Everyone knows what the word “dependent” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “determined or conditioned by another; relying on another for support.”
Not many people have heard the term “counter-dependence.” It’s not a term that is in common use. In fact, it’s used mostly by mental health professionals.
Counter-dependence is the extreme opposite of dependence. It refers to the fear of depending on other people. If you are counter-dependent, you will go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. You may have a great fear of feeling, or appearing to feel, in need. In fact, the word “needy” may set your teeth on edge.
Counter-dependence is one of the main results of growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s an example of how an emotionally neglected child grew up to be counter-dependent.
When James first came to see me for therapy, he was a successful 40-something businessman with a wife and three children. He had done very well financially, and his children were all young adults who would be leaving home soon. James came seeking help for longstanding depression. He initially described his childhood as happy and free. But as he told me his story, it became evident that he had been greatly affected by the absence of a vital ingredient.
James grew up the youngest of seven children. He was a surprise, born nine years after his next youngest sibling. When James was born, his mother was 47 and his father 52. James’s parents were good, hard-working people who meant well, and he always knew they loved him. But by the time James was born, they were tired of raising children, so James essentially raised himself.
As a child, James’s parents did not ask to see his report cards (all A’s), and he didn’t show them. If he had a problem at school, he didn’t tell his parents; he knew he must handle it himself.
James had complete freedom to do anything he wished after school because his parents seldom asked him where he was. They knew he was a good kid, so they didn’t worry. Even though James enjoyed this extensive freedom from rules and structure, he grew up feeling deep within himself that he was alone.
The message James internalized from all this freedom was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He understood from a very early age that his accomplishments were not to be shared, nor his failures, difficulties or needs. Even though he couldn’t recall his parents ever actually telling him such a thing, he absorbed it into the very fiber of his being that this was life for him. It became a part of his identity.
When I first met James, he seemed somewhat emotionless and self-contained. His wife, after 15 years of marriage, was at the end of her rope. She felt that James was incapable of connecting with her emotionally. He told her he loved her often, but seldom showed her any emotion, positive or negative. She pointed out that he was a wonderful provider, but described their relationship as empty and meaningless. James described himself as feeling empty inside. He revealed that the one person in the world he actually felt emotional about was his teenage daughter, and that he sometimes resented her for being important to him.
James’s frequent fantasy was of running away to live alone on a deserted tropical island. All his life he experienced periodic wishes to be dead. He was mystified about why he would feel this way since he knew that he had such a great life.
Can you guess the ingredient that was missing from James’s childhood? It was emotional connection. Emotions were treated as non-existent in his family. There was little interaction of any kind between James and his parents. No positives, but none of the important negatives, either.
He didn’t get to see joy in his parents’ eyes as they looked at his report card, or experience their anxiety or anger when he came home from school long after dark. James’s relationship with his parents could be summed up by one word: cordial.
The message James’s parents unwittingly taught him, completely outside of his own and their awareness, was “don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone, ever.”
James’s fantasies about being dead or running off to a tropical island were the best ways he could imagine to accomplish that mandate. He was a good boy who learned his lesson well.
7 Signs and Signals of Counter-Dependence
- Other people sometimes perceive you as aloof
- You remember your childhood as lonely, even if it was happy
- You sometimes have fantasies about running away from your current life
- Loved ones complain that you are emotionally distant
- You prefer to do things for yourself
- It’s very hard to ask for help
- You tend to feel uncomfortable in close relationships
If you see yourself in my description of James or in the 7 Signs above, do not despair because there is hope for you! Your counter-dependence is likely caused by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And one very good thing about CEN is that it can be healed.
You can correct what went wrong in your childhood by giving yourself the emotional interest and validation that you missed as a child. As you do so, you will not only heal yourself, you will become fortified by your connections with others. And you will gradually realize that it is actually your ability to emotionally rely on others that makes you strong.
When it happens, Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. To learn whether it’s negatively impacting your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To learn how to repair the effects of CEN on your relationships, see the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.