Everyone needs to depend on someone stronger than themselves.

Being able to ask for help is often a good thing. Another person, be it a neighbour, friend, partner or professional helper, who is not involved emotionally with a problem, or who has information or expertise you lack, can be very useful. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Over-reliance on others can lead to self-defeating dependency, with symptoms and effects like the following:

You find yourself doing things for other people you don’t really want to.
You avoid doing things you would like because others might disapprove.
You constantly seek the advice of other people, and become paralysed with decision-making when you can’t get advice, or the advice you get from different people is contradictory.
You ask someone else’s permission or opinion before you do or say things.
You aren’t yourself around other people, instead behaving as you think they would want you to.
You often seek reassurance that you are doing the right thing.
You demand more of relationships than they can give.
You fear being alone, and are miserable when others are not around.
Self-direction

In contrast, taking responsibility for the direction of your life involves:

Choosing your goals, making sure they are your own.
Actively pursuing your goals, rather than waiting and dreaming.
Making your own decisions, even though you may seek opinions from others.
Choosing to work at managing stress, developing your potential, and changing things you dislike, rather than just drifting along or expecting a miracle to occur.
Not condemning any person (including yourself) when things go wrong in your life, even though you or someone else may be responsible; but rather identifying any causes and looking for solutions.
Self-direction does not mean open opposition and noncooperation with others. You can keep your self-direction on the right track by balancing it with other principles such as enlightened self-interest, long-range enjoyment, moderation, and flexibility.

There are several prerequisites for self-direction. First, you need to see what happens to you as influenced (though not totally controlled) by what you do. As we saw earlier, inner-controlled people tend to be assertive, get on with life, and do not see themselves as victims. Second, to direct your own life you need to know what you want to do with it. Have you clarified your goals and values? Chapter Nine will show you how to do this.

Limits to self-direction

Some of what happens to you will be out of your control, and this will place limits on how much you can influence them. Remember, though, that how you react is your responsibility.

Further, while self-direction implies independence, it recognises some limits in the interests of mutual support and cooperation with others.

If carried too far, commitment can become obsession. Don’t get so involved with one or a few things that other areas of your life suffer. Avoid, for example, allowing work to stop you from any recreational activity, or recreation to leave no time for relationships.

Why self-direction is important to your mental health

Self-direction can affect your health. Salvatore Maddi, from the University of Chicago, ran courses for men and women in management aimed at increasing their sense of control. These led to lower anxiety, depression, obsessiveness, headaches, insomnia, and blood pressure, as well as more job satisfaction – results which lasted well beyond the end of the courses (reported in Asbell, Bernard: What They Know About You. Random House, New York, 1991, p.261).

Aiming for your own goals rather than having others direct your life will affect how you implement key stress management strategies, such as how you manage your time, assert yourself, and maintain stimulation and variety in your life by doing the things you want.

Developing self-direction and commitment

Make a list of things you do that indicate lack of self-direction. Watch for the behaviours listed at the beginning of this chapter. Select one item each week and deliberately act differently, in line with what you would rather be doing. If the discomfort involved is a block, the techniques of rational self-analysis and imagery will help you deal with the self-defeating beliefs involved and increase your discomfort-tolerance.

Is loneliness a problem for you? Fear of being alone often leads to conformity or destructive relationships. Also, if you can’t enjoy your own company, it is unlikely that others will. Loneliness compounds itself. Loneliness actually has little to do with being alone. You can feel lonely in a crowd. Loneliness results from self-defeating beliefs about being on your own – in particular, beliefs about your own ‘unworthiness’. You can help yourself with self-acceptance and commitment:

Accepting yourself will reduce any need to have other people around you to ‘make you feel good’.
Develop hobbies and interests that do not depend on other people but which you find absorbing.
Confront loneliness with exposure. Get used to your own company by deliberately organising yourself to be alone, while filling your time with satisfying activities.
Set and maintain appropriate boundaries which even close friends do not cross. Allow people only so far when it comes to your time, body, money and property. Avoid overloading your supporters – set limits on the demands you make of them.

Remember that you, ultimately, have control over your own emotions – so you can accept support from others confident that whatever happens, you will still be able to cope with your feelings.

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