It seems we live in a culture in which we receive the message that we are not supposed to have needs. Sure, it is okay to need food, water and shelter, but beyond that we should be able to take care of ourselves. We should be independent – emotionally independent, financially independent, and even spiritually independent – and leaning on others, or being dependent on others in any way, is somehow a weakness we should work hard to overcome.
And while North American culture pushes us towards independence, we cannot deny the fact that we are first and foremost relational beings. At birth we are helpless and rely completely on our mother, father or caregivers to take care of our every need. Not only do babies die if their physical needs are not taken care of, but they may die if they do not receive enough loving touch, warmth and tenderness from another caring being. No one can tell a baby that it is too needy or dependent on others. I suggest you take a moment to remember that you were once a helpless baby who was 100% dependent on someone else. We all have that part deep within us, and for some of us this part remains more alive than for others.
So what about adults? Do they die if they do not receive support and care from others? It is safe to say adults probably will not die if they do not receive loving support, but I can confidently say they may experience deep sadness, loneliness and emptiness from lack of intimacy and connection with others. And sometimes, lack of human connection as an adult can be so intense that it may lead to painful isolation, mental illness, or even suicide.
While I am very biased toward perceiving adults as needing warm support, connection and intimacy in order to thrive, I am aware that some people worry about being overly dependent on others. Many people fear if they rely on others they will become “needy,” “clingy,” or “co-dependent.” Many people have received the message from their parents or loved ones that they want too much and need too much, and that their very wanting is draining on the relationship. People who received this message are often caught in a bind because they feel separate from others and yearn to reach out, but there is a constant fear that their very reaching out will push others away even further. Thus, they remain stuck, dissatisfied by themselves and dissatisfied with the relationships in their life.
The question remains: what is healthy dependence and how do we achieve it? While this is a huge topic and one I will address in many blog posts to come, I will start by explaining what healthy dependence is to me. To me, healthy dependence is when I have a deep trust that my loved one cares about me and will be there for me. If I am needing support, feeling lonely, or just wanting connection, I can reach out to someone I care about and ask for support in a way that feels good to me. When I reach out, I choose those who I feel really want to be there for me if they are able, meaning if they have the time and energy in that moment. If they are busy or overwhelmed with their own lives, I trust they will tell me clearly whether they are able to be there or not, and I trust they will not hold resentment towards me for asking for their time and attention. I trust that if they are not able to be of support in the moment, that this does not at all change the fact they care about me and I care about them.
Most importantly, support, care and attention are received. I take it in. I let someone care about me and I feel the goodness that this provides for both people involved in the exchange. And in most relationships (the therapist-client relationship excluded), I provide this same level of support in return. I want to disclose that this has not always been the case for me. This kind of relating was not one I was born with or learned in my family; I had to learn healthy dependence as an adult, as I assume many of you do as well.
While some of you may not experience these kinds of supportive relationships in the way that you want, I know from personal and professional experience that it is possible to develop these at any point in life. The first step towards creating healthy dependence in your life is to try it out. Try reaching out to someone you care about. Remember that not everyone will want to be there for you, and the people that do will be the ones to practice with until it becomes natural.
It can be easier to start building this kind of relationship with a trained therapist, someone who can help you practice healthy dependence while allowing for bumps, bruises and falls along the way. A therapist can help you see the ways that you hold yourself back from receiving support in a way that feels good for you. A good therapist can help you work through unconscious habits that keep you stuck, frustrated and dissatisfied in relationships. I hope that you will take the first step to practice such reaching out by contacting a therapist to help you meet your relationships needs. Even the act of going to see a counselor is a bold step in the process of learning to have a healthy dependence on others. And remember, while aloneness has its own beauty and purpose, as humans we all deserve loving, caring connections as well.