The perception of neediness and emotional dependency often carries negative connotation in our society: in psychotherapy; individuals, particularly those unfamiliar with the process, may hold a doubtful view of clients or patients who lean heavily on their therapist for support. There's even a cynical notion that therapists intentionally foster emotional dependency to gain an advantage. It's a prevailing belief that emotional dependency within psychotherapy is seen as undesirable.
Emotional dependency in psychotherapy is a nuanced and delicate aspect of the therapeutic relationship. It involves a client's reliance on their therapist for emotional support, validation, and guidance. Understanding and navigating this dependency is important for nurturing a healthy and transformative therapeutic experience. In this blog, I explore into the complexities of emotional dependency in psychotherapy and look into the sensitive of addressing it with compassion and insight.
Defining Emotional Dependency
Emotional dependency is a natural aspect of human connection. It arises when an individual look to another, often a therapist in the context of psychotherapy, for emotional sustenance, comfort, and validation. This reliance stems from a genuine need for support, often rooted in past experiences or present challenges.
In psychotherapy work, a certain level of emotional dependency is needed as part of the therapeutic process. Clients or patients struggle with profound pain and confusion, especially those with a history of unstable relationships, may find themselves relying on their therapist for an extended period. When life feels unmanageable, especially for individuals from troubled backgrounds lacking essential emotional tools and self-awareness, seeking and depending on external support becomes crucial for personal development. Without this foundation, progress and grow in therapy become nearly difficult to achieve.
It's important to note that most clients or patients entering therapy are not inherently willing or enthusiastic about developing emotional dependency. In fact, resistance to dependency is a common initial concern in therapy. Despite experiencing significant pain and a sense of hopelessness that prompts them to seek professional help, many clients struggle with the idea of depending on their therapist. This aversion often stems from early experiences in childhood, where vulnerability and neediness were associated with potential threat or hurt.
For individuals from difficult or less privilege backgrounds, the concept of needs often relates to frustration and disappointment, triggering anxieties related to abandonment and a sense of powerlessness when relying on others for what is needed. These clients may carry deep distrust about the genuine care and willingness of others to provide for their needs, which can be further complicated by the necessity to pay for psychotherapy services, leading them to question the genuineness of the therapist's concern.
These issues often surface early in the therapeutic process, revealing themselves through the transference. While many perceive the transference as a distortion of reality, such as reacting to the therapist as if they were a parent, it actually serves as a nature of a person's emotional struggles, offering a first-hand experience of the psychological challenges they battle with. So, if an individual holds an aversion to neediness and emotional dependency and struggles to establish consistent, meaningful relationships, these same difficulties will manifest in their therapeutic relationship with me in their treatment. They may attempt to maintain emotional distance, unreliable commitment. In such cases, my initial role often involves helping these clients recognise the consistent theme in their various relationships, both inside and outside of therapy - a profound struggle with tolerating their own needs.
In a recent case with my client work, these very issues took centre stage in our therapeutic relationship. Right from the beginning, my client expressed a fear of forming any form of dependency on me. Their past experiences were marked by both physical and emotional abandonment from their parents, leaving them with a doubt towards the reliability and goodness of others. They often struggle with the intense emotional disturbance with binge eating as a means coping mechanism, opting for food over human connection. Committing to our sessions proved to be a challenge; they struggled with committing our sessions, starting - then stopping therapy multiple times. This uncertainty sometimes led to abrupt session cancellations, accompanied by anxieties that I might allocate their time to another patient/client.
Rather than maintaining a therapeutic focus on interpretation, which involves helping them confront and tolerate their fears regarding emotional dependency, I made the mistake of extending open-ended support, regardless of whether they facilitate it. My intention was to reassure them and express my reliability, setting me apart from the unreliable figures in their life. However, they perceive this new setting frame of flexibility as to regulate their feelings of dependency, resulting in frequent cancellations. When I offered to reschedule, they expressed a preference not to make up sessions, as it allowed them to avoid feeling excessively dependent to me. It was at this occasion that I realised I had unconsciously given them a means to avoid the very dependency they needed to experience in order to make progress — specifically, in this client case; giving up their eating disorder and discovering healthier coping methods within the context of a therapeutic relationship.
When I realised of my mistake and revising my framework to no longer reserve a regular hour for them, but still maintaining an open availability for them to schedule sessions as needed, they became upset and ultimately chose to terminate our sessions. I can understand with their reaction; returning back the offer likely felt similar to another form of abandonment. You’d think that after over than 10 years of practice, I would have been able to avoid such mistakes, but this serves me as a humbling reminder of the complexity inherent in therapeutic dynamics.
This experience has been a humbling reminder that attempting to compensate for a lifetime of abandonment and indifference through changes in cancellation policy is a form of arrogance. In the future, when faced with similar challenges, I will endeavour to do what I should have done from the start: provide the client with what they truly need – a consistent and reliable presence, capable of setting reasonable limits and maintaining them.