My boyfriend sounded upset the night I told him not to pick me up from the internship place after I missed the last bus home. It was already midnight after working overtime, and my rented room was over 20 kilometers away from the office. I knew he was worried about me but I already ordered an online taxi because I did not want to bother him. Besides, who needs a man to protect me, right?
“You can’t handle everything in this world by yourself. It’s okay to let people help you sometimes,” said my boyfriend.
It was not the first time we argued about how I hardly ever asked people for help or let people help me. Most of the time, I ended up being confused as to why he complained about it so much. Isn’t being independent a good thing? Shouldn’t he be grateful that I wasn’t a clingy girlfriend?
From social media to feminist books, we’ve been told that independence is an important trait that women should have. I learned from early on that women need to be strong and not rely on men in case something happens with their partners. I grew up watching my mother taking care of everything, from finance to household chores, which the notion of independent women instilled in me as a belief system.
But it never occurred to me that my being “too independent” is actually a problem. I only began to realize this three years ago when I graduated from college and moved to Jakarta to look for a job. I stayed at my sister’s rented room and it took me months to finally land on something. I kept getting rejections from the jobs I thought I was qualified for. My friends told me that it was common for a fresh graduate but I felt like a failure. Nevertheless, I kept that disappointment to myself as I did not want to look weak.
One night, those pent-up emotions surged at once, causing me to break down and have a hard time breathing. That was my first experience of dealing with a panic attack. It took me quite a long while to finally call my boyfriend and tell him what happened. He was taken aback as it was the first time I opened up about my feelings.
Afterward, I told a friend who has a Psychology degree about the scary episode and she concluded that they indicated hyper-independence as a trauma response. She said hyper-independence is defined by the desire to refuse help from others and attempt to tackle all issues alone, even when it causes struggle and suffering.
It was the first time I heard about the condition. It did shock me, but I wasn’t bothered too much. Maybe I was in denial, thinking that the problem was going to resolve if I worked on myself harder.
Princess Carolyn of BoJack Horseman is My Spirit Animal
It wasn’t until I rewatched the animated series BoJack Horseman that I reflected on my hyper-independent tendencies. Seeing one of the characters, Princess Carolyn was like watching myself on screen. With her jargon of “You gotta get your shit together”, which later became a popular meme, Princess Carolyn shows me that being hyper-independent is a problem.
The show centers on an anthropomorphic horse named BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) who once starred in a cheesy yet popular 90s sitcom called Horsin’ Around. Though he began as a young bright-eyed actor, he has since grown bitter and deeply depressed. As his agent, Princess Carolyn tries to get BoJack’s career back on track. She is a plucky, hard-working, career-oriented person who has to draw her way to the top of Hollywood’s power agent list. She always cleans up others' messes.
Before becoming Bojack’s agent/manager, Princess Carolyn was his girlfriend but they both were looking for different things–he only wanted sex while Princess sought a romantic relationship. She got dumped by BoJack several times, but instead of nursing her broken heart, she invalidated her feelings and said, “So yesterday you let yourself fall in love a little bit and got your heartbroken. Serves you right for having feelings.”
The familiarity of those words hit me hard. I never let myself get distracted or become codependent with others. Like Princess Carolyn, I see sadness and feeling heartbroken as a symbol of weakness.
Such belief does not take place in a vacuum. In season five’s episode The Amelia Earhart Story, there is a backstory that explains why Princess Carolyn becomes who she is. She was raised by a poor, alcoholic single mother who had to look after her and her 11 brothers. As a teenager, Princess Carolyn worked to cover her mother’s shift and took care of the house when Mom was mostly drunk. Princess Carolyn looked for a role model and she found it in Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, who she thought of as a free-spirited dreamer who achieved fame through hard work. Despite her mother’s discouragement, Princess Carolyn worked her asses off to get to a reputable university and moved to Los Angeles to start a brand new life.
Just like Princess Carolyn, I grew up poor in the countryside, where my parents struggled to make ends meet. They managed to get all five of their children to go to college, but we had to work really hard for it. My twin sister and I had to always be the best student so that we could get scholarships and leave our hometown for a better life. We barely shared our struggles with the family because we did not want to add to their burden. The condition shaped us to become headstrong and independent. We don’t have the privilege to procrastinate or get distracted by our feelings. Just like Princess Carolyn.
Rejection: Our Biggest Nightmare
Having a hard time accepting rejection—even small ones is one of the most common signs of being hyper-independent. In one episode, Princess Carolyn meets a rich man named Ralph Stilton, who then became her first-ever decent boyfriend. They are madly in love with each other and decide to have a family together. It wasn’t easy: Princess Carolyn experienced five miscarriages.
“Maybe you just wanted the baby too much. Maybe you didn’t deserve it because you were unkind once,” said her asshole doctor.
Seeing her world crumbling down, Princess Carolyn pushed Stilton away even though the man wanted to stay by her side. She destroys the relationship because she doesn’t know how to cope with failures and her feelings. She may seem fine on the surface, but when no one is around, she would cry by herself in the car.
That episode brought me to tears as it was too close to home. Yet, unlike Stilton who gives up on Princess Carolyn, I’m lucky enough to have someone who still stays despite being told off for God knows how many times.
It was at that moment that I realized that this fear of vulnerability is essentially a fear of abandonment and rejection. We are afraid that we are going to fail so we build a wall to protect ourselves. Just like Princess Carolyn said in the last episode of BoJack Horseman:
“I’m afraid that if I let someone else take care of me that I’m not really me anymore. I’m afraid of getting too comfortable, you know, going soft. I’m afraid that this could be the best thing that ever happened to me and if it doesn’t make me as happy as I’m supposed to be, that means I’m a lost cause.”
I know that it will take some time and hard work to bring down the wall, but now I’m slowly and surely getting better at asking for help. Relying on someone doesn’t always mean that I’m weak. I finally have come to terms with my vulnerability, which turned out to be liberating.