Too Dependent?

Being dependent on someone has its benefits, as long as your caregiver is reliable. Consider yourself as an infant, for example. You were totally dependent on your parents for virtually everything you needed to thrive: nourishment, safety, comfort, stimulation, and a sense of security. Even as a toddler and beyond, you continued to rely on adult caregivers for your survival, and dependency on them was quite appropriate. It is unlikely that someone said to you when you were 4 years old, “You know, you are really over-dependent on your parents. You need to spread your wings and begin to make your way in the world.”

At some point, however, that comment became very appropriate. At some point you needed to be able to do many things for yourself, to behave and think autonomously and independently, and not always depend on others as if you were still a child. Moving in this direction, of course, can be facilitated or impeded by parents.

I remember my college course on Adolescent Psychology, when one day the professor said, “Being a parent is a full-time job, but a job that must be dedicated to becoming unemployed. Successful parents will work themselves out of a job.” I thought that was pretty cool.

Some parents, however, don’t want to be unemployed. For a myriad of psychological reasons, they feel compelled to monitor, dominate, and direct their children’s activities, sometimes continuing to do so even after their kids become adults with children and families of their own. Such domination and interference can present significant coping challenges; adult children want to be independent and live their own lives, but they don’t want to hurt or offend the parents they love.

In many respects, cult leaders try to establish in their followers the sort of dependency we’re talking about. The idea is to turn followers into blind adherents who will accept as truth whatever the leader says, reject criticism from outsiders as false, and lose all sense of personal empowerment. Coping with challenges becomes virtually impossible without the guidance and direction of the leader. We’re not saying that overbearing parents are the same as cult leaders, but the dynamics and adverse effects on coping are similar.

We can say the same thing about troubled people who enter counseling looking for the quick and magical fix for their problems. They may feel that somehow the counselor is going to wave a wand and, bingo, they will be cured. This type of thinking ignores the fact that counseling is a partnership between client and counselor, and the client must do considerable work if there is to be improvement.

Clients can be guided, but ultimately, they must do the heavy lifting, must believe that what they are doing is worthwhile and will produce success, and must take responsibility for their actions. Many folks fail in counseling because they are unwilling to take autonomous action and work hard to implement suggestions from the counselor. They want the counselor to take care of them, so to speak, to make them better.

Psychology is relevant for people who are emotionally adrift and looking for purpose and meaning in their lives. And, psychology teaches us that if they seek the easy road of total dependence on someone else to show them the way, they will sacrifice the development of the personal empowerment and autonomy needed to take charge of their life. Whether in a cult or in counseling, the result will be ineffective coping.

Note that the dependency does not have to be on a person; it could also be on a substance. A father took his “troubled” 15-year old daughter to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-depressant for the girl. Four weeks later the father called the psychiatrist’s office and complained, “My daughter still won’t listen to me or cooperate. I can’t seem to get through to her. How long does it take for this drug to kick in?” With apologies to Shakespeare, perhaps, dear father, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves! This father has basically surrendered his parenting to a drug.

How about you? Have you surrendered your coping autonomy and independence to another person, or to an artificial agent? If so, what are you going to do about it?


3 thoughts on “Too Dependent?”

  1. As a parent, I see the correlation. It is the transition from dependance to independance during adolescence and young adulthood that can be a nightmarish balancing act. The same might be said of the relationship between married couples. Compromise is the key, especially when dealing with human and environmental interdynamics.


  2. The observation about married couples is right on. Therapist David Schnarch developed the concept of differentiation to capture the notion that a successful marriage is not based on control of a partner, but on allowing the partner to be his/her self, independent, with a set of interests that may not be connected to the spouse’s. For differentiated spouses, this pattern is not at all threatening.

    As for the transition from dependence to independence, it begins much earlier than adolescence. Research with toddlers has shown patterns of secure vs anxious attachment of the child to the parent, and how the different patterns impact the development of confidence to pursue independent activities. Your comment reminds me that we need a post on this research because it shows that the seeds of excessive dependency are sown very early in life. I’ll get on it!


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