Has published more than 150 articles and book chapters on personality dynamics, diagnosis, and treatment. An expert on dependent personality disorder, his research has been funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation.
Dependency in the Digital Age
By Erin Walsh
Devices such as cell phones and laptops allow us to be in constant contact, but how much communication is too much? We’ve all heard horror stories about the workaholic who travels to the tropics, only to return to his or her workplace more frazzled from constantly checking emails on the beach, or the couple whose relationship is strained because one partner is addicted to surfing the Web. We sat down with Professor Robert F. Bornstein, a noted expert in the field of personality dynamics, diagnosis and treatment, to find out what causes dependent personality disorder and how this condition manifests itself in the digital age.
What are the current trends in dependency theory?
First, we’re trying to understand the many different ways that dependency needs are expressed, both passive and active, direct and indirect. A direct expression of dependency often takes the form of a request for help or emotional support. Indirect requests for dependency often involve displays of helplessness that are designed to create a sense of responsibility or guilt in a friend or a romantic partner, without one asking directly. The second theme that’s emerged is in distinguishing the maladaptive consequences of dependency from dependency’s more adaptive features. For example, while dependency does place one at risk for depression, does tend to create problems in certain relationships, it also represents a strength in some contexts. For example, dependent people seek help more quickly than non-dependent people when a medical symptom appears
What factors contribute to dependency?
We know that two parenting styles in particular lead to high levels of dependency later in life. Overprotective parenting leads to high levels of dependency in offspring. Because overprotective parents are, in effect, sending a message to the child that they are fragile and weak. Authoritarian parenting—rigid, rule-oriented parenting—also leads to high levels of dependency later in life for much the same reason, though the message is different. The authoritarian parent is, in effect, telling the child that the way to get by in life is to do what others say. Both of these parenting styles lead to what I’ve come to call “a helpless self-concept,” a perception of oneself as ineffectual and weak, and this is the linchpin of a dependent personality orientation.
What are the characteristics of this disorder?
Dependent personality disorder is characterized by a strong need for guidance, support, help and reassurance that cuts across most, if not all, of the person’s close relationships. And it typically has a negative impact on these relationships and on their functioning socially and at work.
Where do you see this disorder most often, in terms of age, gender, and socio-economic background?
Generally, dependent personalities are quite common in clinical settings in psychological treatment. It’s not unusual at all. It does occur more frequently in women than in men. About two thirds of people diagnosed with dependent personality disorder are women. But dependent personalities cut across all age groups, all ethnic groups. From adolescence onward through late adulthood, you’ll find people with small and exaggerated dependency.
What cultural forces contribute to the manifestation of this disorder?
Gender role socialization plays a role in the expression of dependency. In general, men are socialized to not admit having any dependent thoughts, feelings or motives in America. Women are less strongly socialized to try to cover up those feelings. More generally, America is what’s called “an individualistic society,” and tends not to tolerate strong expressions of dependency very well. More sociocentric cultures like India, for example, and traditionally Japan, have been much more tolerant and accepting of dependency-related behavior.
How has people’s pervasive reliance on technology exacerbated dependency?
Modern technology, like cell phones, for example, and instant messaging, has made it easier to express dependency by allowing people to remain almost continuously connected to those on whom they rely for reassurance or advice or support. Whereas in the past, one might have had to put some time between the impulse to call a spouse or call mom and the act of doing it, now one just opens up the cell phone, hits a button, and the person is right there before you.
How do you wean people from technological dependency?
No one has looked at that, and we haven’t either. It hasn’t been (addressed), but I can speculate. Much the same as the more common psychotherapy with dependent patients, that is first to help them understand the motives behind their excessive use of this technology, and second, to help them gain some control, so that asking for help is mindful, rather than mindless. It’s a considered choice, rather than a reflex.
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