doesn’t have to be an Oscar winner.”

More: 8 Surprising foods that help you stress less

3. Learn to say “no”

It can be one of the hardest words to master in the English language, but it’s important. “Not only do self-sufficients need to learn to say 'no' more often, but also break yourself of explaining for five minutes,” says Collins.  “A simple, ‘No, not this time,’ will do the job and your tone of voice can project your caring attitude so the other woman won’t feel she’s being rejected.”

If you’re having trouble figuring out what is really important to do, try utilizing your three top values as a measuring stick — perhaps it’s family, self-development and health, for example. When asked to do anything above and beyond that might violate these, use your “say no” button. “I’ve decided that ‘no’ stands for ‘nurturing ourselves,’” says Collins.

More: 5 Energy healing exercises that kill stress almost immediately

4. Cocreate asking for help

Self-sufficients are fantastic at offering help to others, but not asking for it themselves. Not only is this isolating, but it’s also exhausting. Still, it’s easier said than done for those not used to reaching out for a helping hand. A good way to ease into this, however, is to actually ask for assistance by having someone cocreate the plan to get you that help. “People support what they help create, so structure your asking for help to include the other person in the planning,” says Collins. For example, if you needed some computer tutoring, say something like, “Tell me how you think we could carve out some time so you could show me how you did that Excel spreadsheet?” Then, it becomes an indirect ask (which may feel a little less daunting for first-time help seekers) and more like a joint planning session.

“People with self-sufficiency syndrome need to learn that being vulnerable enough to ask for help is the strength, not the weakness, and it’s the only way they’ll ever really be able to connect with anyone,” says Collins.

Tagged in