Most of us live in cities or small towns, where we are clearly interconnected. Yet people are still pushed to live separately, travel separately, eat separately, and even heal separately. Society elevates the idea of self-sufficiency without recognizing that independence is an impossible ideal. Reaching for this unattainable goal of total independence harms all of us – and most impacts disabled folks.
One of the abusive patterns in my family was the constant push to be independent. This was true even when I was healing from a physical injury that prevented me from working and spurred a year-long breakdown. Suffice it to say, I learned about the ableism behind independence-focused rhetoric the hard way.
Yet I still fall into patterns of obsessing over self-sufficiency, as society demands it by creating a deficit of resources for those of us in need. I’m trying to break these patterns in my life, but it sure isn’t easy.
Let’s look at three big ways this problematic social mandate to be self-sufficient shows up in our everyday lives. In so doing, I hope to illustrate why we must collectively notice these myths more often and develop better methods for practicing mutual care.
1. Can You Make a Living by Working in Solitude?: The Teamwork of Working
As a work-from-home freelancer, people tend to think I work alone. And physically that’s true. But there’s no way for one individual to have a successful career unrelated to some larger network of operations. Editors need writers. Writers need readers. And community organizers need a community.
Just because I work at home alone does not mean I can support myself alone. First, I need someone to hire me – a lot of someones, or else I can’t pay my bills. Then, I need other people’s mentorship to develop my career. And even if I’m watching YouTube videos or reading books to boost my skills, rather than directly interacting with a teacher, somebody had to make those resources in order for me to learn.
I began freelancing because I’m disabled and thought it would give me more control over my life. In some ways it does, which makes it worthwhile for my well-being. But it also means I’m doing more work – often unpaid work – because I’m solving problems, strategizing, promoting, and completing every task completely alone. Not only is it difficult, but it’s literally impossible for one person to do everything all the time. Trust me: I’ve tried. And even if I manage to care for most responsibilities by myself, that’s not a sustainable business model that ensures I’m getting paid a living wage.
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Getting a job is hard for most people who don’t have solid connections and the exact work experience a company is looking for. And it can be even harder for disabled folks to get a job, even when the company claims not to discriminate. For me it’s been the better path to deal with all of the above rather than rely on an employer who might let me go, not because of the quality of my work, but because some days I can’t leave my chronic pain and mental health challenges at home.
Even in a “stable” job, the myth of independence can show up in ableist ways. Office culture is competitive, which puts pressure on everyone to do their own tasks and not seek support. In fact, asking for help too much, or asking for accommodations like extra time on a project, can become a blemish on an employee’s record, such as “low performance.” This makes no sense, though, when you stop to consider that a company is literally a group of people who collaborate to complete group tasks with a shared goal. If one person is struggling with their to-do list, the team should find a way to accommodate that. It’s better for the individual and better for the team, but because of stigma, many employees feel pressured to stay silent and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
2. Can You Make a Harvest-to-Table Meal?: The Interdependence of Our Food Systems
It’s true that some people have this skill, but most of them are farmers or chefs or both. As in, they do this so well, other people pay them for it. And why do other people pay for harvested, cooked food? Some people aren’t good in the kitchen, and the rest of us are too busy managing other responsibilities to have time to devote to careful meal planning.
In trying to manage the responsibility of feeding myself alone as a poor single person, I’ve come to realize how much less of a burden it would be in my life if I could share the food I cook when I have extra – and be fed when I’m too busy or stressed out to feed myself. But not everyone has that kind of community in their life.
The food industry would rather have us stuck in illusory self-sufficient models. On the one hand, the industry pushes convenience and expects us to maintain a certain level of dependency on ready-made food, profiting off our struggle to fulfill basic needs. On the other hand, we get all these “health” messages to cook from scratch, shop local and organic, and follow narrow dietary rules. This leads to a lot of shame around food, something I know all too well as a food writer with eating disorder behavior not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
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There are many factors to food shame, and the myth of independence is a big one that can’t be ignored. No doubt most people relate to feeling shame around food, especially when thinking back to the last time they grabbed takeout or ordered delivery. But who has the energy to work hard in order to pay bills, cook from scratch, and manage other responsibilities like cleaning and care-taking? This is extra difficult if disabilities limit a person’s energy in the first place.
It’s only through being compassionate to myself about why I make the food choices I make that I’ve been able to reduce shame around what I eat and when.
3. Can You Heal Yourself from Any Ailment?: It Takes a Village to Provide Health Care Access
Let’s be real: not even a medical professional can do this. One person’s health needs simply cannot be met by themself alone. And yet due to a combination of increased social isolation, plus barriers to health care access, many individuals try to resolve their health issues alone. That’s something I have done too often, and it’s why I now advocate for community-based health care.
The myth of independence doesn’t just show up when we come down with the flu and run to the pharmacy instead of the doctor. We also see this show up in conversations around self-care, as if a single person can fulfill all their self-care needs alone with a soothing bubble bath, good book, and an indulgent meal. As important as self-care is, the name itself can be misleading.
Self-care and community care go hand in hand. Of course socializing can be necessary self-care, like going to a movie, a concert, or just to grab a cup of tea with a friend. And even when company isn’t required, having loved ones to share the joy with can make that self-care time more valuable. Each person needs a different balance of solitude and social time, but we all need both.
I’ve found that community is vital to deepening my self-care practice. When I struggle to believe I deserve a break to recharge and put my needs first, it’s the external validation that helps me begin to internally validate myself. For me, there has to be a back and forth. Friends also provide valuable self-care ideas and affirmations that I can carry with me into my solitude to better enjoy my time alone.
There are many destructive and false beliefs upheld by society that drive us to work harder and harder while asking for less and less help. We can’t change the structure of our capitalist societies without challenging the myth of self-sufficiency. Even in small moments, we can shift our behavior over time to be less toxically independence-focused and more interconnected.
[Featured Image: Person with lighter skin and medium-length dark brown hair stands indoors, leaning against a gate while staring at the camera. Source: Pexels.com]