Hyper-Independence and Trauma: What's the Connection?

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Independence refers to being self-sufficient or taking care of yourself. It is often necessary to function independently as an adult, such as making and keeping your appointments, completing assignments for work, or maintaining a healthy and safe living environment.

However, like any trait, independence can be dangerous when taken to an extreme. Everyone encounters challenges that they cannot tackle on their own, and everyone has needs that they cannot meet without some support.

What Is Hyper-Independence?

Hyper-independence refers to individual attempts to be fully independent in all things, even when it is not helpful to do so or when they truly need help or support from others.

When someone’s need to be independent goes to an unhealthy extreme, this is hyper-independence. An individual who is hyper-independent will avoid asking for help or support even when this is detrimental. Hyper-independence can be a trauma response.

Signs of Hyper-Independence

Although hyper-independence can manifest differently depending on the individual, signs of hyper-independence can include:

  • Over-achieving: People who are hyper-independent may over-commit to work or personal projects to the point that they are unable to manage the load themselves.
  • Refusing to delegate or ask for help: Hyper-independent people will struggle to ask others to help them when they are overwhelmed, or they will be unable to pass tasks on to someone else.
  • Guardedness in relationships: Close relationships are interdependent by nature, and a person who is hyper-independent will struggle to let their walls down and let the other person in.
  • Secretiveness: Those who are hyper-independent will often keep to themselves or be reluctant to share personal information that could be used against them.
  • Mistrust of other people: Sometimes, a person is hyper-independent because they worry that others will let them down or betray their trust.
  • Few close or long-term relationships: Because they are unable to open up to other people, it can be difficult for hyper-independent people to form and maintain friendships and romantic relationships.
  • Stress or burnout: Because hyper-independent people struggle with delegating or asking for help when they need it, they often take on more than they can handle, leading to heightened stress or even burnout symptoms.
  • Dislike of “neediness”: In addition to not wanting to rely on others, people who are hyper-independent may resent or resist others relying on them.

Trauma Responses

When a person experiences a disturbing, distressing, or life-threatening event that they are unable to cope with in a healthy way, this event is considered traumatic. Traumatic events can be single experiences, like a car accident or natural disaster, or they can be chronic and ongoing like neglect or abuse.

Some chronic, stressful experiences in childhood that can cause trauma symptoms later in life are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are linked to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and even early death in adulthood.

When someone experiences something traumatic, the brain automatically activates the body's defense mechanism, also known as survival responses.

This means that the body chooses behaviors based on what will keep it safest at the moment. Because our brains are wired to keep us safe and alive, we tend to hold onto survival mode long after the traumatic event has passed if we do not process it, even if it is no longer adaptive or helpful to do so.

In fact, we are so good at surviving traumatic events that our genetic expression can change in response to trauma, passing the trauma response down to our offspring through intergenerational trauma.

Unfortunately, although this can help survive the trauma, a trauma response is often harmful outside of the context of the traumatic event. Hyper-independence is one trauma response that can be maladaptive.

Why Is Hyper-Independence a Trauma Response?

Hyper-independence can develop in response to trauma for various reasons. Not everyone who experiences a trauma will have the same trauma responses, and in fact, some people begin to believe that they are incapable of independence as a result of their trauma.

Feeling Undeserving of Social Support

Trauma survivors who experience hyper-independence may believe that they do not deserve support or help from other people. They might have been told that it is not acceptable to need help or receive support, and so they become hyper-independent to avoid having that need.

Past Neglect

Some people’s trauma includes going through periods when their needs were not met, and so they can develop hyper-independent tendencies in an effort to survive. The neglect they experienced taught them that they can only rely on themselves. They might believe that others cannot or will not help them, and so there is no point in seeking help or support from others.

Mistrust of Others

Hyper-independence can also emerge from reluctance to trust others. The trauma survivor might have experienced abuse by their caregivers. This can lead to feeling unsafe asking for help, as they could pair the concept of relying on another person with that person abusing them.

Coping Mechanism

Sometimes, hyper-independence can be a way of coping with uncertainty. Many trauma survivors experience a loss of control as part of their trauma, and hyper-independence might be a way that they seek to regain a sense of control over their environment.

Other Reasons for That Lead to Hyper-Independence

  1. Children who were raised to believe that not needing help was a sign of being superior and that asking for help was a sign of weakness. This may be especially true in competitive families and kids who are gifted/talented.
  2. Children who were parentified and experienced role reversal in the family. They literally had no help and are not used to having support. Many times their sense of self is tied to what they can do for themselves and others.
  3. Children who had their basic needs met (would not necessarily see themselves as neglected), but received a constant message that they needed to do things on their own. There were no adults present to help them figure things out—whether that was in school, socially, in activities, or in interests. They developed the sense that they were on their own.

Treatment for Hyper-Independence

Hyper-independence is an extreme form of independence that can lead to both personal and relational issues. The hyper-independent person can run into trouble when they are unable to meet a need without help but remain unable to seek support. They also often struggle with interpersonal relationships due to their mistrust of others.

Although hyper-independence is not a formal diagnosis, it is a trauma and stress response. People with posttraumatic stress disorder or another mental health issue triggered by a trauma history might experience hyper-independence.

A person experiencing hyper-independence can work on healthy relationships, trust, and honoring their own limitations in therapy. Because hyper-independence is a trauma response, trauma-informed care is an important component of this treatment.

Examples of Healing Work

The work for everyone is different because the reasons that led to hyper-independence were different.

Healing Work

Here are some examples of what the work looks like for some people:

  • Letting go of perfectionism that others will do things the way they do
  • Exploring our identity outside of doing things for others
  • Understanding the cost of not asking for help
  • Realizing that there is help available now as adults, even if it wasn't as children
  • Normalizing asking for help and not seeing it as a sign of weakness
  • Doing an inventory of what is costing us to not ask for help
  • Learning how to delegate

Coping With Hyper-Independence

An important thing to remember about any trauma response is that it is a way to survive and cope in a stressful and unfair situation. While hyper-independence can cause problems, it likely helped you survive a traumatic situation if you developed this response. You can acknowledge how this response helped you at the time while working to let go of behavior that no longer serves you.

Remember that moving past a trauma response takes time and can involve small steps forward as well as periods of regression. Be gentle with yourself, and leave space for difficult times.

Finally, know that support is available. Therapy can go at a pace that you are comfortable with, and there is no deadline by which you have to get better. Take your time finding a provider who is a good fit, and know that you can let go of the maladaptive coping patterns that helped you survive your past.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cronholm PF, Forke CM, Wade R, et al. Adverse childhood experiencesAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2015;49(3):354-361. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2015.02.001

  2. Burdick LS, Corr C. Helping teachers understand and mitigate trauma in their classroomsTEACHING Exceptional Children. doi:10.1177/00400599211061870

  3. Ryan J, Chaudieu I, Ancelin ML, Saffery R. Biological underpinnings of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder: focusing on genetics and epigeneticsEpigenomics. 2016;8(11):1553-1569.

  4. Perrotta G. Affective dependence: from pathological affectivity to personality disorders: definitions, clinical contexts, neurobiological profiles and clinical treatmentsHealth Sci. 2021;2(2021).

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.