Independent to a Fault: When our positive qualities turn negative

When I first considered talking about this...I didn't know how to go about it. A video? A blog post? I don't know. I still don't know. But I'm too lazy right now to make a video and I'm already sitting at my desk, so blog it is.

I've been mulling something over a lot lately and it's this notion that sometimes these qualities, these things that so often are seen as strengths, well, how they play out in our lives sometimes can be a detriment. Take integrity for example...

I've always thought integrity is such a good thing. 

It's a value that I've ingrained so deeply into who I am and, along with authenticity, it's always been something I've pride myself on having so much of. But, you know what? It's occasionally problematic. I can already see you there, shocked, thinking, "Ellyn how can that possible be the case? How could having integrity ever be a bad thing?" Well, let me give you an example.

You see, I have followed a plan my whole life. And I did a damn good job at following that plan if I do say so myself. Seriously, I followed it to a "t". I got my degree, a job out of college, published papers like a good little scientist, went on to get my PhD, and was sciencing like the good little grad student I was. Until I realized something kinda important...I hated that shit.

Seriously, two full years into my program, and I hate it! And ya, maybe it was the rotation projects and research that was just never working, the endless bouts of impostor syndrome I was constantly trying to fight back, maybe it was the bullying I experienced in my program (true story - it happened), the fact that I felt I wasn't learning anything except how to diligently bang my head against my benchtop repeating the same experiment over and over again, or the fact that I felt like there was this gaping hole inside of me every single time I donned my lab coat for another day at the bench. I was bored. I wasn't excited. And I felt like everything about what I was doing was sucking the life out of me. I knew how much I hated it and yet, I was still in grad school.

Why? Integrity.

The problem was that I had built science and research up in my head for so long. They were seemingly the only option for me as a career. So I told myself I couldn't possibly leave. If I did, I'd have to start over, go back to school and completely change my direction in life. I built this whole thing up in my head to be this huge impossibility. So, dissatisfaction and emptiness be damned, quitting wasn't an option.

But more than all that, quitting meant going back on my word. It went back on my admissions essays saying that I wanted to be an academic research (let's be honest, I only said that because it's what the Admission committees, who are made up of Academic researchers and PIs all want to hear that you want to follow in their footsteps). It meant going back on my world to all my graduate school letter writers, so many of whom had played such an important role in my training. It meant guilt about the person who's spot I took and all the money that had been invested in me and my education. I couldn't go back on my word. My integrity. I WOULDN'T let myself. That is until my mom truth bombed me one night.

It was August and I had had a day which would ultimate be the final straw in me making the decision to leave school. But inwardly, I was freaking out. I had talked to my friends and they had told me to leave the program. That it was changing me in such a negative way. Sucking the life out of me. I finally called my mom. I had to tell her. But, as always happens, she already knew exactly what was going on. And she said to me that night something that I will never forget. She said, "You're your father's daughter. You'll stay in something come hell or high water just because you said you would."

Shit. Mom called me out. And she couldn't have been more right.

Hell or high water was already a thing. And yet, despite my hate, despite how much it sucked the life out of me, despite how each day that passed I had to drag myself into work, I had to feign enthusiasm for damn near everything I was doing, I stuck it out. Not because I wanted PhD for myself. Not because it would enable me to have X, Y, Z career when I was done. I didn't give a shit about any of that. I was in graduate school for 3 reasons and 3 reasons only - 1) My stipend was my income, 2) a PhD would mean I would inherently be respected in whatever I did, and 3) my parents were proud of me. Oh and because I was scared that quitting called into question my integrity.

How stupid is that?

That's ultimate the pitfall of integrity...that sometimes it keeps us holding on for too long to things that we said we wanted and that we don't feel like we can change our minds about. We hold onto relationships. Careers. Mindsets. All of which might not be serving us. And if you're anything like me, you might be holding on for the wrong reasons. Cuz you know what I realized? That there is something that is vastly more important than integrity. Authenticity. And my fixation on integrity was driving me away from being authentic. And I think as soon as I realized that, that shit wouldn't fly. 

Ya, integrity can be a bad thing if you take it to extremes. But it's not the only one...

Independent to a fault, because, yes, independence can go too far too.

My mom, sage that she is, used to tell me all the time that I've been independent since I could walk. As funny as that phrase is, truer words have never been spoken about me. Except maybe when someone polite said that, "Ellyn has a big personality..." Hehe. In all seriousness though, I'm hugely independent. And sometimes it's a proverbial thorn in my side. Because being so independent and so introverted...well, sometimes it bites me in the ass.


I pride myself on being independent. On not needing others. On being able to figure it out on my own. On having the internal drive, motivation and discipline to get my shit done. I've always been that way. That autonomy is something that drives me and is one of my biggest motivators in life - to just show that I can do it myself. And it's a desirable quality! Seriously, how many job ads do you see where they're looking for someone who is self-motivated? In relationships, how often do you hear a guy saying that he wants a woman who is independent. Hell, there is a freaking anthem about females being "Independent Women" (cue Beyonce...)

People love that shit, right?

Well, there are also a lot of ways in which being so independent and having such pride in that part of my personality has, well, kind of bit me in the ass.

Grad school is a good example. I remember a long time ago I wrote a blog post called "The Overly Confident Rotation Student" (which has  since been taken down) about an instance when I was early in graduate school and I made a hugely stupid mistake because I wasn't willing to ask for help or clarification. Obviously, by the title of that article, I realized that I was being overly confident in the instance. But a big part of what factored into it was my independent streak. I wanted to not need help. I wanted to be self-motivated and do it on my own. I wanted to show that I was already there as a researcher, and, well, it crashed and burned, unfortunately.

Fast forward to later in graduate school. My project was at an absolute stalemate, I was beating my head against the wall doing the same experiment over and over again, and seemingly every single time I felt like I was making progress, something would happen that would derail everything. But, that's not the point. The point is that I wanted to feel like I could do this on my own, so I never sought out my boss to help explain something to me, to give me a new idea or thing to try until she forced a conversation on me, never expressed my frustrations to her, etc. I would have saved myself so much time and feeling like I was alone in my frustration if I had gotten off my independent, "I can do it ALL BY myself" high-horse (please let me you read that like an angry toddler because that's how I wrote it) and asked for help. From my boss. From my labmates and peers. From my collaborators. From so many people. Independence definitely shot me in the foot there and it's definitely something that I did wrong in graduate school.

But that's not the only place that being overly independent has held me back. It's held me back in relationships too, and not just the romantic kind. Friendships as well. 

In relationships... I'm very independent in relationships. It's actually something that I've written in to my relationship vision that we have lives, hobbies, friendships, etc. that are our own. I don't want my whole life to be wrapped up in my significant other. I want to have a life of my own too, without them. Yes, that I'll share with them at appropriate times, but also that I don't have to share with them. And I want them to have the same thing. But, in past relationships, this independence has been a problem. My last boyfriend in college tried to break up with me at the beginning of the semester after we'd been dating the entire year because he thought I was "too busy" for a boyfriend and that I didn't want to be with him because I wasn't fitting him into my life. Cut to me being caught really off guard because here I was thinking that I'd seen him every week so that things were going well. But, now? I kind of see where he was coming from. I was taking 4 400 level science classes, working 15 hours a week in my lab, I was a teaching assistant in our Introductory Microbiology class and I was an assistant soccer coach. Oh and I was probably playing on an intramural soccer team too, but I don't really remember. Meanwhile, he was a journalism major and was getting into working at the paper. In his opinion, the time when we weren't in school, we should be with each other, even studying together. In my world, that's not how things worked. I had all these other interests, hobbies and passions that were as much a part of me as my major. In my world, I would never give these things up. We'd just build our relationship around them. We tried to make things work for a few more months, but ultimately we broke up, and even though there were other things that broke us up, this was still a big thing our relationship. It made me wonder if I could have the independence that I craved, that I needed in my relationship. If that was possible. And it took until I started working with a therapist recently for me to realize that I could.

In friendships... and this is a tricky one for me to navigate. I'm very guarded with my friendships. Like so many people, I've had friends that have burned me in the past. Friends who have shared things about me that weren't theirs to share. Friends who have connected with me and learned my insecurities and vulnerabilities, only to throw them back in my face when they disagreed with something I was doing. It's made me hesitant to open up. Simultaneously, though, I have a bigger hang-up when it comes to my friendships. One that I'm constantly working on. I'm emotionally independent. What do I mean? I don't like to burden my friends with my negative emotions and some of the darker parts of my emotions and my past. So, when I'm really struggling with something, even though I have wonderful friends that want to be there for me and want to help, sometimes getting a straightforward, honest answer to something like, "What's wrong?" is really really hard. I don't willingly divulge those things. My thinking is, "It's my shit. And I need to figure out how to handle it on my own without burdening the people I love." And that's stupid. Stupid and not productive. It's something that I still struggle with it. But again, with my therapist, I've been making progress. I also often think of something Brene Brown said...

People have to earn the right to hear your stories
— Brene Brown, PhD, MSW

There are people that haven't earned the right to hear my stories. So when they ask me what's wrong, I am not obligated to give them an honest, complete, in depth answer. I'm just not. But my friends? My close relationships? The people who've had my back and I've had theirs? Those people have earned the right to hear my stories. And sometimes the independent streak in me tried to play like I don't need them. But I do. We all need those people when we're going through shit in our lives. They're the ones that reach a hand down into the pit and pull us out. 

so are independence and integrity inherently bad emotions? Hell no.

Having a high degree of integrity is a great thing. Having a high degree of independence and self-motivation is a great thing. Same goes for someone who is detail-oriented, innovative, structured, etc. Those are all characteristics that are inherently good. But we have to use care with taking them to extremes.

Being detail-oriented is great, until you get so fixated on the details that you can't see the big picture.

Being innovative is wonderful, but innovation only gets you so far if you are so focused on innovating that you don't follow-through and carry any of your projects forward.

Being structured is great, until you get so stuck in the plan that you let following the perfect plan hold you back from taken action and moving forward.

All positive characteristics have a dark side. They can all be taken to extremes. And I think that's important to know and to realize moving forward. Independence and integrity are two of my strongest characteristics. But they're also some of my biggest Achilles heels. I think it's important for us to recognize this. Because otherwise, how else do we grow? And you know I'm all about growth... ;-)