Hyper-Independence and trauma: What’s the link?

Naomi Carr
Author: Naomi Carr Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Traumatic experiences, particularly childhood trauma, can significantly impact the development of an individual’s personality and functioning. Hyper-independence is believed to develop due to childhood trauma and can cause individuals to struggle with several aspects of functioning, including an impact on their ability to form meaningful relationships.

Hyper-Independence and trauma: What's the link?

What is hyper-independence?

Many people begin to learn to be independent from adolescence, developing skills to help them progress in their personal, social, and professional lives as they age. Hyper-independence is an extreme form of independence, often learned from a young age, that can cause individuals to feel reluctant and unable to ask for help from others [1].

People who are hyper-independent struggle to trust and rely on others. They believe that they must accomplish all tasks, decision-making, and other requirements of their lives without ever asking for or accepting support from others. Typically, this is developed as an emotional response to childhood trauma [2].

Signs of hyper-independence

Individuals who are hyper-independent may display some or all of the following signs [1][2][3][4]:

  • Inability to trust others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Inability to ask others for help, even when struggling
  • Feeling ashamed or useless if needing to ask others for help
  • Inability to delegate tasks to others
  • Feeling that they must make all decisions alone
  • Inability to express emotions, needs, or vulnerabilities
  • Feeling pressure to achieve and succeed without help from others
  • May take on more than is possible to accomplish alone, contributing to feeling overwhelmed by work or commitments
  • Feeling like a burden to others or unworthy of others’ support
  • May appear unfriendly or withdrawn
  • Being socially isolated
  • Inability to form or maintain close relationships
  • An intense fear of disappointment or rejection
  • May dislike others relying on them
  • Symptoms or diagnoses of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and substance or alcohol abuse
  • Thoughts of harming themselves or others

Does trauma cause hyper-independence?

In most cases, hyper-independence is caused by past trauma, particularly childhood trauma. Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other stress and trauma-related disorders may experience hyper-independence.

Often, the type of trauma contributing to hyper-independence development involves neglect from the parent or caregiver. Neglect happens when the person whose role it is to keep the child safe and teach them skills of independence as they become an adolescent fails to meet these needs.

The child learns from these experiences that they cannot rely on others, so they must depend solely on themselves to meet their needs. Hyper-independence is, therefore, one of several maladaptive emotional responses to trauma and is used as a defense mechanism by the child, often continuing into adulthood [1][3].

Hyper-independence can help relieve some negative emotions in the short term by preventing the stress, shame, and fear of relying on others. However, if this continues long-term, it will likely contribute to increasing emotional difficulties, such as depression and anxiety [5].

Why does trauma cause hyper-independence?

Hyper-independence often develops in response to experiences of childhood neglect. For example, parents may be absent, inattentive, show no affection or emotional support, or fail to provide the child with basic needs such as food and clothing. The child then realizes they must take care of their own needs, as they cannot rely on anyone else to provide them with care or support [2].

Similarly, hyper-independence can develop when a young child is expected to be responsible for others, such as caring for unwell family members, younger siblings, or family finances. They learn they are the only person capable of accomplishing these requirements, so they take on all parental responsibilities.

When a child becomes a caregiver or takes on responsibilities that are usually the role of the parent, they learn how to be independent from a young age. They are taught that their own and others’ needs will not be met by anyone else and any requests for support will be refused or ignored. As such, they develop extreme independence and a belief that they cannot rely on or trust others [6].

Hyper-independence is a defense mechanism caused by exposure to this trauma, used to prevent the child from repeated disappointment and rejection. It is, therefore, a trauma response, used by the child to help them survive and protect themselves.

This can continue into adulthood, with the individual continuing to display hyper-independence to protect themselves from further disappointment. Once it is developed, it can become an ingrained trait and be difficult to change without professional help, potentially continuing throughout the individual’s life and impacting several areas of functioning [2][3].

Other causes of hyper-independence

Hyper-independence is caused mainly by exposure to childhood trauma, although it can sometimes develop without these experiences. Familial and societal expectations can influence how a child or adolescent learns independence skills and to what extent.

For example, in some families, cultures, or countries, individuals may be taught that self-reliance is crucial and may be discouraged from asking for help with emotional or practical challenges. This can cause the person to develop hyper-independence, without having experienced neglect, through learned behaviors and attitudes [6].

How to deal with hyper-independence

Hyper-independence is a trauma response likely to occur alongside other mental health symptoms or conditions. As such, it is often beneficial for these individuals to receive therapeutic help to process and overcome their past trauma, as this can reduce the emotional impact of these experiences.

Therapeutic approaches that are believed to be effective at treating trauma-related conditions include [7][8]:

  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a specialist treatment that aims to help the individual process and recover from traumatic memories. EMDR works by gradually desensitizing the individual to their traumatic experiences, thus reducing the emotional and behavioral impacts of the trauma.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals to recognize and alter harmful thought and behavior patterns. Trauma-focused CBT is a specific type of CBT that is tailored to treat people with traumatic experiences. The aim is for individuals to process their trauma, identify maladaptive responses they have developed, and learn positive coping strategies to overcome and adapt these responses.

Additionally, various self-care techniques can be utilized to help reduce the impact of past trauma and improve symptoms such as hyper-independence. This could include [9]:

  • Relaxation exercises
  • Meditation and yoga
  • Physical exercise
  • Healthy diet
  • Good sleep

Furthermore, developing positive relationships can help individuals reduce hyper-independence by learning to relate to and trust others. This may be with family and friends or within support groups alongside individuals with similar experiences. Support groups can help individuals learn how to share their emotions and experiences with others and develop positive and trusting relationships [8][9].

  1. Stevens, J. S., van Rooij, S. J. H., & Jovanovic, T. (2018). Developmental Contributors to Trauma Response: The Importance of Sensitive Periods, Early Environment, and Sex Differences. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 38, 1–22. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2016_38
  2. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). (2014). Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. In Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
  3. Committee on Child Maltreatment Research, Policy, and Practice for the Next Decade: Phase II; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Committee on Law and Justice; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Petersen AC, Joseph J, Feit M, editors. (2014). 4, Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect. In New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press (US). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK195987/
  4. Downey, C., & Crummy, A. (2021). The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Children’s Wellbeing and Adult Behavior. European Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 6(4), 100237. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejtd.2021.100237
  5. Copeland, W.E., Shanahan, L., Hinesley, J., Chan, R.F., Aberg, K.A., Fairbank, J.A., van den Oord, E.J.C.G., & Costello, E.J. (2018). Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure With Adult Psychiatric Disorders and Functional Outcomes. JAMA Network Open, 1(7), e184493. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4493
  6. East, P.L. (2010). Children’s Provision of Family Caregiving: Benefit or Burden? Child Development Perspectives, 4(1), 10.1111/j.1750-8606.2009.00118.x. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2009.00118.x
  7. American Psychological Association. (2017). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. APA. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing
  8. Cohen, J.A., & Mannarino, A.P. (2015). Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Traumatized Children and Families. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24(3), 557–570. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2015.02.005
  9. Mind. (2020). Trauma – Helping Yourself Long Term. Mind. Retrieved from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/trauma/helping-yourself-long-term/
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Naomi Carr
Author Naomi Carr Writer

Naomi Carr is a writer with a background in English Literature from Oxford Brookes University.

Published: Oct 25th 2023, Last edited: Oct 25th 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Oct 25th 2023