7 Signs You May Be Counter-Dependent

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Everyone knows what the word “dependent” means. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “determined or conditioned by another; relying on another for support.”

Not many people have heard the term “counter-dependence.” It’s not a term that is in common use. In fact, it’s used mostly by mental health professionals.

Counter-dependence is the extreme opposite of dependence. It refers to the fear of depending on other people. If you are counter-dependent, you will go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. You may have a great fear of feeling, or appearing to feel, in need. In fact, the word “needy” may set your teeth on edge.

Counter-dependence is one of the main results of growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Here’s an example of how an emotionally neglected child grew up to be counter-dependent.


When James first came to see me for therapy, he was a successful 40-something businessman with a wife and three children. He had done very well financially, and his children were all young adults who would be leaving home soon. James came seeking help for longstanding depression. He initially described his childhood as happy and free. But as he told me his story, it became evident that he had been greatly affected by the absence of a vital ingredient.

James grew up the youngest of seven children. He was a surprise, born nine years after his next youngest sibling. When James was born, his mother was 47 and his father 52. James’s parents were good, hard-working people who meant well, and he always knew they loved him. But by the time James was born, they were tired of raising children, so James essentially raised himself.

As a child, James’s parents did not ask to see his report cards (all A’s), and he didn’t show them. If he had a problem at school, he didn’t tell his parents; he knew he must handle it himself.

James had complete freedom to do anything he wished after school because his parents seldom asked him where he was. They knew he was a good kid, so they didn’t worry. Even though James enjoyed this extensive freedom from rules and structure, he grew up feeling deep within himself that he was alone.

The message James internalized from all this freedom was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He understood from a very early age that his accomplishments were not to be shared, nor his failures, difficulties or needs. Even though he couldn’t recall his parents ever actually telling him such a thing, he absorbed it into the very fiber of his being that this was life for him. It became a part of his identity.

When I first met James, he seemed somewhat emotionless and self-contained. His wife, after 15 years of marriage, was at the end of her rope. She felt that James was incapable of connecting with her emotionally. He told her he loved her often, but seldom showed her any emotion, positive or negative. She pointed out that he was a wonderful provider, but described their relationship as empty and meaningless. James described himself as feeling empty inside. He revealed that the one person in the world he actually felt emotional about was his teenage daughter, and that he sometimes resented her for being important to him.

James’s frequent fantasy was of running away to live alone on a deserted tropical island. All his life he experienced periodic wishes to be dead. He was mystified about why he would feel this way since he knew that he had such a great life.

Can you guess the ingredient that was missing from James’s childhood? It was emotional connection. Emotions were treated as non-existent in his family. There was little interaction of any kind between James and his parents. No positives, but none of the important negatives, either.

He didn’t get to see joy in his parents’ eyes as they looked at his report card, or experience their anxiety or anger when he came home from school long after dark. James’s relationship with his parents could be summed up by one word: cordial.

The message James’s parents unwittingly taught him, completely outside of his own and their awareness, was “don’t have feelings, don’t show feelings, don’t need anything from anyone, ever.”

James’s fantasies about being dead or running off to a tropical island were the best ways he could imagine to accomplish that mandate. He was a good boy who learned his lesson well.

7 Signs and Signals of Counter-Dependence

  1. Other people sometimes perceive you as aloof
  2. You remember your childhood as lonely, even if it was happy
  3. You sometimes have fantasies about running away from your current life
  4. Loved ones complain that you are emotionally distant
  5. You prefer to do things for yourself
  6. It’s very hard to ask for help
  7. You tend to feel uncomfortable in close relationships

If you see yourself in my description of James or in the 7 Signs above, do not despair because there is hope for you! Your counter-dependence is likely caused by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). And one very good thing about CEN is that it can be healed.

You can correct what went wrong in your childhood by giving yourself the emotional interest and validation that you missed as a child. As you do so, you will not only heal yourself, you will become fortified by your connections with others. And you will gradually realize that it is actually your ability to emotionally rely on others that makes you strong.

When it happens, Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle, so it may be difficult to know if you have it. To learn whether it’s negatively impacting your life, Take The Childhood Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn how to repair the effects of CEN on your relationships, see the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More. 


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Sam - March 27, 2019 Reply

I think I’ve just diagnosed myself, I’ve had trouble connecting with people for years. Though my Sisters & I were raised with love, our parents took no interest in us once we were self-sufficient.
Had no opinion on what we should study or do with our lives, my Sister & I recently agreed, we raised ourselves.
I’ve recently made a close friend, I opened up to him about some things & now, I hate that he knows all this stuff. I look for a reason to lash out at him, why do I do that? He’s just a friend, nothing else but I was betrayed very badly by a male friend once & something is screaming at me, that he can’t be trusted either.
A female friend I’ve recently made, wants to get to know me better, invites me to her house & I just don’t want to go. I don’t want to talk feelings with her, she’s a gossip & I don’t trust at all.
Someone called me “needy” recently & they could have slapped me, I am the complete opposite of it, I will literally do everything on my own (with my dog)
My last boyfriend left me & I have absolutely no desire to find another, eventhough I am incredibly lonely, sometimes even sobbing about it.
A very interesting article

Susie la forge - December 29, 2018 Reply

I’m sure I live through extreme notion of childhood neglect. What greater degree can a child be neglected and to believe your parent mentor does not know that you exist. My mom always told me that I followed her around everywhere she wish I was a child when she was 98 she repeated that to me tournament with the look in her eyes to tell me are you ever going to get what I’m trying to tell you I only had two vision myself following early for few minutes and it all came back to me. I did follow her day every day,. I would stand quietly and watch her work seems I was always stand
Then I remembered what she wanted me to remember when particular da then I remembered what she wanted me to remember . One particular day I was nearly 5 years old I remember standing behind her and my legs hurt from standing I’ve watched and stared at the back of her knee I knew it by heart that’s where I stood and she wash dishes. I remember thinking how bad my legs hurt how much they were tired . Then I remembered why I was standing waiting I didn’t take my mom to do that I exist. I was waiting for her to see me and to be happy and to see Susie what are you doing.
Collect neglect in refusing to knowledge my existence was the first game she played with me. I’m sure though the day she wanted me to remember was that day because I laid my hand on her leg when she set to talk on the phone i’m sure though the day she wanted me to remember was that day because I laid my hand on her leg when she set to talk on the phone . What to get her attention just because I was tired at the second I did that all I remember is her head swirling around in her beet red eyes staring into mine and I saw a monster huge monster hit with red eyes beating down on me and I was so scared I jumped backwards with both feet . I don’t know if it was real or not but it’s really my mind seeing the monster that is remember thinking to myself I just saw her monster. Think that day is when she first got her revelation that I am very stubborn did not satisfy me that monster had seen even after that I start to wait for her to hang up the phone because I feel sure that she would see me. But she didn’t she did as always she turned away from me instead of toward me stepped over it for the kitchen sink back to wash your dishes That’s when I gave up on and I quit following her and the bitch had to say to me aren’t you coming Susie and I remember thinking I don’t care what I do but I’m fol that’s when I give up and the bitch decide to me aren’t you coming Susie and I remember thinking I don’t care what I do But I won’t Follow you. Please feel free to email I got a lot more stories about my monster Sorry I don’t have time to fix my mistakes in this post I hope you understand

Charlotta's Web - July 26, 2018 Reply

Hmmm. Read this for myself. Great to rad and I get it but it sounds like my hubby of 22 years not so much like me. Wow. Some of these traits are me, but not so much.
My hubby is fiercely indepedant and will screw up anything before he asks for help. Our life got messy , he’s also very very stubborn. NOT exaggerating. Counseling didn’t work, He’s always fine and right. If I felt attractive, I would have left him by now!! Tough to be attractive when you have been worn down for so many years. It has ages me physically. Sadly, it is this way.

Schizoid? - February 13, 2018 Reply

Dear Dr. Webb, the seven signs you describe in your article about Counter-Dependence remind me a lot of Schizoid Personality Disorder. In your work with clients, did you find a connection between CEN and Schizoid PD?

gail - January 30, 2018 Reply

i was raised in a home with my six siblings. my parents divorced when my youngest sibling was a toddler. My mom was not afectionate but she did let us know that she loved us. She didnt care if we went to school or not and she often said if you want it you’ll get it. She was very critical and judgemental with all of us. I think Im ok I’m affectionate and loving with my hisband and kids I see this behavior in my youngest sibling. she does’nt want anyone to do anything for her and she even goes against her nusbvand a lot of the time even telling him I dont need you to do anything for me. I now think this is what she has. Maybe it’s because she was the youngest and my mom who already was’nt the most attentive showed less with her because of what she herself was going through. When I look back I think my mom was dealing with depression from the divorce.

Eda - January 18, 2018 Reply

I understand that my counterdependence has to do with my unreliable parents but what do I do now as an adult surrounded by yet more unreliable people? I have a hard time asking for help, yes, but even when I do, I hardly ever get it.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 18, 2018 Reply

    Hi Eda, unfortunately when people are truly unreliable, the best we can do for ourselves is stop trying to rely on them (just as you did with your parents as a child). You deserve to have reliable and trustworthy people in your life, so maybe you can watch out for some and nurture your relationship with them further. I’m not suggesting this would be an easy or quick process, but it would be worth it.

DeeDee - January 17, 2018 Reply

Each of the 7 signs fit me to a tee!
I must say though, I was raised by affectionate, supportive, encouraging and loving parents.
They expressed their love and approval openly with my siblings and me equally. Comparisons were never made between their children. Our individual talents and accomplishments were acknowledged. Our mistakes were met with a saying I still use to this day; “that’s what erasers were made for. You learn from those mistakes and grow from them”.
Where does my counter-dependence come from? My best guess would be my peers and teachers?
I wasn’t very fortunate to meet many good people. I dropped out of attempting to make friends at a very early age because I discovered jealousy, back stabbing and whatnot was prevalent in most people I encountered.
So I stepped off the social grid and became a solitary person.
The very few friends I did acquire I still have to this day. Six in all (well 5 now since one recently passed away 🙁 ).

I’m sharing my own story to show that there can be outside emotional neglect which also can set the stage for counter-dependence later in life.
My parents did share their concerns about my lack of interest in socializing, I openly and honestly told them of my dismay in finding loving people to call friends. I further explained that as long as I had my family I was content and satisfied with my life. Their response to that was a warm hug and their pride in me for not finding it necessary to define my self worth with external social acceptance.
I’m 57 and still psychologically/emotionally happy.

Life can be sucky, why add to that with superficial insincere “friends”?
I can ALWAYS depend on me AND my family’s love. I don’t want or need to be anything other than totally independent. 🙂
My dad calls me a maverick, an independent rebel. I wear that assessment from him with pride 🙂

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 18, 2018 Reply

    Dear DeeDee, the way you describe yourself does not sound counter-dependent necessarily, but more family-oriented. It seems that you have no problem depending on your family. True counter-dependence doesn’t come from the outside, it comes from the messages from one’s parents. Your comment is helpful for clarifying what we are really talking about here. Thank you for sharing it!

      DeeDee - January 24, 2018 Reply

      Ah, I see what you mean. Thank you for YOUR clarification of my interpretation.
      Though I enjoy reading your posts I’ve never felt compelled to comment before this one.
      I’m pleased I did 🙂

Sara - January 17, 2018 Reply

Can I give myself a loving mother when I’m a middle aged woman?

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 17, 2018 Reply

    Yes you can Sara! Follow the steps to CEN recovery and you will learn why you are loveable and learn to love yourself. Many middle aged (and older) folks have done this before you. You can do it.

Heather - January 17, 2018 Reply

I’m a codependent people pleaser yet, I don’t have the neediness that fits with it. In fact, from childhood I’ve always been an independent and self reliant person. After reading this article I’m beginning to understand why. My sister was a very needy girl who got a lots of attention. She was my parents favorite. I recall when I was in primary school being sent to the doctors on my own when I had an ear infection. I also recall being sent to the dentist on my own when I had toothache. Thereafter, it was nothing for me to go on my own and do other things when, I suppose an adult should have been with me. However, because it’s always been that way for me, I didn’t know any different. It has always seemed odd to me when I’ve seen the way that parents fuss over their children even for the smallest thing. ” I mean, why can’t they do it on their own?” would be my thoughts. When I got married I found it strange sharing the same bed. My parents had their own rooms. Thanks to your article I’m making more connections and realizing how very odd my childhood was.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 17, 2018 Reply

    Dear Heather, yes. Sadly it does sound like your parents taught you how to need nothing and no one. But now that you see the problem, you can definitely work to fix it! Thank you for sharing with us.

Sue - January 16, 2018 Reply

Describes me completely. I never want to rely on another person for help– it makes me feel inferior and I fear rejection. I come across aloof, but inside I am very insecure. I do not trust that others love me so I put up a wall . The lack of emotional connection growing up was profound.

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 17, 2018 Reply

    Dear Sue, yes you do describe exactly what it’s like to have counter-dependence. The good thing is that you can break through your wall and actively work on getting in touch with your feelings and using them in relationships. Thank you for sharing your personal experience with us!

Pat - January 16, 2018 Reply

Wow. I’m amazed by how spot-on your description is. I can’t even begin to speculate what might have brought me to this, but I definitely “know” that you can’t rely on people. I still try to give people a chance because I also know that there are reliable people out there. I think that I may have trained those closest to me somehow, because they’re always the ones that let me down even though I pride myself on being reliable

    Jonice Webb PhD - January 16, 2018 Reply

    Dear Pat, for most people, the fear of depending on others is set up by their parents in childhood. After all, if you can’t rely on your own parents, who can you rely on? Once you realize you have this fear, you can face and overcome it. Thank you for your comment!

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