How to Overcome Emotional Dependency
When your happiness starts to rely on any person, achievement or outcome (or a fragile combination of these) then you may discover that you’re emotionally dependent. It’s not an easy thing to face, nor is it your fault but it is a challenge which is vital to address.
It takes great courage to learn how to overcome emotional dependency but it’s worth doing so that you feel more in control of your life. Becoming gradually more independent and less attaching takes time and practice but it can be done. Here are 18 ways to overcome emotional dependency.
1. Avoid giving away responsibility for your happiness
People who aren’t sure about how to look after themselves emotionally are more likely to reach out for someone else to do it for them. But no matter how good someone makes you feel, it’s still a good idea to preserve and develop as much emotional self-reliance as you can rather than relying on them.
Learning this requires self-observation and practise but eventually you will be able to take care of yourself in situations where you might normally depend on someone else. For example, if you feel lonely or stressed you could experiment with different ways of making those negative feelings dissolve.
“It’s my job to look after me”
This realisation can also be useful when feeling needy. For example, if someone does not reply to a message you might think “Why can’t they just reply?” But then instead of sending a second one, you take a step back and say “Okay, maybe I don’t want to be someone who pressures people like this”.
The ironic thing about wanting to be more independent and less “needy” is that the solution is to recognise that your needs are actually very important and won’t go away if you neglect or ignore them. Dependency is often a result of both neglect and self-neglect of important emotional needs.
Here are some of the main ways to take greater care of yourself emotionally:
- Recognise your needs and prioritise your happiness
- Manage your needs regularly and strategically like a business
- Practise savouring your alone time and exploring playfulness
- Gradually replace self-harshness with self-loving behaviour
- Face, accept and embrace your most vulnerable emotions
- Develop a list of healthy coping strategies and distractions
- Consciously return to the present moment several times a day
- Work on a variety of different sources of joy and connection
- Wallow in what is positive rather than what is negative
- Explore your capacity for sincere enthusiasm more often
- Practise positive self-motivation on a regular basis
There are always many ways to make yourself feel better: calming breathing, developing positive attitudes or resting your mind through meditation, enjoying movies or music, talking on the phone, going for a walk and so on. Make it your project to figure out and repeat what works best for you.
2. Avoid confusing your needs with anyone’s responsibility
An important step along the road to freedom is allowing other people to be free rather than holding onto resentments about their behaviour. It may be tempting to get angry with someone who isn’t there for you during a crisis or lets you down in some way but it isn’t the solution.
Consider how many times you may have passed a homeless person in the street and not even thrown them some loose change. When you become an “emotional beggar” you’re in a similar situation. You can ask for help but there’s no point demanding it because nobody owes you anything.
“The only way to free yourself from other people is to free them from you”
Part of the solution is simply accepting that people have natural limitations when it comes to friendships, relationships, humanity and understanding. They may find it hard enough to stay positive as it is already without having to look after those who can’t seem to look after themselves.
Imagining that anyone “should” help you when they haven’t explicitly agreed to do so can come across as manipulative because it confuses your needs with their responsibility. It’s not worth testing anyone’s limits by pressuring them to be someone they may not even be capable of becoming.
3. Recognise and let go of destructive childhood patterns
A lot of neediness may stem from difficult events that happened during childhood or adolescence. Identifying these events and the way you responded to them as a child is a great way to recognise why you may have got stuck in a place of emotional dependency.
You don’t want to get lost in the past but exploring it to some extent can help you to let go of patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour that you may have formed when you had no idea how to deal with what was going on. It’s good to avoid “re-living” the same story over and over again.
“The role of the present is not to reverse the past or compensate for it”
Therapy can help. Part of the solution is learning to distinguish between present situations and past situations they may remind you of. You can also increasingly distinguish between the helpless child you once were and the self-calming, self-caring, self-approving adult you’re becoming.
You may identify certain “triggers” that make you feel helplessly attached. You can then start seeing such things as an invitation to a trap you don’t have to fall into rather than as something irresistible or impossible to ignore and which inevitably pulls you into dependency.
This can also help you to recognise and let go of illusions at the core of the dependency. Examples might include feeling a need to take responsibility for someone else’s well-being or believing that your survival depends on securing one person’s approval or affection even at an unreasonable price1.
4. Let go of reckless impulsivity
Emotional dependency can create overwhelming and confusing emotions. Reacting impulsively to that internal state can be very dangerous. What seems like a great idea when you’re in a “reactive” mood could turn out to be a really bad idea so it’s worth stepping back from that.
When you feel calm you can think things through carefully. But feeling needy, upset, sad, stressed, angry, manic, tired, hungry or drunk isn’t a great basis for drawing conclusions or making snap decisions. To avoid consequences you may regret, it’s good to heed the advice of Winston Churchill:
“If you’re going through hell, keep going”
When you’re in the grip of intense feelings it can seem as if they will never go away. But the truth is that they always do when you give them enough time. This is why people often remind themselves “This too shall pass” rather than doing something reckless merely to escape.
The irony is that desperately reacting to make feelings go away often escalates problems with people. Rather than becoming involved in a potentially never-ending cycle of drama, it’s often better to allow emotional “ups and downs” to run their course by avoiding the temptation to do anything rash.
5. Recognise when you start being too clingy
A bit of adventurous self-introspection will often help you identify patterns of dependency in your thoughts or behaviour that you can work on overcoming. An example might be having an attitude of wanting “all or nothing” from people instead of appreciating whatever is freely offered.
You may also recognise how you start thinking about what you want so that you can nip some of that dependent thinking in the bud at early stages. Spending too much time or energy focusing on what might be good for you may seem positive but it can be dangerous for one reason. As C.S. Lewis put it:
“Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose”2
If you start attaching to anything or anyone too much you’re giving them too much importance and so you may need to give both yourself and them more distance in order to avoid becoming dependent. The sooner you realise this risk the easier it is to avoid getting into trouble.
You can even recognise and let go of neediness in your everyday thoughts. Changing your language is one way to tackle that. Instead of saying “I need to” you might start saying “I’d like to”. Instead of saying “I need this” you might say “I would quite like that”.
6. Avoid getting carried away by desire
It’s easy to get carried away by the idea of wanting things to be a certain way. It starts with
a mild preference but then it gets twisted in the mind, going through several stages:
“That might be nice” → “That couldn’t possibly be bad for me” → “This must be good for me” → “This will make me happy” → “I’m starting to feel strangely unhappy without it” → “Nothing else could make me happy” → “Without it I might be devastated” → “I’m starting to feel unhappy, that just proves how much I need it” → “I need it so much that nothing else exists anymore”
An example is meeting someone and imagining that they are “the one” instead of just “one of many”, “one of a kind” and not necessarily even good for you or right for you at all. To stop yourself jumping between the steps of desire mentioned above you might say:
“That might be great but I can survive without it just fine”
What may seem completely amazing and the complete answer to all your problems may turn out to be surprisingly bad for you! It’s especially easy to get swayed by first impressions or feelings about new people and to forget that all that glitters is not gold. For example, you might:
- Confuse being attracted to someone with them being right for you
- Confuse a feeling with genuine sexual and emotional compatibility
- Confuse a strong crush or visual attraction with a deeper attraction
- Confuse physical infatuation with really knowing and loving a person
- Confuse a feeling you get from someone with knowing what they are like
- Confuse your first few impressions with what someone is really like
- Confuse loving an impression of someone with loving who they really are
- Confuse insecurity, emptiness, loneliness or wishful thinking with love
- Confuse a fear of “abandonment” with someone being right for you
- Confuse childhood traumas or pain with someone being right for you
It’s incorrect to believe that someone or something can “make me happy”. What’s really happening is that you are making your happiness depend on them and that dependency makes you unhappy. The more you focus on what you think “makes” you happy the more you start to depend on it.
People often try to inspire themselves by focusing on a personal goal. Focusing on what inspires you is a great idea and a goal can be part of the fun but you can still do that without making everything depend too rigidly on a particular outcome. The solution is exploration rather than “goal fixation”.
7. Recognise emotional dependency in different forms
We all sometimes experience a feeling which, on a subconscious level, might be explained in terms of a child jumping up and down and screaming “I want my ice cream!” It may be that the child is spoilt or just so distressed that it genuinely seems as if ice cream is the only possible answer.
To any adult observing the scene, it is obvious that the child could be okay even without getting any ice-cream. And so it is important to observe the child within yourself and to recognise when you might be holding your own happiness to ransom by insisting on something you might not actually need.
“I am willing to try my very best to be happy in spite of X, Y and Z and even without A, B or C“
Identifying what you have recently made your happiness rely on can be an eye opener. For example, a troubling thought like “People are driving me crazy!” can be reinterpreted as “I can’t be happy unless everyone is great” which is clearly a little overdependent and unrealistic.
Another example might be “Nothing is making any sense!” which is another way of saying “I demand that everything always makes sense” and not strictly necessary for a happy life. Recognising which arbitrary conditions you keep placing on your own happiness can increasingly set your mind free.
8. Take responsibility for dependent beliefs
It’s very easy to suddenly become psychologically addicted to anything, such physical intimacy, companionship or external approval. Nobody can blame themselves when this happens because they often do so without fully realising the precise role that they played in making that happen.
If you start telling yourself that you “need” something this is likely to alter your “reality”. You can persuade yourself of anything but it’s good to take responsibility for doing so. When you depend on something, your mind creates a system of self-reward and self-punishment around it.
“I did this to myself”
For example, I could keep telling myself over and over again that I “need” to see a black cat run across the street. If I genuinely start believing that and hoping for it then this will affect my emotions. When I finally see a black cat run across the street I may even feel blissful.
I could say that the black cat “makes” me happy but it’s not really true. I made my happiness depend on it by strongly persuading myself it was what I needed. I rewarded myself with happiness at seeing the black cat and punished myself with disappointment if I didn’t see it.
9. Challenge your assumptions about the nature of love
We may feel supported by personal or popular prejudices that seem to “confirm” some kind of value in sliding down the slippery slope of dependency. Falling “head over heels” may seem “thrilling”, “caring” or “destined” rather than risky, unwise and merely a sign of preceding loneliness3 or self-neglect.
“Love is not the answer. Learning how to take care of myself is the answer”
It’s easy to forget that “romantic” songs, books and movies often involve a somewhat naive and teenage glorification of unhealthy neediness. Dependency may create strong and addictive emotions but such imbalanced longing is not something that needs to be idealised or seen as magical.
10. Avoid idealising anyone or anything
The more we idealise what we want, the deeper we sink into the quicksand of desire. The more you imagine anything to be perfect or put anyone on a pedestal the more you are setting yourself up for a disappointment. What seems like the Holy Grail can easily turn out to be a poisoned chalice.
Worshipping anyone as if they are some kind of “saviour” figure is particularly dangerous. Imagining that someone has a supernatural ability to make you whole4 is really a way of persuading yourself that there’s something you can’t live without and that you can never feel okay or grow independently.
It may seem like idealising someone is a great compliment but you’re not doing yourself or them any favours. Sliding into dependency will make you feel like a stalker the moment they change their minds about having you around. Focusing on their flaws for a while can help offset such over-attachment.
“Nothing is ever quite what it’s cracked up to be”
Idealisation is a form of escape from life. Rather than coping with reality, we create a fantasy in which we can lose ourselves. It’s easy to become addicted to a fantasy but it’s inevitably disappointing5. Anyone we worship in our imagination can be boring, annoying or even quite obnoxious in reality.
Another danger of such obsession is that you may end up devaluing everything else in your life, leaving you with a sense of things being somewhat stale or pointless. It’s worth consciously elevating the importance of various things in order not to lose perspective on what you would normally value.
A classic sign that you may have idealised someone is the tendency to disregard or dismiss evidence that contradicts your wishful sense of what they are like. It’s a good idea to notice such counter-evidence and accept that your whole impression of them may be partly or largely illusory.
11. Avoid catastrophising withdrawal
Some people believe that they can’t love themselves unless someone loves them or that they don’t exist unless someone acknowledges them or approves of their existence. They mistakenly assume that their survival depends on being attached to someone on whom they have to depend6.
Imagining that you can’t live without someone or something only gives them power over you. You may subconsciously believe that being denied what you want would cause you to fall apart but it’s an illusion that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy until you realise that it might not have to be true.
As long as you’re determined not to abandon yourself then you never have to fear anyone else’s absence. You may sometimes go through a hard time but you also have the ability to get through it, comfort yourself, soothe your distress, learn positive lessons and come out stronger.
“Everything is going to be okay”
Believing in any form of hopelessness can only make a person feel more needy and less in control of their emotions. Part of the solution may be to visualise yourself surviving and recovering in the long term. In case you are worried about anyone else you may need to visualise them being okay too.
Occasionally, your mind may try to pull you into an extremely negative state of thinking. This may also be triggered when you hear someone complaining about their life, listen to a romantic song or watch a movie about disgruntled teenagers or victims of a grave injustice. Here are some of the classic traps:
- Eternal despair: “Everything will be generally horrible unless I get what I want right now”
- Eternal nihilism: “Life must be meaningless in every way unless I get what I want right now”
- Eternal incompleteness: “I can never become fulfilled unless I get what I want right now”
- Eternal loneliness: “I will always be miserable and alone unless I get what I want right now”
- Eternal victimhood: “Life will always be helplessly unfair unless I get what I want right now”
- Eternal lethargy: “Everything will always be stale unless I get what I want right now”
- Imminent annihilation: “I’m about to die unless I get what I want right now”
These are all dangerous illusions to be toying with let alone identifying with mentally. Many of us have occasionally entertained such notions but the key thing is not to get carried away by them or to imagine that that they can ever truly represent what your life is going to be like.
12. Learn to substitute what you start depending on
It’s not usually worth needing anything from the wrong people or situations. You may sometimes find yourself “barking up the wrong tree” but sometimes the solution is to figure out what it is that you need and to accept that it doesn’t have to come from that particular source.
People sometimes lose sight of everything when feeling as if true love is what they are missing in life. But since the prospect of a relationship working out cannot be relied upon with any real certainty, developing and retaining other sources of contentment can end up becoming a lifeline.
When you start being a bit clingy ask yourself what it is about a person, situation or outcome that you like so much. This allows you to figure out how to substitute that by looking for it elsewhere rather than seeing them as having some kind of monopoly on that benefit.
“Nothing is irreplaceable”
For example, if you love how much someone empathises with you then you could look out for a few more people like that and learn to do it for yourself and others. Any need can be met in a variety of different ways so learn to identify what you want and patiently go after it in more than one form.
A relationship breakup is one of the hardest challenges and similar to overcoming drug addiction. As in “rehab”, the most effective approach is “cold turkey”, giving up all contact with the other person, starting a whole new chapter in life and remembering that time eventually heals all.
13. Let go of expectations about people
When you’re emotionally dependent, you’re more likely to have unrealistic and slightly intense notions about what you can expect from others. This may be driven by a naive idealism about what friendships, romantic relationships and other arrangements are “supposed” to be like.
One of the biggest dangers is imagining that you know what someone is like based on wishful thinking. Needing someone to be good for you makes it easy to disregard evidence to the contrary or signs that you may not have as much in common as you would prefer. For example, it’s easy to:
- Confuse mere friendliness with friendship
- Confuse a casual friendship with unceasing loyalty or availability
- Confuse a romance or relationship with unconditional love
- Confuse romantic curiosity with serious romantic interest
- Confuse any cool or intense experience as the start of something greater
- Confuse doing someone a favour with them having to do something for you
For example, you may think friendship must always be “true” and involve “being there for each other” in hard times or always being genuine or kind. You may think that a partner should love you forever, can never turn their back on you or must forgive you just because you’re sorry.
Needing more from people than they feel ready or able to give is just unrealistic and it can also make you appear unreasonable. Even in a crisis, it is pointless to push on someone to do something for you just because you would be willing to do the same for them: no obligation strictly exists.
“A bond can be beautiful even when it’s temporary and limited in scope”
Everyone is good for some things and useless at other things. Some people will be great at empathising with you or boosting your confidence. Other people will be useless at that but they might be a hilarious travel companion or the perfect partner for a new hobby. Nobody can be all of these things.
There’s nothing wrong with “fair weather friends” as long as you remember what you can’t expect. Nobody can be a substitute parent and their idea about how everything works may be much more casual. Many friendships are about occasionally amusing each other and nothing deeper.
14. Think in terms of virtues rather than obligations
Disappointment is a common human experience but a good way to recover from it is to look at what you expected in terms of virtues that aren’t possible for everyone, given their natural weaknesses and limitations. Instead of accusing anyone of a moral crime, a better conclusion might be:
“They’re only human, they have lots of good points but x is clearly not their forte”
For example, if someone lets you down when you feel sad then you might be tempted to think “What a bad person!” A better way to look at it might be: “They have many good points and sometimes they are kind – just not in an unlimited way or in every situation. I can work around that”.
If empathy, humanity or some other virtue does not always come naturally to a person then needing it when they simply don’t have it in them involves demanding something that is in a sense “supernatural” for them. It’s unrealistic to insist that anyone should rise above their limited nature.
15. Practise changing your focus regularly
The power of focus is what can get you both into trouble and also out of trouble. A good way to prevent yourself from becoming too attached to anyone or anything is to practise switching your focus regularly or asking “What am I going to focus on?” so that it never becomes too narrow or selective.
A good way to wean yourself off anything that starts becoming addictive is to throw yourself into some other area of life that can keep your focus balanced. If you’re willing to find something inspiring enough to totally distract you then you probably will succeed.
“Maybe it’s time to spread my wings”
It may help to consciously stop yourself from focusing on, thinking about or visualising whatever you need to depend on less. You may need to give up bad habits such as compulsively checking phone messages and remove reminders such as photos, social media and so on.
If you never focus on something it can’t control you emotionally. You don’t want your life to be about one person, situation, goal or outcome. A good way to change that is to decide what you should be focusing on less and what you should be focusing on more and proactively making that happen.
16. Practise embracing multiple outcomes
Outcome-independence may well be the essence of freedom. You can develop a more independent frame of mind if you practise imagining the main outcomes a situation could have and then embrace each of those scenarios by looking at them as positively as you can.
“Whatever happens could be a good thing in some ways. It may even be for the best”
The funny thing about life is that you never really know what’s good for you. Sometimes you need a “bad” experience in order to learn the amazing lessons that will result in becoming a much happier and more independent person in the long term.
As Oscar Wilde put it, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”. Sometimes we get exactly what we want and it is a disaster. But when we don’t get what we want, we often forget that it might not have resulted in a fairytale ending.
17. Take things slowly and play it cool
When I’m feeling needy around someone, I often visualise a giant baby crawling up to them and in a high-pitched squeaky voice saying “Mama?” This cute but embarrassing comic depiction helps me to detach and deters me from being needy by reminding me of how I would never want to come across.
Seeming to need slightly more from someone than seems socially appropriate can be quite a turn-off for them. But you can often such avoid unfortunate impressions simply by making it a rule to outwardly behave in much the same way as someone who has complete emotional independence.
No matter how you feel, you can make an agreement with yourself to communicate in a way that allows people to relax and feel totally free. By doing so you are refusing to let any personal feelings or difficulties get in the way of things going smoothly and you are also following a simple rule:
“Go with the flow”
A good way to take things slowly with people is to imagine what it might be like if you were already way too successful and busy or had too many friends. You are less likely to “come on too strong” or need “too much too soon” when behaving as if you already have everything you need from life.
Playing the role of someone who “has it all” can help you avoid giving anyone a sense of being inappropriately pushed or relied upon. You can “fake it till you make it”, using the appearance of totally casual behaviour to allow people take things at their own natural and often gradual pace.
But the main reason to take things slowly with anyone is that they may not actually be good for you in spite of overwhelming impressions to the contrary. If you’re trying to speed things up then you may have wrongly convinced yourself that someone has to be right for you and can’t be wrong for you.
18. Develop greater patience with life
Part of becoming less needy and more independent is improving what you can do for yourself. But an equally important part of the solution is having the patience to wait for some things in life to fall into place rather than depending on the next person or outcome that might be good for you.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day”
There is often a risk that some people will feel punished just because they aren’t the kind of person you’re hoping to meet one day. Rather than trying to change anyone it’s better to be patient, diplomatic, to accept that “everyone has their uses” and to look out for people who are good for you.
Nobody is entirely independent and even people who seem very “strong” are not as free as they imagine. Their sense of emotional well-being often relies on what’s going on in their lives and on knowing that someone who cares about them is a phone call away should they ever need their help.
But it is possible to learn how to overcome emotional dependency, at least enough to feel much better. At some point, even when things aren’t going very well, you’ll be able to say “I’m happy not because of what’s going on but in spite of anything”. Developing that frame of mind takes time and practice.
An important part of the process is letting go of overly dependent ways of thinking about yourself and others. When you combine that approach with enough self-encouragement and a willingness to broaden your horizons while prioritising your happiness then the path to freedom lies before you.
- Brenda Schaeffer. Is It Love or Is It Addiction?: The Book That Changed the Way We Think About Romance and Intimacy, 19. Hazelden Publishing, 2009 ↩
- Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. Mariner Books, 1971 ↩
- Erich Fromm, The art of LovingM, 3. Thorsons Edition, 1995 ↩
- Brenda Schaeffer. Is It Love or Is It Addiction?: The Book That Changed the Way We Think About Romance and Intimacy, 49. Hazelden Publishing, 2009 ↩
- Brenda Schaeffer. Is It Love or Is It Addiction?: The Book That Changed the Way We Think About Romance and Intimacy, 124. Hazelden Publishing, 2009 ↩
- Brenda Schaeffer. Is It Love or Is It Addiction?: The Book That Changed the Way We Think About Romance and Intimacy, 21. Hazelden Publishing, 2009 ↩