The Myth of the Self-Fulfilled Life

There’s something I’ve been discussing with people at different times and under different circumstances. Most recently, this has come up in the context of my recent relationship. Since I’ve long accepted that my opinions on a lot of topics make me something of a heretic, I’ll wade into this water and stir some ripples.

Humanity is at a turning point in which many of what used to be dominant beliefs are coming under challenge for the illusions that they are, causing them to fall away in order to reveal a more nuanced and textured narrative for how the world works and how we each work within it.

In science, there are many examples of older narratives that we now realize have limited usefulness in narrow contexts but which are insufficient for describing the richness of reality and the range of phenomena that we are able to observe.

Newton’s story of the gravitational field, which was and is adequate for predicting the flight of projectiles and the speed with which objects fall, is not rich enough to describe things we are now able to observe in the larger universe. So along comes Einstein and his story of relativity and the new narrative of gravity as curved spacetime. The crude and grossly oversimplified model of the atom with its billiard ball shaped particles orbiting in perfectly curved paths has now fallen before the more bizarre but truer story of quantum mechanics with fuzzy particles that shift between matter and energy, hopping around from one spot to another without crossing the space in between locations.

One book I recently finished reading, “The Biology of Belief” by Bruce Lipton, even shows how deeply entrenched beliefs about genetics such as the Primacy of DNA is now falling before the emerging field of epigenetics in which DNA is not the CPU of our cells but simply data storage with the real power for how traits are expressed being determined by the action of the cellular membrane. The signals of our environment making contact with Integral Membrane Proteins, functioning as receptor proteins that receive environmental signals and effector proteins that trigger cellular functions, have much more to do with how we manifest our biological traits than DNA alone.

The larger point here is that it’s time for humanity to take a critical look at many of our “common sense” beliefs about the reality of our lives. Another book I’ve started, “Virus of the Mind” by Richard Brodie, takes a look at the field of mimetics in which ideas are transmitted to us as mind viruses that he calls “memes” that function intellectually the way viruses function biologically. They spread, infiltrate, and reproduce, becoming the messages we incorporate as truth without a lot of close examination. These messages come to us from parents, friends, schools, religions, and the media.

And it has long appeared to me that one of the most pernicious memes that have taken hold in our society is the myth of the self-fulfilled life. In this myth, unless you see yourself and seek to live your life as a self-realized, self-fulfilling, self-actualized, fortress of identity that eschews depending on others, you are somehow unhealthy.

To borrow a phrase from one of my dearest friends, I call bullshit.

Human beings are social creatures. We not only depend on contact and interdependence with each other, we cannot survive in good health without it. A man who is an island unto himself is doomed to neurosis and potentially going mad. Just as quantum mechanics has revealed that what appears to be separate and distinct particles of matter are actually inextricably interwoven and interconnected expressions of a larger whole, there are those who argue the human psyche with the seeming separation of selves and egos are actually localized expressions of a fundamentally integrated whole.

Jung began to point us in this direction with his model of the collective unconscious, a pool of consciousness to which all human beings are connected and through which we are all joined to one another. I tend to believe that what we each imagine as our individual identities are just tips of the iceberg, with our conscious minds at the peak expanding into a deeper personal unconscious mind that itself gives way at deeper levels of being to the collective unconscious and then deeper still to the divine mind of God (or source energy, or spirit, or whatever language you like for that).

There is no you that is not in some inescapable way simply a seeming separateness from me that in truth is joined in an unbroken whole.

All separation is illusion.

A word that gets tossed about too liberally, usually in my opinion by people who have fear of intimacy issues and anxiety about accepting their need for connection to others, is codependency. Want to throw up a deflector shield that isolates you and keeps others distant? Just toss this buzzword into your relationships and use it to rationalize pulling away from others as being somehow more healthy than embracing interdependence.

Do human beings in relationship develop unhealthy patterns? Certainly. But the myth of the self-fulfilled life and its justifying armor of codependency avoidance is, in my opinion, just as toxic to the human soul as the oft imagined wrongs it is used to defend against.

I haven’t followed the citation, but in reading about codependency on Wikipedia I found this rather interesting observation under the heading Controversies:

Some believe that codependency is not a negative trait, and does not need to be treated, as it is more likely a healthy personality trait taken to excess. Codependency in nonclinical populations has some links with favorable characteristics of family functioning.

Guess I’m not the only one calling bullshit. Many things, taken to excess, can be problematic. But I’ve been arguing for a long time, and especially in my recent relationship, that fear of codependency can easily be used as an intimacy dodge. Some kind of trump card thrown down as if to say that “I can’t open myself to authentic intimacy and commitment with you because the rules of healthy psychology would call that being codependent.”

Just as one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, what some people want to call codependency could just as easily be seen as a very positive and essential human need for interdependence.

Do healthy relationships need healthy boundaries? Certainly. But the question is begged about where to properly draw the line about those boundaries. And it seems to me that in the rush to blindly obey the myth of the self-fulfilled life, people push healthy connections away under the imprimatur of fearing codependency.

As part of my dialogue with a therapist I’ve begun seeing, he has had me start to read “Bradshaw On: The Family, a New Way of Creating Solid Self-Esteem” by John Bradshaw. Very interesting book about family systems and how individuals presented as dysfunctional are manifesting their behaviors out of an innate and intuitive need to balance family dynamics that are the actual problem with the dysfunction of an individual as the symptom.

I’ve been highlighting passages in this book like crazy to journal about in detail and discuss with my therapist. But in the chapter “Profile of a Functioning Family System” under the subheading “What is Maturity?” I ran gobsmacked into a passage that I not only highlighted but turned down the corner of the page so I could quickly find it at will.

Having a good identity means having a good sense of worth and a significant other or others who affirm that sense of worth. We cannot have an identity alone. We need at least one significant other who verifies our sense of worth. Our identity is the difference about us that makes a difference. It must always be grounded in a social context — in a relationship.

Identity unites our self-actualizing needs with our need for belonging. Good identity is always rooted in belonging. (emphasis mine)

Thank You, John Bradshaw!

When I’ve been saying to others that an essential part of the full expression of myself as a human being not only benefits from, but requires, the connection of a relationship, I have more than once been told that this understanding of myself is indicative of something unhealthy about me. That I have to buy into the myth of the self-fulfilled life in which I must stand ready to need no one, want no one, expect no one.

What I am seeing now is that not only is that appraisal wrong, it would be unhealthy for me to deny that the fullest expression of my personal humanity has as an essential component, the need for connection in relationship. I am NOT an island unto myself and have no desire to be one. I rely on others. I depend on others. I interdepend on others.

Is it unhealthy to make relationships with others (and a romantic relationship in particular) the sole vehicle for expressing my humanity? It most certainly is.

Is there a healthy role in life to seek to find ways to be self-actualizing? There most certainly is.

But friends, it’s not a binary choice. And it has never been a binary choice for me. There are many outlets for self-actualized fulfillment that are long established in my life. My art, my poetry, my personal journey of introspection, my spiritual walk, are all very healthy ways for me to seek to reach within myself for things that provide meaning and value and purpose and merit to my life. Those things have never vanished.

But those are not enough. And to suppose they are is to surrender to the myth of the self-fulfilled life that dictates I must entirely bootstrap my own happiness alone in order to be healthy. My vocational role as a technical trainer, my sharing in this very note, my connection with many of you in friendship, and yes…even the strongly expressed desire for romantic, monogamous relationship, also have critical parts to play in the textured tapestry of my healthy, broadly fulfilled life.

So if others wish to push me away out of their own fear of intimacy, there’s nothing I can do about that. But I reject the transfer of some kind of unhealthiness onto me under the overly broad umbrella of codependency because I embrace interdependence and the need to ground identity in relationship.

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