Scratch a liberated woman -- or any woman -- says writer Colette Dowling, and you'll unearth a paralyzing schizophrenia.

"At the same time we yearn to be fetterless and free, we also yearn to be taken care of," claims Dowling, whose views have been creating somewhat of a stir lately. She has zeroed in on what she sees as a direct conflict between women's subconscious desire for dependence and the trend toward independence.

"The deep wish to be taken care of by others," she says unequivocally, "is the chief force holding women down today. We were brought up to depend on a man and feel naked and frightened without one. So now, when our intellects tell us to stand on our own two feet, unresolved emotional issues drag us down."

Dowling calls this dilemma -- and her book about it -- "The Cinderella Complex" (Summit, 266 pages, $12.95): "Like Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives."

The picture she paints is less than flattering. Women, she says, are struggling with "a network of largely repressed attitudes and fears that keeps (them) in a kind of half-light, retreating from the full use of their minds and creativity."

This conflict can lead, she says, "to a neurotic double bind of hating and fearing both dependence and independence simultaneously."

Not surprisingly, her opinions have provoked strong -- and mixed -- emotions from women of varying ages, background and orientations. Her book has been greeted with admiration and ire, ridicule and praise.

Feminists in particular are angered by Dowling's conclusion that women are responsible for their own economic and social situation. "It's like blaming the victim," says one critic, "for the crime."

Counters Dowling: "The trendier aspects of the feminist movement mesh with the reinforce (women's) personal paralysis. Instead of concentrating on their own development, women focus on the men who are keeping her down."

Fans, she says, write her glowing letters. Most seem to identify viscerally with her central theme of women's "inner wish to be saved . . . (that) exists within us all, emerging when we least expect it, permeating our dreams, dampening our ambitions."

What both sides seem to agree on is the thought-provoking nature of Dowling's book, with its fascinating, disturbing and -- ultimately -- absorbing exploration of female socialization.

Women's "psychological need to avoid independence," she says, "may date back to the days of cave living, when man's greater physical strength was needed to protect mothers and children from the wild.

But such a wish is no longer appropriate or constructive. . . . The prince has vanished. In fact -- in terms of what is required for survival in the modern world -- man is really no stronger, or smarter or more courageous than we are.

"He is, however, more experienced."

Dowling, 43, bases much of her theory on her own experience -- confronting her personal wish for a white knight -- in 1976, five years after she left her husband to support herself and her three children as a free-lance writer.

After struggling alone to make ends meet, she met "a man who seemed a perfect companion" and moved with him and her children to a rural village 90 miles north of Manhattan.

For one year she potted geraniums, watched the sun set and -- to her amazemant -- let her own ambitions collapse.

Within six months of our move out of the city, I had stopped writing, stopped earning money, cut off my social involvements with the outside world and became, once more a help-meet: cushioned, comforted -- indeed feeling quite feminine."

After the "first flush of comfort and happiness in the domestic role," she says, "I started getting more and more depressed." Then, when the man she lived with announced that he didn't want to continue totally supporting her and her children, she erupted:

"I was never reared to think I'd have to support myself and my children for the rest of my life. Forced to confront my own dependency, I discovered that I did not really want full responsibility for myself . . . I wanted people to be nice to me, to see how basically honorable and well-intentioned I was."

But these "good-girl qualities" were "in direct opposition to other desires:

to rise in my profession, to travel, to move."

Feeling "frightened and alone," she decided to sort out the problem by writing about it. That essay, "Confessions of a Dependent Women," brought a flood of letters from women around the country when it was published in New York magazine.

"I had never struck a chord like this. All were suffering from the same anxieties, struggling toward their independence . . . and yet, underneath, resentment, anger and a terrible, painful confusion."

One root of the problem, says Dowling, is that "the women's movement finds it politically expedient to tell women they have a choice between home and work. But in this culture, if you don't have your own money you are in a slave-like position."

Women who on one level feel content being supported by men, "on another level -- that they may only admit to themselves in the middle of the night -- resent not having money of their own. When you're dependent, you resent and envy the person you depend on. I think the importance of homemaking is used as a rationale by a lot of women who are hiding in the home."

Despite the difficulties she experienced staying at home with three children, Dowling contends "it's harder, more challenging, scarier, to be out in the world."

And women cling to their role in the home "because it feels safer, although in fact it isn't. It's a tough thing to say, but 50 percent of the people who've married since 1970 have already been divorced. You're fooling yourself if you put your fate in the hands of another person. No woman in this country today can assume she's safe in her marriage."

Dowling left her own nine-year marriage "because I had begun to hate my own feelings of dependency."

The seeds of these dependent desires, she says, were planted in the process of socialization. "Teaching little daughters to avoid risk inadvertently prevents the child from learning how to deal with fear. Boys are taught to do things in spite of the fact they're afraid. Girls are permitted to back off." t

And since girls are taught that, for women, it's okay not to have a career, "they cling to the wish to be saved." Women, she proselytizes, must admit to their "dependency desires, without blame, since you can't help the way you were brought up."

Dowling (who is still living with the man who sparked her own confrontration with dependency) says she has worked through most of her "Cinderella complex."

"But I still feel that dependence when I'm doing something new and I get anxious and frightened."

The struggle, she concedes, will probably continue. "But it all starts with giving up the Cinderella dream. When you do that, your attitude towards everything will change.

"The one real shot we have at liberation is to emancipate ourselves from within."