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, and not a concept that is familiar to many. 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 forty-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.
James’ 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.