The last four chapters focused on behaviors and emotions that hurt us and demand our attention--bad habits, stress, sadness, and anger. The emotional pain pushes us to do something about these problems. The concerns of this chapter--dependency, conformity, and indecision--may be comfortable and less pressing for change. For example, being nice and doing what we are told or what our friends want us to do may be the easiest course for us to take. It may not be the best, however. Likewise, putting off a decision may be easiest, but we might be better off carrying out a reasonable plan of action. Going with our feelings may be easier than carefully weighing the pros and cons.

 So, in some respects, a helpful discussion of dependency may first need to "shake you up" or make you uncomfortable (like chapter 3) before you are motivated to make tough changes in the direction of self-reliance and self-direction. If we unthinkingly accept hand-me-down values or traditions, we should be concerned. If we "go along with the crowd" or drift along without planning our lives, we might benefit from a little worry. If we feel terribly inadequate without a partner, we might cope much better with life if we stayed single long enough to become comfortable with our aloneness and independence.

 We will review the studies that show how conforming and obedient we tend to be. It is scary, but there is hope. For instance, humans in developed countries are probably becoming more self-reliant, independent, self-directed, and tolerant of opposing views. How do we infer this? Several studies have been done (Remley, 1988). In one, sociologists asked mothers in the 1924 and in 1978 what traits they wanted their children to acquire. In 1924, the three most important traits were "loyalty to the church," "strict obedience," and "good manners." All three are aspects of conformity! 54 years later in 1978, mothers considered the most important traits of children to be "independence (thinking sensibly for themselves)," "tolerance (of others)," and "social mindedness (accepting responsibility)." All aspects of autonomy! Keep in mind these are the values of mothers of young children; we don't know how successful those mothers were in teaching those values. But I consider the world moving in the right direction (although autonomy could degenerate into self-centeredness, competitiveness, isolation, and greed). Despite the progress, this chapter will make it clear to you that, as a species, we are still appallingly conforming, passive, and obedient. Perhaps we have just found new masters and Gods.

 If you are motivated to be more decisive, assertive, or self-directed, this chapter discusses several useful self-help methods: self-rewarding independence, extinguishing fears of being alone, practicing decision-making and assertiveness, and gaining insight into your passive-dependency. If you consistently subordinate yourself to others, it is likely you will eventually feel inferior and resent them. Don't take the easy way out. It is important to be "your own person."

Since God made us to be originals, why stoop to be a copy?
-Billy Graham

Definition of terms

 Dependency is having needs that you can't--or feel you can't--meet by yourself. An infant is obviously dependent in most ways. Later in life, as a teenager, we may need our parents less and less in several areas: safety, socially, economically, affectionately, etc. Thus, we as adults become more independent although it is normal to always need others in certain ways. But if as children we have overprotective, over-controlling or authoritarian parents, we are in danger of remaining overly dependent for our age. The dependent personality is conforming, compliant, passive, suggestible, sensitive to what others want, yielding to other's opinions, needy to have others like us, and generally pleased to be taken care of. Many of these traits are "nice" but you can clearly see that the dependent personality is designed to encourage others to be protective, controlling, demanding, and nurturant. Thus, dependent people are usually in a reciprocal relationship with someone who is controlling (a "control freak") or someone who is over-protective (a "rescuer" or codependent). Indeed, that is the essence of a dependent adult: they want to have someone support and take care of them (Bornstein, 1992).

 As a generic term, dependency also implies being weak and fearful, indecisive, insecure and somewhat helpless, naive and inexperienced, and overly sensitive. Even these negative traits include many behaviors that suggest putting other's preferences, needs, and wants before your own. That is, it is assumed that you let others guide what you will do because you want and need their approval, control, support, or love. Thus, conformity, compliance, passivity, and non-assertiveness are often major aspects of dependency. These behaviors and attitudes are not powerless; in fact, they affect others powerfully, e.g. being unmotivated irritates people, being helpless and in trouble prompts others to try desperately to help, etc.

 Conformity is when we change our behavior or opinions due to real or imagined pressure (not direct requests) from others. This includes behaving in traditional ways or according to cultural or familial customs, so we all conform. Compliance is when a direct request is made of us and we agree to do it. Passivity is when someone else takes action involving us or against us, and we do not object or resist; we are submissive or inactive. Non-conformity or non-compliance or passive resistance is when we are independent, resist these pressures, and "do our own thing." Anti-conformity or rebelliousness, on the other hand, is stubbornly doing the opposite of what you are told to do, even if it isn't too smart. For instance, a teenager might avoid homework, stay up late, and use four-letter words to defy his/her parents, not because he/she thought these things were wise or in his/her best interest. The constant rebel is no more free than the conformist.

 Due to the enormous attention given to addiction in the last 15 to 20 years, some new concepts have developed. Obviously, a drug addict or an alcoholic is dependent on drugs or alcohol. But, many other out-of-control behaviors have been included in the addictions: gambling, shopping, working, sex, promiscuity, eating, socializing, compulsive cleaning, etc. These are needs that may dominate us and we comply. Codependency is another new label, although an old idea. It is when you are addicted to an addict (or any needy person), i.e. you loose yourself (ignore your needs) by becoming dedicated to helping an addict overcome his/her addiction. Codependency develops in stages: first, you may participate with the addict (drinking, shopping, working); then, realizing the strength of the other person's addiction, you go along "just this once" to keep peace; finally, the addict is obviously unable to stop him/herself but you now deny the destructiveness of his/her addiction as well as deny that you have lost control of your life too. The codependent is extremely dependent. They long for approval and recognition of their sacrifices; they do, indeed, tolerate awful circumstances, including abuse; they fear being on their own. They feel constant, dreadful responsibly for controlling someone else (saving them) and they blame themselves (not the addict) when things go wrong. Sometimes they are sad, sometimes mad; it is a "sick" situation (see later discussion).

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.
-Larry Eisenbery

How Dependent Are We Really?

 Psychologists have done a lot of research about the attachment of infants to their mother or primary caretaker. Three styles of attachment are described: secure, avoidant (unemotional), and preoccupied (very emotional). The infant/young child's attachment pattern influences the adult's attachment styles. Within adults, the "secure attachment" involves trust and positive, comfortable feelings. The "preoccupied attachment" also involves a lot of emotions, both positive and negative, but the dependent person is often obsessed with maintaining the relationship, using various emotions and actions to keep the lover's/caretaker's attention.

 There are two types of "avoidant attachment": (a) the "dismissing avoidant" is self-confident, self-reliant, and doesn't feel the need for a relationship. This unemotional independence is thought to sometimes be a defense against liking or needing someone which would expose them to rejection or hurt. (b) The "fearful avoidant" clearly wants to have a close relationship but is well aware of a lack of trust and fears of abandonment. Thus, they don't let themselves get close. They constantly feel frustrated--wanting what they can't get. Consequently, they have lots of negative emotions--anxiety and depression--without many positive emotions.

 As teenagers we are very dependent on our parents and friends. We rely on parents for food and shelter, for transportation, for financial support, and so on. We rely on friends for social activities, advice, emotional support, companionship, etc. As workers, we rely on the supervisor for guidance, colleagues for friendship, the company for our salary, etc. As lovers and spouses, we rely on our partner for emotional support, meaningful discussions, physical affection, fun, financial security, and a family. As consumers we rely on farmers for food, seamstresses for clothing, laborers for our houses, cars, and appliances. As citizens we rely on the government and politics for many things we could do ourselves (Lederer, 1961). Of course, we are dependent. So what?

 If an 18-year-old becomes so homesick he/she can't leave home, that's a problem. If a 16-year-old can't fix his/her own meals and do his/her own laundry, that's a problem. If a 14-year-old has to be socializing all the time, that's a problem. If a 20-year-old can't find the time to follow politics and vote intelligently, that's a problem. If an adult isn't capable of being self-sufficient if he/she were suddenly on his/her own, that's a problem. If a lover feels he/she couldn't live or "wouldn't know what to do" without his/her partner, that's a problem. There are lots of ways of being dependent, some good and some bad.

 Now, let's explore some specific ways we are dependent, i.e. by being overly conforming, compliant, or obedient, and see how dependent we are.


 If you look at how similarly we dress and fix our hair, you'd have to say we are almost all conformists. Consider the few males who wear skirts, aren't they considered weird? Being considered odd is such powerful social pressure that few of us males would think of wearing a skirt, even as a Halloween costume. You might say, "So what? It's a trivial matter." Better think again. Wolf (1990) says women are "prisoners of impossible standards of beauty." American men and women spend billions and billions for stylish clothes, cosmetics, hair stylists, new model cars, fashionable houses and so on. Being "out of style" is socially unacceptable, like men wearing skirts. Part of the motive is to gain status by following new trends. Part of the motive is simply self-aggrandizement; thus, American women spend more on beauty and fitness aids than on social services and education (Rodin, 1992). There are better uses for the money spent on status and the self.

He tried to be somebody by trying to be like everybody, which makes him a nobody.

 Research findings also suggest we are very eager to please others by conforming. A famous experiment, involving easy judgments about the length of lines, by Solomon Asch (1958) found that almost 75% of the people tested gave at least one wrong answer in order to agree with others (who were confederates of the experimenter and intentionally gave wrong answers). The typical subject gave the wrong answer in order to conform with the group opinion about one-third of the time.

 Most of us know how difficult it is to disagree with three or more people when they all see things differently than we do. We also know (and research affirms) that we don't always believe what we say to others. Example: you are with a group of friends and one of them is considering buying a car and asks how you like Fords. One person says, "They really look nice" and another comments, "They have a good repair record and don't rust out." Even if you don't care for Fords, the chances are you will make a favorable comment in spite of your private opinion. This is even more true if you are in a group of older people or one that includes experts or your boss. In general, if we are interested in pleasing or impressing the other group members but feel we are only moderately accepted by them at this point, we are more likely to conform. If we are very secure with the group or don't care, we can speak up (Aronson, 1984). Self-actualizing people are non-conformists; they think for themselves (Maslow, 1970).

Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.

 Studies of group behavior also add to our understanding of conformity or compliance. Groups are usually superior to individuals in solving puzzles or problems in an experimental setting, like how to get three missionaries and three cannibals across the river in a 2-person boat without the missionaries ever being outnumbered (Deaux & Wrightsman, 1984). Yet, when emotions, politics, and personalities get involved, groups often make bad decisions. Janis & Mann (1977) have studied several unfortunate governmental decisions, like the invasion of Cuba (which Kennedy favored) and the expansion of the Vietnamese war (which Johnson favored). Janis believes that group members become too eager to please or agree with a powerful leader or too eager to avoid controversy and arrive at a speedy solution. In the process they overlook important information and discourage different opinions. This faulty thinking, motivated by needs to please and conform, was called groupthink by Janis. Watch for this in your groups. See method #11 in chapter 13 for ways to counteract these errors in decision-making.

back forward

[ << ][ << ]