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Dependency in Therapy

Dependency in Therapy by Shayna Shafier, MHC-LP, Mental Health Counselor, Limited Permit

Am I too dependent on my therapist? 

       This is a question that many people in therapy find themselves asking. Especially people with a history of attachment wounding and/or complex trauma.

       Often people will be wary of entering therapy or opening up fully because of this fear of becoming “too dependent”.                                                                        Whenever I explore a question like this, I find it useful to explore the wording used. Both words in this phrase invite examination. 

       What determines when something is “too”? What is the barometer for “enough” or for the “right amount”? Perhaps there is even an argument that could be made that some people aren’t dependent enough on their therapists. How do we gauge when something becomes “too”? 

       Marshall Rosenberg, author of the book Nonviolent Communication, posits that much of the dominant language in Western society leads us to moralistic judgments.  For example, if my partner is more orderly than I am, I might label them as neurotic or perfectionistic. If they are less orderly than I, I might call them a slob, messy, or disgusting. In both of these scenarios, I am attributing a characterological moral judgment which will likely lead me to speak and act towards my partner in a dismissive, or impatient manner. 

         However, if I can view the scenario through an observational lens, I might come to the conclusion that I feel more relaxed when the dishes are washed and put away, and can then formulate a request to my partner in a non-accusatory manner, which will likely allow my partner to respond with less defensiveness. 

        Our relationships with ourselves function in a similar way. If the message I tell myself is that I am “too needy”, I will likely judge and shame myself for that. What if we can learn to observe our experiences and our relationships in a more neutral way? 

       Dependence in therapy can manifest in many ways. For some people, it might mean that they are thinking about their therapist often, almost as a way of carrying the therapist with them when they are outside of session. It can mean that breaks in the therapy feel almost unbearable, and the time between sessions can begin to feel endless. Others might find that they  need their therapist to witness certain experiences and emotions in order for them to feel “valid”.   

       A client  feeling very dependent on their therapist might hold a lot of shame and internalized judgment around that experience. Unfortunately, there are many societal messages around dependence on others and what we must do to avoid “unhealthy dependence”. 

      The fact is that every person is born entirely dependent on another. A newborn baby cannot meet any of their needs on their own. And (hopefully) nobody shames a baby for having those needs or crying in an attempt to have those needs met.

      When enough of the baby’s needs are met, the baby will move in a natural developmental process towards independence, as well as interdependence. True independence cannot be experienced without a foundation of dependence. 

      So when someone is experiencing emotional dependence in their relationships, specifically in therapy, it is likely that there are emotional needs that were not met in their infancy and childhood. This is not a moral judgment on them, or on their parents. Rather, an observation of their experience. 

      The good news is that humans are amazing and have the capacity to go through developmental processes at a later age, which is much of the work within attachment-focused therapy. 

      However, this can be confusing to someone who is experiencing this dependence in therapy, and painful emotions will often show up around that dependence. While the client might understand logically that their therapist is a human just like them, often the therapist can take on a ‘larger than life’ quality and become increasingly important to the client. 

      If we look at this from an attachment lens, this can actually be seen as an important part of the process. For a baby, their parents are their entire world. The mother is the infant’s source of safety, protection, nurturance, warmth, education, and anchor in a world that will grow larger and larger as the baby gains the important fundamental skills that will allow them to begin exploring. 

      When this is reflected in the therapy room, what is painfully highlighted are the limitations of the therapeutic relationship. While the therapist can be a very legitimate attachment figure for the client, and is hopefully able to hold and contain all of the client’s wishes and needs, many of those needs and wishes cannot be met within the container of the therapeutic relationship.

      An important differentiation is made here. The client may be invited to explore and express the feelings they are experiencing towards the therapist and the wishes that come with that. An attachment based therapist will respond to those feelings and wishes with compassion and curiosity. Hopefully the therapist will be able to communicate the ways in which they can be there for the client and help the client process and integrate what that experience is like. 

      At the same time, many of those needs cannot be met in therapy. Together, the client and therapist will work to make room for the pain and grief that shows up around that, which will likely reflect the grief that the client holds around the unmet needs from their childhood. 

      It is really important that the therapist is clear and consistent in responding to these needs, and has the ability to be boundaried while holding deep respect and compassion towards the client and the wishes that the client holds. Some boundaries are inherent within the framework of the therapy, such as the beginning and end time of the session, and the fact that sessions are generally held in therapy room. Other boundaries are experienced as a result of a client making a request of the therapist. Often people can be hesitant to make a request because the anticipation of the ‘no’ feels so painful. 

      Many people have not had the experience of hearing a kind ‘no’.  I believe that ‘kind nos’ are a cornerstone of safe relationships. One of my favorite examples to use for this is a scenario that might feel familiar. In my high school class, it was pretty common to share snacks. A friend of mine had a really cool way of pausing after a request and considering how she felt. If I would ask for some of her snack, she would pause, consider how much she had and how hungry she was, and then give a solid yes, or a kind no. Whatever the answer was, I knew it wasn’t about me or if I made her feel pressured, and while I might have felt disappointed when she said no, I didn’t feel rejected. When she said yes, I never had to worry that she didn’t want to share.      While a small example, I think this so beautifully conveys the safety that boundaries provide. 

      When a therapist can help a client sit with the disappointment and grief instead of the more familiar experience of rejection, the client can begin to experience more containment and safety within the relationship.                                                             The client begins to learn that they aren’t “too much” even when the therapist can’t meet all of their needs and wishes. 

      A skilled therapist can hold whatever dependency that the client may be feeling with kindness, compassion, and curiosity. And as that dependency is met, as well as other important developmental needs, the client can begin to move towards healthy independence. This will look different for each individual person and an important part of the process is discovering what independence means for each person, and what they are hoping for when it comes to ending the therapeutic relationship. 

      It is not uncommon for people experiencing dependency in therapy to be unable to imagine a time when they will leave their therapist. However, when the underlying needs and grief under the dependency are met, it is truly possible to get to a place where one does not need their therapist in the same way and they are able to engage in healthy interdependent relationships with the people in their lives. 

      If this experience feels familiar to you, please know that it is a beautifully human one, reflective of the attachment needs that every person is born with. When met with safety and compassion, there is so much healing and growth that can be found in working through this dependency. 

About the author

Shayna Shafier, MHC-LP

Therapist, Mental Health Counselor, Limited Permit

Safety is not the absence of threat, it is the presence of connection - Gabor Maté

  • 🙌 Affirming
  • 🧘 Calm
  • 💙 Warm
  • 😃 Humorous

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