When Therapy “Enables”

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Therapy can be a rewarding and empowering experience, a great facilitator of growth — or it can be an enabler of dysfunction.

People come into therapy or other types of counseling for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they’re pressured into doing so by someone else who’s not only sure they have a big problem but also desperately wants them to get “fixed.” This, of course, rarely works out too well. Most of the time, however, folks seek out therapy because they’re in some sort of emotional distress and are looking for a way to make things better. They also might simply want to understand themselves more and have chosen therapy as the vehicle for their personal growth. When the motivation is right, therapy can be a rewarding and empowering experience. Still, even the most sincere, motivated folks can and sometimes do inadvertently do themselves a disservice in therapy. That’s because the opportunity to confide in and “dump” emotionally-charged material into the lap of a non-judgmental, receptive person (i.e. the therapist) can be immensely “cathartic.” Unless the therapist is particularly sensitive to this fact, therapy sessions can turn into nothing more than opportunities for the client to gain a little relief, thus “enabling” them to go back about their daily affairs doing things the same way and perpetuating some of the very same emotional conflicts that prompted them to seek help in the first place.

It’s often been said that the ultimate goal of therapy should be to not need it anymore. This poses some interesting challenges not only for the professional making a living providing the service but also to the client who often feels so good after having had a session that they can’t wait to come back again. Things can get even more complicated when the person seeking help has significant “dependent” traits in their personality or perhaps even suffers from a Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD).

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Personality traits are ingrained, enduring, and relatively inflexible patterns of perceiving oneself and the external world, manifested in a distinctive “style” in which one relates to others. When those patterns of perceiving and relating are of such intensity, inflexibility, and deviancy from cultural norms that they create significant problems in one’s ability to function adaptively, they can constitute a personality disorder. Folks with significant dependent traits in their personalities tend to be overly passive and submissive. They’re far too content to let others take the lead, supply all the motivation, make all the tough decisions, and deal with life’s unpleasantries and challenges for them. On one level, they can appear as ideal therapy clients, especially at first, because they tend to be quite accommodating, cooperative, and most especially, appreciative of the support they get. At least that’s the way it appears on the surface. But it’s usually not too long before a more sobering reality becomes apparent. Dependent individuals can become excessively and emotionally needy, clingy, and resistant to genuine growth: becoming more capable and independent can be very threatening to the dependent personality’s sense of normalcy and security. They tend to be rabid consumers of advice and seekers of constant reassurance from their support systems. They can be so deferential that they don’t try out strategies of their own. This really impairs the acquisition of coping skills. But perhaps the most insidious and dangerous thing that can happen is that they can become overly reliant on therapy itself, becoming “addicted” in a sense to the very process.

Therapy clients with dependent personality traits need a lot of persistent, gentle “nudging” on the part of the therapist to make important changes, especially those changes that could help them do more for themselves. This nudging process is almost always more than a bit uncomfortable. Still, a good therapist has to be okay with the discomfort that can arise and must also have both the patience and the tolerance to let the client experience just the right amount of stress.

In psychology, there’s a principle known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law which postulates that performance on a task increases with a person’s level of arousal but only to a point. What we’ve learned from research in this area is that there’s an optimal amount of stress for folks to be under that both enhances motivation and ensures good performance. There’s always a breaking point to one’s level of stress, so striking the right balance is crucial. Finding the optimal level of stress for a client is important in therapy, too, especially when they are struggling with emotional dependency. Most clients come into the process with a fair degree of internal pressure to make things better. If they get too much relief in “venting,” and too much external support, much of their motivational energy can be lost. This can be an extremely delicate balancing act for a therapist when a client is struggling with emotional dependency. Still, you have to meet someone where they are. So, a therapist might have to do a fair amount of hand-holding. But if you really want to help someone, and the objective is for them to not need you anymore, you have to afford them the support they might crave while gradually encouraging (and sometimes gently prodding) them to stand more firmly on their own. Often, the key to helping a client struggling with dependency issues is to challenge them to “rehearse” in their daily lives the coping skills taught and modeled for them in therapy encounters, reassuring them that they won’t be prematurely “abandoned” as they become steadily better at self-care.

Providing a dependent personality with too much support in therapy is certainly not the only way a client’s dysfunction can be inadvertently enabled. Sometimes, with good intentions, a person is given medication which might well alleviate their depressive symptoms but which also might provide them with just enough energy to keep engaging in some of the dysfunctional behaviors that drove up their stress levels and set the stage for depression in the first place. And that’s just one other example. There are many. That’s why a therapist has to be mindful of the process of therapy and whether it is being well utilized as a facilitator of growth as opposed to an enabler of dysfunction.

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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