I want to start this by saying this is something I’ve been thinking about the past four days – and that this is my take on dependency in therapeutic relationships.
I do have my undergraduate science degree in psychology but I am not a practitioner and this remains my opinion based on my ten years in therapy with practitioners of different modalities.
There, disclaimers out of the way.
The other day a comment on here (well intentioned and out of concern) made me quite defensive – about the possibility of me being dependent on A. Now, the commenter is a frequent reader and I love their blog in return and I want to start by saying I appreciate the comment because it gave me pause for thought and that they are right – I AM dependent on A, in some ways. The comment was made out of concern and has led to a great deal of thought and development for me, so thank you.
I wondered why I had such a visceral reaction – usually that means I’ve been offended by a nugget of truth – and I think I’ve sorted through it enough to come to the conclusion that being dependent on anybody is something that never felt safe to me. Yet, to do the work I need to do in terms of learning healthy boundaries in relationships and how to express myself – I need to need A. I need to be slightly dependent on her.
And this is terrifying.
So, I thank the commenter for letting me think about this and dive into some deep thoughts and old textbooks about the role dependency plays in trauma work and therapy, and to really answer the question is the amount I depend on A healthy?
The idea of needing or being dependent – they come with such negative connotation in our society. And really, if you look at some relationships (like my dysfunctional familial one) there is an unhealthy level of co-dependency and neediness there.
However I think for psychotherapy to be effective, there needs to be a certain level of emotional dependency that is carefully managed by the practitioner. I have a high degree of emotional and relational confusion in my life, with a history of highly unstable, chaotic, and occasionally abusive relationships. I never developed the capacity to deal with my emotions and I don’t have the skills to navigate my own emotional landscape. I spend more time reading others than myself – figuring out the best ways to not make anybody else upset.
In a healthy childhood, we develop these relational skills by having an adult who we are dependent on attune to us and teach us emotional management. I never had that – because my parents are lacking those skills. So now I have to depend on someone else, in a controlled setting, to get it. And that is where A comes in.
She holds space for me, has managed to start to penetrate that emotional barrier I put up with everyone and is teaching me what healthy boundaries and a healthy relationship looks like.
I am not happy to be dependent in any way. In fact, this realization has made me want to run so fast in the opposite direction. But I think that’s natural. I hate feeling needy because everything about my life taught me that being vulnerable, open, and needy only equals pain. It makes me feel small, helpless, and childlike, and I constantly wonder why anybody would want to care for me. Why I deserve it, if I deserve it, and what she is eventually going to ask for in return.
So am I dependent on A? Yes, I think so. Not in a way that leads to healing yet, as I am incredibly resistant to it. I also believe that this dependency, if managed properly by her, is the only way through this experience. Navigating the emotional minefield – learning from her what is and is not appropriate, establishing my own boundaries, getting in touch with my emotions and being able to name them.
Do I think it is unhealthy? No. I think in trauma work dependency is necessary to rebuild (or build for the first time) faith that I am allowed to have needs and have those needs met in a controlled way.
Do I think that sometimes it can be unhealthy? Yes. I think sometimes if therapists don’t hold their boundaries they can cross a very thin line – and it can result in more hurt for the client.
A primary example of this was my relationship with Em. We did a lot of important work together – mostly skills based – but instead of the emotional attunement going one way, it went two. I was extremely dependent on her when she left abruptly and there was no constructive discussion around the need or the fact that it went both ways. I never learned how to manage my emotions or deal with them because the environment wasn’t structured.
And it’s not easy. I think the most difficult job a therapist has is balancing the level of emotional dependency a client has with what is appropriate while simultaneously balancing their own needs and boundaries.
I need someone who is consistent, reliable, sets limits, and sticks to them – someone who holds space for me to explore long seated beliefs and experiences, and someone who understands the role emotional dependency can play in healing but who is aware of the dangers of overdepency in therapy and who has experience managing it. And I’ll continue to look at this over time – and I trust A will as well.