Independence with Empathy

Independence is a good thing, right? When you’re independent you can stand on your own two feet, you can make decisions on your own, and you can forge your path with confidence. Best of all, you can do all this without being excessively dependent on someone else, and allowing that person to shield you from the realities of life.

The one thing you have to guard against, however, is loneliness. Working hard to be self-sufficient can make you afraid to depend on someone. You can reach a point of believing that depending on others for any sort of help will make you appear weak and incompetent. So, you avoid asking for – or accepting – help from others, and that can lead to social isolation. In other words, independence can be taken too far.

Kevin is under a lot of stress at work. He’s the chief supervisor of 24 workers who keep one section of an assembly line moving smoothly. Kevin feels he must do everything himself, or he believes he’s shirking his duties and his boss will demote him. There are many parts of Kevin’s job that can be delegated to his assistant, Wayne, or sometimes even to one of the workers directly on the line, but he just can’t do it.

Recently, Kevin began experiencing increasingly bad pain in his knee. What was once a slight, almost unnoticeable limp, developed into a very pronounced limp and an almost total inability to use stairs. Wayne noticed his impairment and often offered to help in one way or another.

Comments like, “Stay there and finish the paperwork, Kevin. I’ll go check the line”; “Kevin, let me give you a hand on the stairs”; “You better get that knee checked, Kevin. I bet you need a replacement,” often came his way, but Kevin always misinterpreted the concerns as showing how much Wayne wanted his job. It never occurred to him that these offers of help were out of genuine concern for his welfare.

Eventually, Kevin became all but incapacitated and unable to do his job efficiently. His boss gave him an ultimatum: “Kevin, get that knee fixed or I’ll have no choice but to let you go.”

Kevin knew he had to have the surgery. He was, however, plunged into anxiety about losing his job to that “back-stabbing assistant of mine. That’s the thanks I get for training him.”

After surgery Kevin was homebound for several weeks. He became increasingly distraught and felt helpless about it all. He started to blame himself, and was beginning to spiral into depression. During this rehab period Wayne visited him often and told him that things were going well at work and everyone was looking forward to his return. Kevin could only say to himself, “Don’t give me that bull s**t, you SOB. You’re hoping I can never walk again so you can be the chief.”

What’s Kevin’s problem? Why does he see only threats coming from Wayne? For that answer, let’s consider the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), 32nd US President. After beginning what looked to be a great political career, FDR was stricken with polio at the age of 39, and was never again able to walk without leg braces and assistance. Just standing, much less taking steps, was an immense undertaking involving considerable pain and effort, and he spent most of his days in a wheelchair.

In her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how FDR – long before becoming president – underwent a kind of psychological rebirth at a health spa in Warm Springs, Georgia. He found his way there after hearing reports that the waters of the spa had positive effects on paralyzed victims like himself.

FDR came from the “upper crust” of the American socioeconomic ladder, the elite of society. At Warm Springs, however, he interacted with – and became friends with – people he came to call his “fellow polios.” They were not the elite of society, but victims like him. He discovered that his association with them energized his spirits, and taught him the importance of teamwork, friendship, and a sensitivity to how others felt. He learned how to communicate – both listening and speaking – with his fellows as equals, without elitism, condescension, or superiority. In short, FDR discovered humility and empathy, two qualities I often describe as essential to coping with adversity.

Returning to Kevin, his interactions with Wayne were lacking humility and empathy. Kevin was the boss, and he felt that accepting help from Wayne was beneath him and signaled weakness. Kevin avoided facing this reality by convincing himself that Wayne was after his job, and that justified his harsh feelings toward Wayne.

Once Kevin returned to work, still gimpy but improving each day, he continued to harbor suspicions about Wayne. He began to watch Wayne carefully, and criticize him often. Wayne became uneasy at this new and unusual treatment by his boss. As Kevin became more and more critical of Wayne, their relationship became strained, and Wayne eventually left the company for another job.

Kevin once again felt secure. The problem was, he had never resolved his conflicted feelings – and misinterpretations – about Wayne’s behavior. It was only a matter of time before circumstances would arise that would reawaken these conflicts, and Kevin would go through the entire mess again. And, indeed, Kevin’s conflicts were reawakened when a new assistant, Martin, was hired.

Kevin’s interactions with Wayne were fine until circumstances arose that Kevin found threatening. Because humility and empathy were not a part of his relationship with Wayne, the conflict would never be resolved. Without those crucial features of the relationship, Kevin could only hold on to his independence by denying any expressions of dependence on Wayne. The result was loneliness, anger, and anxiety for Kevin as he convinced himself that Wayne was out to get his job.

Independence is good but don’t allow it to interfere with your relations with others who may truly have your welfare in mind. Without humility and empathy, it will be difficult to recognize and reciprocate honorable, genuine intentions of others. Your relationships will be in danger of disintegrating, and you will lose something worthwhile – a sense of belonging.



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