The Cognitive Perspective

The interpersonal strategy of dependents, designed to secure care and protection, has important negative consequences for their self-image and cognitive development. The helpless façade that dependents project eventually works its way into their self-concept. You cannot act helpless without believing it to some extent yourself. Dependents usually describe themselves as weak, fragile, inadequate, inept, or incompetent. When their incapacities become too clearly focused, anxiety and panic may result. To keep their vulnerability controlled, many dependents prefer not to look too deeply into themselves, preferring instead to limit their awareness to the pleasantries of life, seeing only the good and never the bad. When difficulties are acknowledged, it is often with a saving silver lining that effectively undoes the problem by assuming that things will work out in the end. Denial, discussed in the psychodynamic perspective, thus gradually develops into a broader cognitive style.

The self-schema of dependents includes both positive and negative qualities. On the positive side, dependents see themselves as considerate, thoughtful, and cooperative. By disavowing legitimate achievements, they seem humble and self-effacing. Secretly, they may hope for praise and commendation, but not too much, as expectations of independence and self-sufficiency would surely follow. The good qualities that dependents attribute to themselves, however, are also balanced by a number of pathological core, conditional, and instrumental beliefs (Beck et al., 1990, p. 45). At the core level, dependents believe, "I am completely helpless," and "I am all alone." To cope with these core beliefs, they form conditional beliefs, including, "I can function only if I have access to somebody competent," and "If I am abandoned, I will die." A variety of instrumental imperatives follow, including, "Don't offend the caretaker," and "Cultivate as intimate a relationship as possible." We have seen all of these before in other contexts.

Many dependents are not terribly sophisticated cognitively. To others, they seem naïve, childlike, and innocent—an image they often reinforce by minimizing their own achievements and abilities and magnifying their instrumental incompetencies. Fewer demands are made of inadequate persons. Because others always come to their aid, dependents may develop few coping strategies that go beyond basic life skills. Sometimes, even these are impaired. Some cannot balance a checkbook or require so much instruction and advice that even holding down a basic job becomes impossible. Other dependents closer to the normal range may be competent within restricted domains, though these instrumentalities are usually formed in the service of protecting a nurturing relationship. Here, the notion, "I must learn how to do such-and-such well if I am to enjoy the safety and protection of this relationship," functions as an additional, and highly adaptive, conditional belief. Such persons perform for the approval of others and may become skilled within an encouraging framework, as with the dependent wife who puts in long hours to further the career goals of her husband.

Writing in Beck et al. (1990), Fleming notes a number of cognitive distortions that sustain the disorder. Two seem crucial: First, dependents see themselves as "inherently inadequate and helpless"; second, their self-perceived shortcomings lead them to conclude that they must seek out someone who can handle the troubles of life in a dangerous world. This much is really just a repetition of what they have already learned. However, between premise and conclusion lie several logical errors that distort reality (Fleming, 1990) and thus invalidate the whole argument. Foremost among these is di-chotomous thinking, a style that forms the world into polar opposites, with no shades of gray in between. If dependents are not cared for, they see themselves as being totally and utterly alone in the world. Similarly, if they are not absolutely sure how to do something, surely the problem must be insurmountable, at least for them.

Dichotomous thinking inevitably leads to a third cognitive distortion: Dependents tend to catastrophize, especially about relationships. Breakups are painful for everyone, but for the dependent, they are shattering. A healthy interpretation might reframe a breakup as an opportunity to discover your own role in why the relationship failed. A tragedy is thus transformed into a growth experience. To dependents, such an argument is unthinkable. Instead, every fluctuation in the quality of their attachments is catastrophic, a total abandonment, a verdict that they are worthless and unlovable. In fact, because core beliefs are so central to self-identity, it is unlikely that such adaptive lines of thought ever reach consciousness. More often, they simply do not exist, and someone else, perhaps a therapist, is required to calm the catastrophe, creating shades of gray that the subject never perceives. If Sharon, for example, could just calm down long enough to establish some perspective on her relationship and see that Tom really wants to work things out, she might stop suffocating him long enough to lay the foundations for her own identity.

How might dependents develop and maintain their dichotomizing and catastrophizing ways? The answer might be found in the core beliefs of their caretakers, who often model appraisal processes that present the life of the future dependent as one narrowly averted crisis after the next. There are some parents who believe their children are always in extreme danger; even when the children are sleeping peacefully in bed, they are convinced the risk of death or injury is always lurking around the corner. As the children begin to develop normal autonomy, these parents imagine outrageous scenarios of doom, each of which points to a single absolute result, "Freedom is the enemy of safety." Other auxiliary beliefs include, "Under no circumstances can children be trusted not to hurt themselves," and "The consequence of trusting my child is his or her death." Complex, balanced appraisals of maturation as the process of picking themselves up and learning from experience are resisted as being too risky. Future dependents thus internalize the extreme fear projected by parents, learning appraisal processes that always conclude, "To trust in myself is disaster," and "Others must save me from myself." Such an explanation shows the interplay of the interpersonal and cognitive perspectives.

A second aspect of the cognition of dependents is their cognitive style, which features thought patterns especially likely to remain global and diffuse. Introspective individuals constantly search within themselves and create definite ideas about who they are, what they want to become, and what they want from life. Because dependents seldom look inward, they necessarily develop only vague ideas about their self-identity and direction. When asked about her life plan, for example, Sharon might think to herself: "Continue on with Tom and enjoy life together." Because the strategy of the dependent is essentially to rely totally on an all-powerful, all-protecting other, further probing would be unlikely to reveal anything of greater depth.

A full understanding of the cognitive characteristics of dependents requires some knowledge of the normal pattern of cognitive development. According to Piaget (1954), the last stage of cognitive development is the development of formal operations, when children acquire the capacity to represent the world abstractly. More recent thinkers, however, have argued that beyond formal operations lies another stage of thought, which is concerned with the development of judgment. Having applied our abstract abilities to construct the world in many different ways, we inevitably discover that no one way or philosophy of life captures everything that life is. Instead, the world is naturally complex, so complex, in fact, that it cannot be put completely into any single philosophical system. All philosophies and perspectives are necessarily simplifications of the world, and as simplifications, certain things are necessarily omitted. No matter how good any perspective sounds in the abstract, it eventually fails in the concrete. In this case, knowing what to do and why becomes a matter of judgment and rests on a knowledge of the alternative possibilities, how likely each is to succeed or fail and why, and the costs and benefits to all parties involved. Most important, however, good judgment requires the self-confidence necessary to construct a reasoned plan laid open and exposed to the scrutiny of those it affects, all of whom have definite public and private expectations about the outcome.

Most dependents, with their lives micromanaged by competent authority figures since infancy, never develop the potential for making such qualitatively sophisticated judgments. Others either assume dependents are incapable or naturally take control themselves and decide, for every life question, what the best outcome would be and how to get there. Either way, dependents repeatedly find themselves encapsulated in a world that actively discourages the development of cognitive sophistication. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is also the mother of a variety of cognitive talents, especially the ability to form plans, to hold a variety of alternatives in mind, to determine the criteria for a good outcome for self and others, and to assess the probabilities that a given course of action will be successful. And paradoxically, it is precisely through persistent mothering that these sophisticated cognitive skills never develop fully in dependents, for whom all needs are already someone else's responsibility.

However, this does not mean that dependent personalities are necessarily ignorant or uneducated. For example, in a school environment, where the concrete expectations of good grades wins approval, praise, and affection from parents and teachers, many normal-range dependents readily conform and produce better-than-average report cards. Some even become the teacher's pet. But placed in a context where future evaluations are inevitable and the course of action is ambiguous, even more normal-range dependents are likely to feel anxious or depressed. Those with a diagnosable disorder are likely to simply flee or break down in tears. Their overall lack of cognitive sophistication preempts the possibility of weighing all alternatives and calculating benefit-loss ratios from the perspectives of every individual affected. Moreover, their fear of disappointing others prevents them from even attempting it. Instead, the key to dependent cognition lies in constructing a simplistic but much more manageable world, albeit one lacking in complex appraisals. Cognitively, the dependent needs simplicity, just as the compulsive needs an internal world of control and order.

How To Win Your War Against Anxiety Disorders

How To Win Your War Against Anxiety Disorders

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