Everyday Psychoanalysis Blog

When We're Learning New Skills, Dependence Can Lead to Independence

Psychotherapist NienJu Wu reflects on why learning new skills when we're adults can mirror our earliest experiences as infants
Author: NienJu Wu

Img: https://pixabay.com/users/manseok_kim-1005494/

Have you ever started learning a new skill and been immediately confronted by feelings of helplessness and dependence as you struggle to become competent? I recently faced these feelings when I started learning aerobic dance. 

As a psychotherapist, it occurred to me that these feelings mirror the course of our earliest development as infants. 

In psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s article “The Theory of The Parent-Infant Relationship," published in 1960, he elaborates on the importance of the holding environment for an infant's development. Infants progress through three stages under maternal care which he labels  "absolute dependence," "relative dependence," and "towards independence":

  • Absolute Dependence. In this state, the infant has no means of knowing about maternal care and has no control over what is well and what is badly done
  • Relative Dependence. Here the infant can become aware of the need for the details of maternal care
  • Towards Independence. The infant develops means for doing without actual care. This is accomplished through the accumulation of memories of care and the development of confidence in the environment.

Winnicott’s ideas about dependence in infancy capture how I have felt as I've learned aerobic dance over the past three years.

Absolute Dependence

When I first started aerobic dance, facing fast-paced and varied dance moves, I remember trying to use my “brain” to keep the dance steps in mind, in order to be able to keep up with the coach and other classmates. But, after a few months, I found that thinking this much distracted me from the activity. 

Although I remembered the dance steps in my mind, my body couldn't keep up. It’s literally a feeling of brain and body being separated from each other. I told myself, "there is no way to improve if I only rely on my own 'brain.'" I started to seek guidance from the coach and senior learners. Fortunately, everyone was very willing to assist each other during the learning process. It’s a great example of a holding environment, where people feel safe and can build confidence gradually.

As beginners, the coach always told us: “The only thing you need to do is to follow everyone else, don't worry about the dance steps." This was very important advice. One message this sent to us was that even if we couldn't keep up with all the “dance steps,” we'd still gain by continuing to train our cardiorespiratory endurance. Then, when we had enough physical ability, we'd be able to bring our minds and bodies more in tune. 

I started to realize that the key to keeping up is actually the goal of aerobic exercise training: increasing the cardiorespiratory capacity. Without this, no matter how good your memory is, it cannot keep up with the pace. If you are forcing yourself to complete all aerobic dance steps before your cardiorespiratory function can bear it, you're expecting too much of yourself. 

Another message in our coach's advice was to give up the expectation of immediate success, and instead rely on all the resources available to us to make gradual progress. We could watch the coach's demonstrations, count the beats along with the coach, and follow more experienced participants.

Once you can depend on others, you won't be in a hurry to memorize all the dance moves by yourself, you can concentrate first on making your body run and move to the beats and your cardiovascular fitness will improve with continued training. 

Relative Dependence

In my second year, I still needed lots of demonstrations from coaches or senior learners. I needed to dance while watching other people because I couldn't remember the sequence of dance moves. But I still found that I was able to perform many of the dance steps, keep up better than before, and sustain aerobic dancing with higher intensity and longer duration. 

It was very encouraging when the body and the mind started to become linked together. This may be similar to the experience of learning to ride a bicycle, drive, or swim. These activities are divided into several steps at first, like instructions in a manual. With enough practice, the mind and body unite together and we eventually become skilled and refined enough to enjoy the process.

Towards Independence

Last year, with the pandemic outbreak in Taiwan, many fitness training courses had to be offered online. Long-distance aerobic practice, using a small computer screen, increases the difficulty of aerobic dance because of the complexity of some of the dance steps. 

However, with continuous practice in the previous two years, the memory stored in the body and mind helped me to follow along. When the mind and the body work together, "using the brain" is no longer an obstacle. It becomes a self-supporting resource that helps to complete the body's tasks.

I have been pursuing aerobic dance for three years, and my development in this activity mirrors the developmental stage of a three-year-old child. Three-year-old toddlers have usually learned some self-care abilities, and are being encouraged by the parents to try to fit into the environment beyond the family, such as entering preschool. 

We all know that for a three-year-old child, there is still a long developmental path ahead. The same is true for me after three years of aerobic dance training.


NienJu Wu is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, clinical psychologist, and Member of the Taiwan Psychoanalytic Association.

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