At Salt River Therapy, we are passionate about providing education on how behaviors rooted in codependency, jealousy, or control are harmful to relationships and detrimental to mental health. However, it’s also important to understand the risks of finding yourself on the other end of the spectrum — a space of toxic individualism.
What is toxic individualism?
Toxic individualism is the belief that individuals are solely responsible for their own success or failure, and that they should not rely on others for help. This idea has its roots in some of the key philosophies that shaped the birth of the United States and mainstream American culture, including capitalism (where a handful of “successful” people prosper at the expense of the many) and Calvinism (a religious framework held by Puritan settlers, which suggested that prosperity is predestined therefore those that achieve it must be “good” and worthy of it).
Impacts of toxic individualism
Communities where toxic individualism is the norm experience reduced social cohesion. When people believe that they are only responsible for themselves, they are less likely to feel connected to their community. This can lead to a decline in social trust and cooperation. For example, people may be less likely to volunteer or donate to charity, and they may be more likely to engage in antisocial behavior.
Toxic individualism is also linked to Increased inequality. When people only focus on their own success, they are less likely to care about the well-being of others. This may manifest in economic ideologies that emphasize individual responsibility and free markets and de-prioritize public management and resources. This can lead to increased inequality and poverty, as those who are already wealthy are able to accumulate even more wealth, while those who are struggling are left to fend for themselves.
Toxic individualism and mental health
When people believe that they alone are responsible for their happiness and wellbeing, they may feel overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed and that they are only valuable if they are successful and wealthy. The heightened emphasis on the self can also promote a culture of self-promotion and narcissism, linking self-worth with social clout or marketability. Toxic individualism encourages us to see our peers not as fellows but competitors, compelling us to constantly compare ourselves to others and leading to feelings of inadequacy and envy.
Not only does toxic individualism lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, it also creates barriers to finding relief from those pains. People suffering from toxic individualism’s ills are likely to believe that they should be able to solve their problems all on their own, and may turn to addictive substances or maladaptive behaviors instead of reaching out for help in learning how to cope with difficult emotions in a healthy way.
Challenging toxic individualism
Fundamentally, toxic individualism is a social problem that requires large scale solutions. Promoting community and creating opportunities for people to connect with each other and build relationships can make people more likely to care about the well-being of others. Establishing social programs and reworking dysfunctional economic systems are crucial to building a more just and equitable society.
If you’re looking to minimize the impact of toxic individualism on your mental health, there are some more immediate steps you can take:
- Build a strong support network. Surround yourself with people who care about you and who you can rely on — and, who you in turn care about and can support. Being interdependent is more nourishing and sustainable than being independent, everyone needs other human beings to survive and thrive.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself. When you have ultra-high expectations or negative thoughts about yourself, challenge them. Ask yourself if they are really fair or if you are putting undue pressure on yourself.
- Don’t be so hard on other people, either. Practicing empathy and developing compassion for others can help you become more peaceful and less judgemental.
- Discern your own values. Do you truly believe the most important thing about you is your relative financial success? What are the other important things that you care about? Where is it important to put your time and attention in life?
- Reach out for help. You don’t have to figure everything out all on your own. Don't be afraid to ask for help from friends, family, a mentor, or a therapist.
Our therapists at Salt River Therapy understand how deeply ingrained mindsets like toxic individualism show up and the ways they might be affecting your mental health without you even knowing. We’d love to help you unpack these instilled beliefs and support you in deciding how you truly want to move forward. Ready to learn more? Click the button below to schedule a free phone consultation.