Desperately Seeking Love

How we become unhealthily dependent on others.

Many of us deal with the problems and challenges of life by seeking other people to solve them for and with us. In many ways this is an understandable response. We feel alone, insecure or vulnerable, and being with others feel makes us less so. This urge towards relatedness fulfills not just our need for protection and security but also for purpose and direction in life. Other people such as our partners, friends, children, celebrities, the clubs and groups we join and even imaginal others such as guardian angels and spirits can bring great comfort and meaning to our lives.

The difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship lies in our motivation. When our threat brain [1] emotions are dominant our attachment to others is driven by fear and the need to be validated, saved or protected. However, when our safe brain [2} emotions are active we are motivated to nurture mutual growth in our relationships through compassion, openness and trust. Threat brain motivation says, ‘I love you because I need you’ whilst safe brain motivation says, ‘I need you because I love you’.

Fear and the desperate need for relief is the motivational dynamic involved in dependency. In this state our bodies and brains are flooded with a potent cocktail of cortisol (a stress hormone) and dopamine (the hormone and neurotransmitter that tells our brain that something or someone is worth getting or doing more of). These hormones and chemicals can both energise and distract us, bringing relief from the mundane or complex problems of daily life. They can also addict us. In relationships the ‘feel good’ experiences associated with adoration, devotion and infatuation produce a hyped-up sense of pleasure that can lead to us wanting more and more. This dynamic is involved in all addictions and when it interferes with our relationships we can find ourselves trapped in destructive bonds that are difficult to detach from.

When we are under the spell of and dependent on others we are almost always in a state of submission. Submission - a threat brain response that corresponds to the freeze pattern of our flight-flee-freeze repertoire - is how we turn an ordinary person into an extraordinary Other. In our submission and deference to the Other, we become hyper-sensitive to opinion and desperate to please, and we constantly over-inflate their capabilities and characteristics whilst de-valuing our own.

Submission to and dependency on Others is more likely to happen if:

  • We do not sufficiently notice or understand our emotions – particularly those of our threat brain – and how they motivate and influence us.

  • We do not know about or are reluctant to acknowledge and work with, our unconscious experiences which appear, for example, in the feeling of being ‘torn’ or conflicted by opposing needs and desires.

  • We overuse psychological defences such as denial (there’s no problem) and projection (it’s not me that has a problem, it’s you!) to cope.

  • We are alienated from ourselves, meaning we do not experience ourselves as independent, integral beings or the originator of our own actions which results in an inner emptiness and helplessness.

Living like this we become increasingly focused - and dependent on - other people’s evaluations of us because what is ‘real’ and important has become that which is external to us. Dependent on externalities, especially other people, our ability to experience intrinsic self-worth – which is not reliant on the opinion or approval of others – is diminished.

Dependency is related to the freeze part of our fight-flee-freeze threat brain response. Source: Goksi/Shutterstock

To overcome the tendency towards submission and dependency we can engage in four perception practices that offer an alternative to the common strategies of denial, projection, repression, avoidance, quick fixes and simplistic solutions that many of us resort to when we feel conflicted, stressed or uncertain.

The first practice is to notice and soothe our threatened emotions, for insight is dimmed by the powerful pulsations of our threat brain. Safe brain practices such as rhythmic breathing, cultivating self-compassion, and making time for rest and appreciative reflection will help.

The second practice is to receive. Here we learn not to dismiss, ignore or scoff at the unusual, strange, synchronous, mysterious, or contradictory experiences that occur in our lives. In this practice we start by softening the voice of our inner critic which blocks our ability to receive.

The third practice is to cultivate inquiry, a curious and questioning response to our inner experiences which develops our ability to interpret and understand them.

The fourth practice involves a more profound shift in the way we attend to experience, one which enhances and sustains the previous practices of noticing/soothing, receptivity and inquiry/ understanding. In the fourth practice we increasingly draw upon our ability to imagine, exploring our unconscious processes and focusing more deeply on our inner than our outer life.

Perception practices work by re-directing our attention so that we come to know and trust ourselves better. When this happens we find ourselves more able to understand and trust others, to experience the quality and potential of reciprocal love and to nurture mutuality in our relationships.