Growing up, I frequently heard stories about Jim Bridger. If you’re not from the mountain west, like me, you may have never heard of him. In Utah, where I’m from, Jim Bridger was sort of a mythical man. He was an explorer and trapper who spent many years in the Rocky Mountains. I was taught that Jim Bridger represented the ideal man – stoic, independent and adventurous. He embodied the trait that as a country we have come to embrace – rugged individualism.
Rugged individualism is the idea that a person can be totally self-reliant. They don’t need the government, family, friends, or anyone to make their way in the world. Rugged individualists can succeed without any help. Today, we often talk about this as being “self-made” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
But rugged individualism, like many of the stories Jim Bridger told, is a myth. And it’s a myth that damages so many relationships.
Jim Bridger was able to be viewed as a stoic mountain man because he was able to learn from those who had been exploring the Rocky Mountains for centuries – Native Americans. In fact, Bridger married three women, a Flathead woman, a Ute woman, and a Shoshone woman. His connection to these tribes and nations were essential to his survival.
Our connection to others – partners, family members, friends – is also essential to our survival. In fact, research has documented time and time again that people who are isolated from others are at greater risk of disease and death.
So, why then, do we cling to the ideal of rugged individualism? In relationships, the myth of rugged individualism serves mainly one group of people – straight white men.
I count myself in this group. As a straight white man, I’ve benefited personally and professionally from the ideas that I can pull myself up by my bootstraps. My successes are often attributed to my own abilities in ways that are not afforded to my female, queer and colleagues of color.
But all my successes have been made possible by the infrastructure I had in my communities, by mentors who took time to support me, by family members who love me and by a spouse who supports me.
And while the myth of rugged individualism often benefits straight white men, it also isolates them. If you are led to believe that you must do it on your own, you are less likely to reach out when you are struggling.
Feeling isolated while occupying a place of privilege is toxic. It damages relationships and communities. When those in power are struggling and feeling isolated, they often blame others. They tend to push away family, demonize groups of people that are different from them, or, in some instances, become angry and violent. Instead of seeking help, they inflict their pain on those with less power and privilege.
There are many reasons why marriages fall apart or people are emotionally cut off from family. But in my work as a therapist, I often see straight white men use their pain to push away, blame or hurt others.
They often justify these actions by clinging to the idea that they don’t need anyone – but they desperately fear being alone. They often can list off the things that those around them need to change – but are terrified to look at their own actions. They often feel entitled to what they have – but don’t see how others made it possible.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, when we engage in the hard work of forming connections, taking responsibility and using privilege to lift others, we don’t lose our individuality – we gain more. If we really want the freedom that rugged individualism supposedly offers, we need to abandon this myth. Real individualism comes when we create relationships and communities that love and support each other. When we feel connected, when we are seen and valued for who we really are, we are able to be ourselves and explore the world around us.