To cling to someone for support and emotional safety is only a slight shift in perception away from becoming “clingy.” The former inspires sighs of contentment, the latter of exasperation. For those curious as to how the former becomes the latter, there is no concrete answer as the behavior for both is almost identical and further, largely contingent upon the viewpoint of the recipient. All of us are driven to get our needs met, often regardless of any concern for long-term consequences. In a cosmic head-shake to the belief in a person’s ability to “go it alone,” the means of meeting those needs invariably involves interpersonal relationships.
Describing someone’s actions as “clingy” is often similar to using the term “crazy” or “insane.” The purpose is a dismissal of the whole person by highlighting carefully selected behavior outside of a concern for a broader personal context. Incidentally, this is also the tactic of the arm-chair diagnostician and Google aficionado who, armed with disparate information and a need for labels, will give everyone they disagree with some form of pathology. What is rarely considered is the role and/or effect the person doing the labelling has on the situation. That no single perspective is capable of functioning without error or ceases the need to be constantly questioned, is, well, never questioned.
To be fair, there are variations of regular human behavior that cross the line into pathology. However, such behavior (and this includes personal affect) is pervasive and “typically leads to significant distress or impairment in social, work or other areas of functioning” (Bressert, 1995). This is as true of emotional disorders as it is of personality disorders. Without the significant distress, what remains is often simply “culturally appropriate,” though it may certainly still cause concern in others.
Where pathology meets dependency, we can use Dependent Personality Disorder for exploration.
“Dependent personality disorder is characterized by a long-standing need for the person to be taken care of and a fear of being abandoned or separated from important individuals in his or her life” (Bressert, 1995).
At face-value this description is rather benign, as any of us, with some help from honest introspection, have a varying degree of fear of abandonment and separation. Thankfully for most of us, this concern doesn’t rise to the surface in any strong sense because that need is being met consistently in ways we have defined as personally helpful.
With that initial definition, Bressert adds:
“Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder are often characterized by pessimism and self-doubt, tend to belittle their abilities and assets, and may constantly refer to themselves as “stupid.” They take criticism and disapproval as proof of their worthlessness and lose faith in themselves.”
Now, again, these characteristics are not in themselves indicative of pathology. There must still be included a consideration of whether the behavior lends itself to “significant distress” in one or more areas of the person’s life. The behavior alone is likely identifiable in many of those we may know and perhaps even in ourselves, though again to varying degrees of severity and consistency.
Faced with this potentially life-altering possibility, how does one avoid it? How do the self-doubts and questions of the average, stop from becoming the destructively pervasive of the pathological? Interestingly, an answer may exist in pursuing the very dependency that seems to be at the heart of the original problem.
Research conducted by psychological scientists Catherine Shea, Gráinne Fitzsimons, and Erin Davisson of Duke University, wanted to explore the relationship between self-control and overcoming temptation. Based on the notion that self-control is a resource, one that we each have a finite supply of from day to day, the researchers conducted two experiments.
In the first experiment, two groups were tasked with watching a video, with one group told to attempt avoiding looking at the words that flashed on the screen, thus depleting their self-control. Then both groups were given stories of office managers to read, with each displaying in the story varying levels of self-control. The group with the depleted self-control rated the manager with higher self-control much more favorably than those who still had a full glass, so to speak. The study was repeated with another two groups, with similar results.
In the second study, the researchers looked at survey data from 136 romantic couples. Across the survey, those who reported having lower self-esteem also reported having a greater degree of dependence on their partners, particularly if their partner reported having a higher level of self-control.
“…this new research suggests that individuals who lack self-control may actually have a unique skill: the ability to pick up on self-control cues in others and use those cues to form adaptive relationships” (Association and Science, 2013).
Here, adaptation is not about the individual, but about what is capable of being done from within the relationship to fulfill unmet needs. Those with lower self-control seem to implicitly look for, surround themselves and become engaged with those with higher self-control. There is little stretching of the imagination required to see what possible needs those with higher self-control are getting met. We all like being wanted for who we are.
Let’s bring this back around to the issue of pathology and the human propensity to cling. It would seem that at a certain level of analysis, clinging or connecting to those with a greater degree of a quality one is felt to be lacking in, can be enormously helpful. Common wisdom is if you want to get into a new exercise or diet regimen, having people join you is beneficial for continuing success. Joseph B. Wirthlin stated:
“We know that we are often judged by the company we keep. We know how influential classmates, friends, and other peer groups can be. If any of our companions are prone to be unrighteous in their living, we are better off seeking new associations immediately.”
The truth of this statement is bound within the findings of the Duke University studies. Those we surround ourselves with reflect upon us precisely because it is their qualities we connect with in reciprocal flows of energy. We don’t make decisions alone, we do so in connection to the influences of our relational bonds. Even when alone in line at the fast-food place, or looking at the weight machines, or staring at the gambling machines, we are surrounded by others who’s actions are examples of what we would like to be doing.
Freedom is not in going down the road less-travelled, it is in carefully exploring the tread-marks of those around us. The path we choose will be in connection to those who’s strength and compassion we wrap ourselves in. Whether we expand or limit our lives will be found in how we meet our needs through the bonds of humanity we pursue. The question is not whether we will cling to our connections, but whether we will be honest with ourselves that we’re already doing so and explore the degree of influence they have upon us.
© David Teachout
Association, & Science, P. (2013, April 9). Low on self-control? Surrounding yourself with strong-willed friends may help – association for psychological science. Retrieved May 7, 2016, from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/low-on-self-control-surrounding-yourself-with-strong-willed-friends-may-help.html
Bressert, S. (1995). Dependent personality disorder symptoms. Retrieved May 7, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/disorders/dependent-personality-disorder-symptoms/