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Afraid of Becoming Dependent on Therapy

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"Becoming dependent" is one of the common anxieties that adults bring to psychotherapy. It feels at odds with their adult character to risk making themselves vulnerable or to cling to another person... especially a near stranger like a recently met therapist...for support or guidance.

North American culture is individualistic. The cultural ideal for adulthood is self-sufficiency and self containment. The masculine ideal is the "strong silent type", the man who is capable of pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. The cultural ideal for women may permit a bit more feeling communication but the modern North American "ideal woman" is also courageous, strong and autonomous.

Many North American adults do not want to see themselves as cry-babies or victims... and they tell their therapist that right from the start. They would rather believe that their anxiety, depression or other psychological symptoms are caused by "stress" or vague physical ailments than ever to permit themselves to think that they might be anxious or sad because they feel insecure or because life events have wounded them in important ways.

It is often at the point where the client begins to relax and feel accepted and secure that they make a sudden decision to leave therapy... especially if the immediate crisis that brought them to therapy has been somewhat resolved. It is often at this point that concerns about dependency will arise with particular force and poignancy.

Psychologists sometimes speak of a phenomenon that they call "regression." In ordinary conversation regression would imply something negative... that the client is falling down from their normal high level of functioning into a former or less developed state... usually something feared, weak, primitive and essentially disreputable. It's true that regression in therapy can include moments of this but this is not really what regression means in a therapeutic sense.

"Therapeutic regression" is a voluntary relaxing of "rational" control in an environment that feels safe. The point of relaxing control is to permit the emergence of other feelings and ideas that are usually suppressed but which are honestly part of the client's make-up... such as sadness, hurt feelings, shame, anger or desire.. towards important persons in the client's present or past or even towards the therapist.

It is one of the tragedies of many people's lives that difficult things happened to them as children and that there was no caring adult person available to them to appropriately comfort, encourage or help them understand their experience. It becomes a continuing tragedy in many adult lives that because of this childhood neglect they feel that others cannot be expected to help, support, encourage them as they go through the expectable or unexpected strains of adult experience and transition.

Sometimes it is true that these feelings feel "childlike" and the therapist may need to behave towards the client in these moments like a caring and responsible parent might ideally have done. This can only happen in a climate of trust.

A therapist has special training in how to respond to emerging feelings and attitudes Therapists know how to work with them them so that they can be approached and examined without doing harm to the client.

Regression in a therapeutic sense... is more like the trusting confidence that a child feels in the presence of a caring adult to whom they turn in a moment of difficulty, believing that they will be understood, recognized and guided rather than attacked or shamed. It is often a new experience to encounter in the therapist, an adult person who is helpful and non-threatening.

"Fear of dependence" can sometimes point towards other difficulties. Human beings are "social animals." Our long infancy and dependent childhood makes it necessary for us to learn to interact with others. Too strong an emphasis on independence therefore interferes with the adult ability to co-operate and show confidence in others, creating interpersonal problems and contributing to feelings of loneliness, isolation or alienation.

"Regression in the service of growth". Letting down one's guard in therapy is part of a process that leads, not to chronic dependence, but to better recognition of one's real wishes and intentions. It permits a client to listen to their more hidden and perhaps more "childlike" and impulsive parts... or to enter a state of consciousness characterized by self-acceptance and the experience of being in the moment.

It is through such experiences that "regression" paradoxically leads healthily forward to independence and real personal growth.

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