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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.


To be dependent means to have needs that you cannot meet yourself, through your own actions. To be independent (or autonomous) means to be capable of meeting your own needs. Dependency and independence are two sides of the same coin. It is not possible to be entirely dependent in life, and neither is it possible to be entirely independent. Healthy people are aware that even as they may strive to be as independent as they possibly can be, they are always also ultimately dependent on the other human beings around them, on their society and on their planet and ecosystem. People who are of a religious bent should also add that they are ultimately dependent on God.

The many ways that people can be dependent are a cross section of Maslow's needs Hierarchy:

  • People are entirely dependent on their ecosystem, culture and society for food, water, shelter and other basic needs. It is not enough that an ecosystem can sustain life. There must also be a system in place for obtaining food, whether that is hunting and gathering or agriculture. There must be transportation of foods and pumping of water. There must be homes to live in or other means of shelter to protect from harsh weather. There must be air to breath.
  • "There is safety in numbers", as the saying goes. People who band together for their common defense are frequently safer than those who do not. Some people are more able to defend themselves than others, however.
  • People are dependent on other people for meeting their belonging needs. People who belong to social and family groups tend to be healthier and happier than those who do not. Children rely on their parents to care for them. Elderly and sick individuals rely on caregivers to care for them. Spouses and relationship partners rely on each other for meeting a variety of emotional, sexual, companionship and financial needs. There is again a range of dependency on display here, but most everyone does have to rely on some level of dependency on others in this regard.

People sometimes talk as though dependency is a problem to solve, but what they really mean is that certain kinds of dependency can become problematic. Other, more fundamental types of dependencies (such as basic needs dependencies) can never be removed from life, and must simply be accepted. In life, the problem is not to eradicate dependency and become ultimately independent and self-sufficient, but rather to understand the difference between healthy, normal dependency that must be accepted as a condition of being alive, and unhealthy forms of dependency that could stand correction. Finding the proper balance between dependency and independence in life is what leads to fulfillment.