We, humans, are profoundly social beings. Every facet of our neurobiology supports connection: physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Yet many still struggle to build close relationships.
One reason is counter-dependence. Though virtually unknown outside mental health professionals, counter-dependence nonetheless compromises countless relationships.
Counter-dependent individuals look like anyone else. They generally dress well and appear confident and successful. Often they attend good schools, have good-paying jobs, and enjoy prosperous careers. They also tend to be outgoing and have lots of friends.
But below the surface, things aren’t so glamorous.
They’re generally lonely, fearful, and needy. They tend to suppress their feelings and bury their deep insecurities. They’re brave on the outside, scared on the inside.
What’s going on here?
Counter dependence is a fancy way of saying, “I’m terrified of being vulnerable and getting my heart broken.”
Let’s peel open the onion.
We learn to relate to others, and more importantly, ourselves from our parents. “The relationship with your parents,” writes Eckhart Tolle, “…is the primordial relationship that sets the tone for all subsequent relationships….”
The more our parents accepted us when we were children, the more we will accept ourselves as adults. That means our relationship with others is only as good as our relationship with ourselves.
During the first three years of life, two vital processes occur—bonding with and separation from our parents. We develop a healthy sense of self and form relationships easily when these processes go smoothly.
Bonding occurs through nurturing, mirroring our experiences, and loving us for who we are. We learn to cooperate, trust our decision-making, handle frustration, respond to authority, and express feelings. Exploring our individuality and separating psychologically from our parents naturally follows. The stronger the bond, the safer and easier it is to separate.
But without bonding, separation is too risky. We forego our internal drive for independence in favor of external circumstances and miss out on the above skills.
For example, imagine you’re two years old and sitting in your high chair. Tonight’s spaghetti dinner tastes terrible. So you do what two-year-olds do: flip your little plastic plate onto the floor. But instead of seeing your two-year-old behavior for what it is and quietly cleaning up the mess, your Dad yells, “Goddaamnit! You stupid little brat! That’s it; you’re going to bed hungry!”
You’d be alarmed, terrified, and ashamed. Perhaps your bond with your dad isn’t as secure as you thought.
So what do you do?
Next time, you eat whatever is served while suppressing your instinct for freedom. Pleasing your parents with a False Self shields you from your parents’ rage and shame. But it also keeps you from discovering your independence.
Shame is unbearable for children because it triggers disconnection and feeling unlovable. If our parents abandon us, who will protect, shelter, and feed us?
“We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological separation…People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.” — Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver
Our parents' yelling stunts our long-term growth. We become defensive and try to prove, “I matter independent of you.” Producing evidence of our individuality takes priority over honoring our inner directive.
In other words, parental control encourages counter-dependent behavior. Rebellion is a wounding of the heart, not of the mind. But behind our bravado, we are fearful, developmentally delayed, and emotionally dependent.
“They [children] deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale. …having a place to belong - even one - where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.” - Brené Brown
If you can relate, you’re not alone. Some therapists believe most people are stuck at the counter-dependent stage of human development. I have my share of counter-dependent behaviors. If someone loves me “too much,” I get scared.
So, what does this all mean?
Counter-dependent adults believe they are never enough—at home, work, in bed, anywhere. Shame is the emotion of never enough, leaving us vulnerable to judgment. Humans are untrustworthy, not because people are bad, but because they won’t accept me for being me.
I appear strong to hide my soft inner core. I keep others from getting too close to avoid feelings of rejection, abandonment, or being smothered. In other words, “looking good” and being perfect keeps me emotionally safe while hiding my deep insecurities.
But there’s a price for my false emotional safety. The more I perform, the more alienated I am—from others and myself—and the less I know how I feel, who I am, or what I want and value. Such self-isolation reinforces the belief that I’m the only person I can depend on. Pretending I don’t need anyone makes me lonely.
I hate being alone, but at the same time, intimacy terrifies me. So I pursue intimacy while simultaneously pushing partners away. My hyper-independence keeps me from getting the love I want, but I don’t know how to stop. I work, shop, eat, drink, watch porn, have sex, vape, or do drugs to relieve the sorrow.
Staying busy, distracted, and high relieves the pain but keeps me from being in a loving, interdependent relationship.
The great irony is that people with counter-dependent behaviors (myself included) want and need intimacy as much as anyone else.
Thankfully, counter-dependence is not a hopeless, lifelong illness. Recovery is possible. You can complete your childhood developmental processes, recover your True Self, and get the love you want.
Doing the necessary physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual work will help you realize the wholeness, self-sufficiency, and personal empowerment that is your birthright and vital to your psychological wellbeing, as Carol Ryff reminds us.
But working with counter dependence is not easy. “Breaking free of my counter-dependent patterns,” writes Janae B. Weinhold, “has been one of the most difficult tasks of my life.” It’s also one of the most rewarding.
Taking responsibility is the first step. Being responsible means stopping blaming others and starting healing.
“Humans are condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, [they] are responsible for everything they do.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
Getting the love you want requires reclaiming your Authentic Self or inner child. Having a Self is not selfish but rather a natural movement toward wholeness.
Recovering your Authentic Self is a process of reparenting. Reparenting means mourning the lost years with your Self and reclaiming your shadow parts (the ones you gave up to be accepted by others) while holding each with the kindness of a mother holding a child.
Following are some ways of working with counter-dependency. One part is doing your inner work; the other is doing the work within a relationship. It takes time, so trust the process and be compassionate with yourself.
Change starts with awareness. Acknowledging your wounds and the wounds of others and becoming aware of the connection between your adult challenges and childhood experiences sets you on the path to recovery.
Group hug. A supportive network can provide a safe environment for sharing with others facing similar challenges. Take comfort knowing you’re not the only one struggling with counter-dependent behaviors.
What’s so good about feeling bad? Recalling and expressing repressed feelings is essential to healing—repressed emotions from childhood anchor old patterns of thinking and behaving. Unless childhood emotions are felt and allowed to move through you, they will remain in your body forever and continue to create conflict in your life.
Painful feelings and emotions are universal human experiences. They are real, but they are not who you are. They can be intense, confusing, and painful, but they will not kill you. Nobody has ever died feeling feelings, but many have died trying to repress and suppress them.
Working with difficult emotions is vital to nurturing intimacy.
Analyze this. Unless your wounds are identified and processed, they will recycle throughout your adult life. Behaviors are repeated until the lessons are learned.
Counter-dependent behaviors are not dysfunctional but rather an unskillful means for meeting your needs. But how can you be expected to surrender behaviors that have kept you physically, cognitively, and emotionally safe? Without significant support, letting go of such survival strategies is virtually impossible.
A therapist can provide a safe environment to facilitate the natural healing process. They can help you identify and give expression to your core shaming experiences. Breaking free of shame and learning to reveal yourself is the foundation of close relationships.
But therapy tends to trigger our narcissistic defenses against self-examination. A personal crisis may be necessary to break down your defenses and open you to the self-reflection needed to reclaim your wholeness.
My childhood shame was so great that I was unwilling to admit my need for psychological counseling for many years. Ironically, those most in need of help are least likely to seek it.
Self-parenting. One of the keys to loving ourselves is accepting ourselves as we are. Below are some kind phrases you can say to yourself to give yourself the nurturing you never received.
For many, saying these words can be scary and uncomfortable. I clearly remember the enormous discomfort I felt saying loving phrases to myself for the first time while looking into a mirror during one of the “Love, Intimacy and Sexuality Workshop Series” from the Human Awareness Institute.
It was a sunny fall day, and I was sitting on a patch of grass. I would raise my hand to look at myself in the mirror and think, “This is so stupid and ridiculous. Do I really have to do this?” Of course, the more I protested, the more I knew I needed it. Eventually, I persevered through the awkwardness. And you know what? It turned out to be one of the most courageous, loving, and beneficial practices I’ve ever done.
“I’m glad you were born.”
“You belong here.”
“I love you just the way you are.”
“You are lovable and capable.”
“You can ask for what you want and need.”
“You can trust your inner knowing.”
“You can think for yourself.”
“I will not abandon you.”
If you, too, feel uncomfortable saying these phrases to yourself, it means you’re human.
I believe the reason we’re all here is to connect deeply with one another. Addressing your fears, behaviors, and limitations helps prepare you for the challenges of intimacy.
Love works. Intimate relationships are a primary means for becoming whole, functioning adults. So, being in a relationship is not to be avoided but rather essential for working with counter-dependency. After all, counter dependence is a relationship issue.
Marcus Aurelius taught, “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Being seen and loved for who we are is the antidote to counter dependency. Blame does the opposite making us vulnerable and causing us to mask up to stay safe.
When we remove our masks and allow ourselves to be seen, we are affirmed in our essential worth and identity and feel safe to be our authentic selves. Our natural growth process, or wholeness, is encouraged.
Validation fosters the highest and best within us, like cooperation, contribution, self-discipline, and integrity. We are free to act on our inner imperatives rather than reacting to our conditions and limitations. Feeling “enough” and worthy of love allows us to let down our walls.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” - Lao Tzu
I saw this first-hand with my stepson. Once I surrendered to my fears and confusion, stopped trying to control his behaviors, and allowed him to be himself, he flourished, and our relationship grew.
“Connection, along with love and belonging, is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives…. In the absence of authentic connection, we suffer. And by authentic, I mean the kind of connection that doesn’t require hustling for acceptance and changing who we are to fit in.” Brene Brown
Unless your life is in danger, commit to staying with your partner for at least one year. Together you can master intimacy in increments, one step at a time.
Drop your walls, raise your boundaries. Boundaries and walls are not the same.
Boundaries are flexible barriers that keep unsafe people and behaviors out while allowing safe people and behaviors into our lives and hearts. Compassion and empathy can’t exist without boundaries. Connection happens when we know where we end, and others begin. Otherwise, it’s enmeshment. Boundaries help us build close, meaningful relationships with people we trust.
Walls, on the other hand, are impenetrable. They keep us emotionally safe but prevent us from knowing, being known, loving, and being loved. In other words, walls keep everything out—the good with the bad.
Paradoxically, it isn’t until we’re willing to establish boundaries with people we don’t feel safe with and behaviors we don’t like that we feel secure enough to let down our walls.
“…letting her in at the beginning of our relationship,” writes one Reddit reader, “was one of the scariest, hardest and most stressful times I can remember for a very long time. It was like walking into a meat grinder and telling myself over and over that it's just a mirage.”
Healthy, intimate relationships require four types of boundaries: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Physical boundaries, for example, help us feel more in charge of our bodies, which is vital for both women and men.
Boundary setting is best learned by being around people who have them.
Vulnerability is simply irresistible. Being vulnerable is terrifying. But without risking emotional exposure, we miss out on the best of life—love, and belonging. The more vulnerable you are, the closer your relationships will be.
Start by practicing with safe people. In the beginning, it will be scary. Note the fear and reveal yourself anyway. When you drop your mask, you permit others to drop theirs too.
If dropping your armor is too frightening, do the opposite. Show up as you are, messiness and all, and see what happens. Counter-dependency affects your quality of life, so what do you have to lose?
Being vulnerable also includes receiving love. For many individuals, including myself, receiving love makes me uncomfortable. But if you’re not willing to let others love you, you deprive others of the joy of caring for you. People want to look after you; it’s how they express their love.
Be patient. Vulnerability is a life-long practice, not a one-time event. And remember, you’re lovable, not despite your imperfections, but because of them.
What do you want? One of your most important and challenging tasks is asking for what you want and need. It will teach you to:
The other side of asking for support is learning not to rescue others. Rescuing is doing for others what they can do for themselves. Rescuing enables others to avoid the consequences of their actions (or inactions) and promotes unhealthy ways of getting one’s needs met.
So, learn to ask for what you want while requiring it from others.
Conflict is the warmest color. Unmet developmental needs are the source of many conflicts in adult relationships. Learning to resolve disputes helps you dissolve your counter-dependent behavior patterns.
Intimacy and conflict are two sides of the same coin; you can’t have one without the other. Difficult conversations strengthen connections and deepen intimacy.
The more you face your relational fears, the closer your relationships will be.
When Christian met Anastasia. Sex is another challenging area for many, especially those with counter-dependency issues.
Going beyond biological sex and sharing intimately can be daunting and trigger our defenses. Avoiding sexual intimacy can include staying busy, having many partners, dating married people, or convincing our partner we’re sexually deficient.
Asking clearly and directly for what you want sexually from your partner is not easy. But it can transform your sexual experiences from an act of pleasing, performing, and perfecting to one of profound pleasure and closeness.
There’s no way around it: Being vulnerable in bed is the path to deeply satisfying sex—physical, emotional, and spiritual.
The greatest joy is connecting with others. Its opposite, isolation, is the most painful.
Connection starts with being authentic. Cultivating trust, risking letting others in, and holding the tension and discomfort, allows you to stay open and curious and meet the challenges of intimacy.
Interdependent relationships offer us the grounded confidence to stay true to our values, operate from self-awareness, not self-protection, and respond to life rather than react to uncertainty.
But unless you’re willing to work through your counter-dependency issues, you won’t experience the connection and intimacy you long for. The more you love yourself and are willing to show up as your authentic self, the deeper and more fulfilling your relationships will be.