Understanding and Overcoming Emotional Dependency

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Healthy interpersonal functioning is largely about getting the balance right on a number of important dimensions. That’s especially true when it comes to issues of emotional dependence versus independence.

Independence is generally a good thing. But believe it or not, there are folks who are inordinately and unhealthily independent: they’re far too determined to do as they please, whenever they want. They feel entitled to set their own rules and are forever ignoring or contesting society’s norms. They’re determined not to be beholden to anyone or to subordinate themselves in any way to a “higher power” or authority. That can be a big problem, not only for relationships but for society as a whole. I’ve spent a professional lifetime studying and dealing with such individuals. [1]

There are also folks who step in line and meet expectations far too easily and quickly. They tend be overly deferential, especially in their relationships. Again, problems arise because the balance is off. Some folks simply don’t have enough independence of thought or action. This manner of coping provides the breeding ground for emotional dependency.

Emotional dependency evolves in an insidious way. Life presents us with many different challenges, and how we feel about ourselves and our ability to cope in large measure determines how we’ll meet those challenges. If we’re riddled with doubts about our ability to handle things successfully we might not even try, and when we fail to assert ourselves or throw in the towel too quickly or easily, we deny ourselves the opportunity for occasional success. A vicious cycle can then develop: every time we back down, give up, or give in, we only reinforce the notion that we simply can’t accomplish our goals. Thinking that way only further impairs our already poor self-image. And that’s precisely how emotional dependency develops. Having an impaired sense of both self-efficacy and self-worth can easily predispose a person to seek reassurance, approval and support from others whom they view as stronger, more capable, and more confident. All too often, those with these characteristics are among the overly independent individuals I described earlier. That’s how abuse and exploitation can enter a relationship.

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Emotional dependency becomes a big problem when one’s sense of personal value and power is too wrapped up in the approval of another. Folks whose happiness, sense of security, and sense of worth is dependent upon the actions or sentiments of another tend to be chronically miserable and depressed. They have a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Emotional dependency and depression often go hand-in-hand.

Overcoming emotional dependency is actually a fairly straightforward proposition — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, especially when your self-image and confidence are both in the tank. The task is simple: do the very things you fear to do. Meet life’s challenges head-on, even if you’re not sure you can emerge victorious. In fact, give yourself permission in advance to fail. Instead of berating yourself for any mistakes you do make, make it a point profit from them, regarding every failure as a learning experience. In time, with consistent determination and self-assertion, even in the face of possible failure, you’ll eventually experience your fair share of successes. And that will help you build not only your confidence but also a greater sense of personal strength and self-worth.

Folks struggling with emotional dependency tend to focus their attention externally, looking to external sources for approval and satisfaction of their emotional needs. So overcoming emotional dependency is largely a matter of re-directing one’s focus internally. It’s about spending some good, wholesome time with one’s feelings. It’s tending to one’s basic wants and needs. It’s about reflecting on one’s own choices and the consequences of those choices. Of course, one has to do this benignly, without unproductive self-criticism or condemnation. In the end, it’s about getting to know oneself better and figuring out how to amplify one’s natural strengths and deal constructively with one’s weaknesses. In short, it’s about healthy self-love.

Emotionally dependent individuals are chronically at risk for entering into and remaining in abusive and exploitative relationships, and they’re at risk for all sorts of unhealthy ways of self-medicating the chronic pain such relationships engender. But there is a way out, and it all starts with doing something — anything — different from the usual and learning from the consequences. In the end, folks get rescued from emotional dependency by turning to the very person they so long mistrusted, avoided, and neglected — themselves.

[1] For more on individuals with too much independnece, see my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance and How Did We End Up Here?.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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