dealing with difficult people :: dependent personalities

February 4, 2011

I’ve often told new counselors that if they want to build a reliable and profitable counseling practice, see only those who are “Dependent Personality Disorder.”  Of course, I don’t endorse that at all…it’s a way of making a point.  Some clients are always on time, and never seem to want to quit.  But, this is not always a good thing.  In fact, it might even be a difficult thing.

I realized this after seeing Jenn for six months.  At first, I loved Jenn’s commitment.  As an independent, full-time therapist during that point in my career, reliable clients were important for my financial well-being.  Jenn emailed to confirm our times.  She showed, and showed early.  And she even expressed a desire to see me twice a week.

However, with time, Jenn became clingy, even obsessive.  She’d want to email more frequently, asking basic questions about her day.  Should I go to that party?  Can you read this email I’m writing to my boyfriend?  Do you think we can do 90 minute sessions? I began to realize that her sense of self and identity was increasingly dependent on my opinion.  And, as a younger therapist, I began to realize that I was unwittingly participating in her pattern of dependency.  I had increased our times to twice a week, and 90 minutes per session.  I had shown a propensity to answer all her emails.  But, I was beginning to think I was going crazy.

The dependent personality feeds off of others, believing herself to be deficient.  However, I’ve found over time that my encouragement and positive reinforcement only adds to the dependency.  Validation feeds the dependent’s unquenchable thirst for affirmation, only adding to the addiction.  In time, this ‘favorite’ client becomes your worst nightmare, a nightmare of your own making.  I’ve seen this happen not only with therapists, but with people who attempt to be helpful friends to dependent types.  That helpfulness is at first rewarded and affirmed, then taken advantage of, and finally sucked of its life.

The ironic reality, however, is that a dependent’s neediness is not true need.  It’s a persona, a false self, a part of the person determined to get her needs met at any cost.  While I describe the histrionic as a “hurricane,” I describe the dependent to my students as a “vacuum,” whose sucking action represents her outer reality, but whose core is a dust-filled, lonely interior.  It’s hard to resist the suction.  It pulls you in to the point at which you want to end the relationship, saying, “This is just too much!”  However, if you can get to the core, you’ll find treasure amidst the dust and dirt.

I saw this happen with Jenn.  My clinical supervisor noticed how crazy I felt with this client, and put words to what was happening.  Finally, I got it.  I saw that I was speaking to her outer ‘sucking’ self, a needy and leeching persona that wanted to feed on my affirmation.  I hadn’t seen her true core.  But I’d have to risk losing her to get there.

And so, I took my supervisor’s advice.  In the next session, I told my client that I’d see her for one hour a week, and for only 50 minutes.  I would end our sessions promptly.  And I would not respond to her emails.  My supervisor advised me to tell her that she didn’t need someone who would spend three hours a week merely affirming.  Rather, I’d need to ask her if she’d be willing to spend one hour a week with someone willing to get to know the real her, beneath her clingy exterior.  With fear and trepidation, I did just that.

I was certain she’d find another therapist.

She stayed.  In fact, she said that no one had ever told her what I told her.  She suspected that she was overwhelming many of her friends, because most left her.  But no one had ever told her how she really made them feel.  She wept for the first time with me, seemingly sick of her clingy, needy posture in every relationship.  She told me examples of how it had hurt other relationships, particularly with guys.  And she said that I was the first person who ever told her the truth.

What I find, often, is that we tend to become frustrated with people’s dysfunctional styles of relating.  People relate by controlling, or dramatizing, or demanding, or needing.  But, so often we fail to honestly speak to how it hurts them and us.  We find more subtle, even passive-aggressive ways, of getting rid of them.  Often, we don’t tell them the truth in love.  And sometimes, this is what people need to hear.

I know many therapists who keep clients by telling them what they want to hear.  They do this unwittingly.  I do it too.  We all do it.  We’re all conflict-avoidant.

But, loving people sometimes means telling them how you experience them.  I’ve found that the biggest changes in my own life have come when good friends, and even my wife, have told me how they see me relating.  It hurts for a time, but it eventually manifests in redemption and freedom in relationships.

As I’ve been writing this series of posts, I’ve wondered, yet again, where I fall into this mix of dysfunctional personalities.  I suspect you think about yourself, too, as you read these.  Many of you have told me that.  I find myself very grateful that Jesus came not for the put together, but for the messy, struggling, prodigal that is you and is me.  And with that said, I’m going to remind Jesus that I need two 90-minute sessions this week…