Most people are familiar with the concept of codependency and there is even a 12-Step program built to assist people in working through these behaviors. On the flip side of this tendency to enable and fail to set boundaries is a lesser-known concept known as counter-dependency. Those that are codependent often feel a strong sense of fear of not relying on others; individuals that are counter-dependent are driven by fear of relying on others. Counter-dependents often struggle with trust and intimacy issues and are fiercely independent, which can leave them without a sense of connection to the people in their lives and they can struggle with all types of relationships. When combined with a substance use disorder, it can leave individuals without the ability to ask for help.
In order to understand the different types of dependency, it’s important to understand autonomy as it relates to people. Autonomy is the condition of self-government, or as it relates to people, self-reliance. Individuals should have a healthy and confident state of reliance, one that considers that it is required to reasonably rely upon others while not being overly influenced by them or their opinions. As most people were raised by imperfect caregivers, growing up and into the perfect sense of autonomy is almost impossible, though they may fall closer to a healthy level. Those that grew up in households where they experienced parents that were inattentive, neglectful, abusive, unapproachable, or emotionally immature may find that they pick up either co-dependent or counter-dependent mindsets. There are essentially three types of dependence with much grey area in between.
Interdependency: Human beings are wired to desire connection and built for community. There is no healthy way to have a human experience without relying upon others. Interdependency is when a person is able to realize their individual potential and control over their own life while remaining comfortable being connected to and reasonably relying on other people. They have an “approach mindset,” self-sufficient when they can be and when they are not, they are comfortable being vulnerable and asking for help. In relationships, there is a healthy amount of give-and-take and there are reasonable boundaries.
Codependency: Codependents rely too much upon the connection, often giving much more in their lives and relationships than they take. Often behaving out of a fear of rejection or abandonment, they rely too deeply on others and are heavily controlled or influenced by the opinions and actions of others. They have an “attachment” mindset often developing people-pleasing or caretaking behaviors, control others and their environments as a means to feel safe and secure, and difficulty communicating their needs and setting boundaries. They may have low self-esteem, feel responsible for the feelings of others, and struggle to say no.
Counter-dependency: Counter-dependents lack trust in others and fear the consequences of doing so. They resist asking for help, even when it is reasonable to do so, and seek to be completely self-reliant. They operate with an “avoidance mindset” which manifests as steering clear of conflict by taking care of things themselves, difficulty relaxing and constantly needing to stay busy, and struggling to form deep bonds with others due to a fear of intimacy. Counter-dependents are often intensely hard on themselves and can feel an extreme sense of loneliness and depression. They can also have a disrupted sense of self due to constantly managing their personalities in order to never appear weak or needy. They may struggle with anxiety, constantly second-guessing the motives of those in their lives and feeling a constant push to be capable of everything and never make mistakes. They crave connection but feel a sense of shame for needing it.
A Lonely Pair: Substance Use Disorders and Counter-Dependency
Those with a substance use disorder already have a tendency towards isolation and often struggle with fears of rejection or abandonment. They also often struggle with the hallmark of counter-dependency, which is a fear of intimacy. For someone struggling with both of these issues, it may feel impossible to be vulnerable and authentic with what they perceive as their weaknesses, fearing that once someone holds all of this information about them they will judge and reject them. They can lead extremely lonely lives, relying on no one while desperately needing love, support, and connection to others. Those who are counter-dependent are extremely self-critical and in those with a co-occurring substance use disorder, this can perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt for the nature of their illness. Those feelings, coupled with an extreme desire to be self-reliant and an inability to ask for help, can prolong the amount of time a person struggling with substance use might take to seek treatment.
In recovery, individuals learn the value of relying on others in a healthy way and the connections they develop to others is an integral part of healing. Treatment and therapy are spaces where a counter-dependent can first begin to experience the benefit of relying upon and trusting others. Existential therapy, focusing on free will and a person’s worldview and experiences, is one of several types of therapy that can help work through these behaviors if they are significantly impacting life and relationships. Overcoming the challenges of an unhealthy mindset and autonomy is not an overnight process, but awareness of these behaviors is key to working to change them.