Dr. Rika Tanaka, Ph.D.

Fostering a healthy sense of independence and autonomy is an important part of my work with a wide variety of clients—from individuals struggling with illness or injury to those who struggle to balance their own needs with the needs of those around them. With Independence Day just behind us, I thought it might be useful to take a moment to think about how we all can embrace and our sense of freedom in our everyday lives. Evaluating our own ideas of what it means to be independent and autonomous can lead to helpful insights and strategies to help increase our sense of confidence as we move about our world.

1) Evaluate Your Needs or Goals. It can sometimes be a bit overwhelming to think of “freedom” or “independence” and what these concepts mean in our day-to-day lives without first linking these concepts to our specific needs or goals. By taking the time to evaluate our needs and goals, we can then more concretely discuss ways to exercise our freedom in healthy ways. For example, illness or injury can quickly take away our sense of independence, as these experiences often catapult us into scenarios where we are highly dependent on those around us. Taking the time to evaluate resulting shifts in needs and goals can help to better understand and appreciate alternative ways to regain our sense of independence.

2) Understand Your Boundaries. Independence is hard to exercise without a sense of safety. From a psychological perspective, understanding and asserting healthy boundaries is an important part of establishing a sense of safety in our lives. Uncomfortable emotions, like anger, frustration, guilt, or shame, when processed appropriately can help us better understand and assert our boundaries in ways that can make us feel that much confident in our ability to appreciate a healthy sense of freedom.

3) Experiment With New Strategies. It is common for people struggling with their sense of independence to feel “stuck.” The feeling of “stuck-ness” can often coincide with a certain amount of rigidity with regard to what it means to be independent and how that translates to everyday actions. Once we evaluate our true needs/goals and our boundaries—it can become easier to see multiple paths to independence. By opening ourselves up to new strategies—ones that work to meet our needs within a safe environment—we often find that there are often many more paths forward than we had originally imagined, further fostering our sense of autonomy as we move through the world.

4) Ask For Help. From a psychological perspective, the ironic nature of exercising our independence is that it requires a degree of trust in both ourselves and the world around us. In moments where we are having difficulty gaining a sense of independence or are afraid of losing our autonomy, often the solution can be to ask for help—either from a family member, friend, or another more formal form of support. I encourage anyone interested in working with a therapist for support and counseling to reach out to a mental health professional to learn more about how therapy can help individuals gain confidence in their ability to exercise their independence and freedom in healthy, adaptive ways.

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