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The Dangers of Counter-dependence

I recently discovered that I’ve blogged about dependence and independence, but not about counter-dependence. I suspect that many of you don’t know what this dynamic entails, although it’s rampant in the eating disorder community. Read on to learn more.

A simple definition of dependence is reliance on others, while independence means relying on oneself. Obviously, none of us can be completely one way or the other. As adults, we’re expected to do many things for ourselves, assuming we are able. Your spouse or friend might spoon some ice cream into your mouth for a taste, but it’s unlikely that anyone will take on the job of feeding you when you can feed yourself. Likewise, we can be highly accomplished and autonomous, but we can’t do everything ourselves (perform surgery, pilot an airplane, grow all our own food, fix our own cars).

Counter-dependent people will do just about anything to avoid relying on others. Feeling ashamed of being needy, they fear burdening people and putting their needs out there only to be shamed or rejected. Counter-dependent people look highly autonomous. The tell is their going overboard to prove that they don’t need people, especially emotionally. Instead, they may develop unhealthy dependencies on food, alcohol, or drugs, because, let’s face it, we all need someone to get us through the night. And if they won’t turn to a someone, they’ll likely end up seeking comfort or support from something.

Counter-dependence develops when a child is unable to depend or count on others consistently and, repressing (unconscious) or suppressing (conscious) the very human need for reliance and support, replaces it with over-valuing independence. Maybe his or parents were busy working two jobs or taking care of a chronically ill sibling, had too many children to meet all of their emotional demands or suffered from alcoholism or drug addiction and were barely able to take care of themselves. Maybe a child had to take care of siblings and push his or her own desires aside or lived in institutions or foster homes without enough people around consistently to meet his or her needs.

Counter-dependent people often become care-takers (even psychotherapists), showering others with the care they long for but won’t admit they desire or require. Excessive care-taking is a way to demonstrate (and prove to themselves and others) how little they need from people and show off their self-sufficiency by giving rather than receiving. If you are counter-dependent, find yourself a good therapist so you can learn how to depend on someone without relinquishing your autonomy. Imagine how splendid it would feel to be equally comfortable with both dependence and independence.

Best,

Karen

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