From Dependence to Independence to Interdependence, Part 1

One aspect of our psychological growth is the movement from dependence to independence to interdependence. In this first of a three-part series, we look at our dependence and how we have trouble accepting it — as well as the importance of acknowledging our dependence.

Part 1: Acknowledging Our Dependence

We all started life dependent: either on our mother or on someone else to provide for our basic needs. Gradually we learned to go places we wanted to go, to identify what we wanted and how to set about getting it, to shape our environment to suit our preferences. In some ways the story of growing up is moving from dependence to independence.

Before I move on to exploring independence and what it means for us I’d like to spend a little longer on our dependence. We strive for and value independence and so we tend to forget how dependent we are even as adults.

It’s probably easiest to be aware of our physical dependence. Holding our breath for a few seconds is enough to remind us of this. Then there are our needs for drink, food, shelter and clothing (in most environments anyway).

There is also our social dependence. Most of us benefit from infrastructure bequeathed to us by past generations: buildings, roads, suburbs and so on that we had no part in building. There is also the culture we live in: the art that is around us — from movies to paintings and music — and even the language we use to communicate our love, convey information, or arrange meetings and agendas. We all rely on these social structures which (at best) we have contributed little to.

The story of the move from dependence to independence doesn’t emphasise this dependence. It emphasises our independence from others: our emotional independence (especially from our early parent figures).

So I’d like to point out that as adults we are often emotionally dependent too. We like to know that we are liked. We like to know that we have done well. To be continually denigrated and receive a steady diet of being told how badly we have done is unlikely to leave us untouched.

It’s my experience that good relationships can be joyous. People being hospitable to me is delightful. These are some of the good things of life. And we are (at least partly) dependent on others for them.

I think we often are reluctant to acknowledge our dependence as adults.

No doubt this is partly because our culture puts such a high value on independence. We value leaders — but what about those needed to follow: to implement the grand vision, make the initiative real, do all the nitty-gritty detail? A leader is made by and is dependent on their followers. We value innovators and inventors, not those who preserve the old ways. Often it is by reflecting on the current and past ways of doing things that innovation occurs, sometimes simply by taking a method from one field and applying it in another. (Henry Ford copied the production line for cars from the meat packing industry. But the meat packers usually get none of the credit.) In the arts we value novelty — those who interpret a tradition don’t receive the same kinds of accolades (even though the novelty may be trivial).

Also we may be reluctant to acknowledge our dependence as adults because we are uncomfortable with acknowledging our vulnerability. Our vulnerability means we can be exploited and hurt. This isn’t nice. But pretending that it isn’t true doesn’t help us deal with the reality. Meeting another in their vulnerability can be a profound moment — but it is only possible if we are capable of being with our own vulnerability.

I wonder how different our world would be if we valued dependence and vulnerability. I think it would mean that ecology would be readily accepted. Perhaps our suburbs would be organised differently — with more space for people to meet and socialise. Perhaps how to relate and care for others would be part of children’s education.

What do you think? Is it important to have a sense of our dependence? Have you found this easy to be aware of? Or has your path been more about independence? Let me know in the comments.

Part 2 of this three-part series will focus on independence.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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