This is an article about the kind of emotional dependency typically found in people with conditions such as borderline personality disorder. However, many of the recommended solutions will also apply to a lot of other people overcoming childhood trauma.
My current understanding of the issue is that it is a particular form of dependency which results from an anxiously attached response to not having a secure parental attachment during childhood (I am not a qualified therapist and this article is merely an opinion based on experience and my reading of around 75 psychology books).
Recognising the roots of the problem
It’s worth contrasting an anxiously attached child’s response to early trauma or neglect with that of children with an avoidant attachment style. When some children realise that their parent is not going to be able to take care of them in a reliable way, they avoid focusing much on the parent and basically get on with the job of taking care of themselves. As a result, they may become fiercely independent at a relatively young age. That doesn’t mean they can never become love addicts as adults but when that happens it’s a very different dynamic which usually occurs only once they are already deep into a relationship.
Through no fault of their own, anxiously attached children are not able to meet their own needs very well. In response to highly inconsistent and unreliable parenting, they fall into a trap of constantly hoping that their parent might be able to meet their needs rather than simply giving up on that prospect and focusing on meeting their own needs.
As a result, they never really learn to take care of themselves anything as well as other children, such as avoidant types who learn to take on their own self-care or securely attached children who are raised to know that they are loved and consciously prepared to look after themselves. The result is a lot of self-neglect in addition to the original neglect they already experienced.
The problem is also massively exacerbated by early experiences of trauma and shaming. The more sensitive and impressionable a child is, the more likely they are to believe a parent who gives them the impression that they they are unwanted, inconvenient, useless or worthless in some way. In some cases, they will simply draw these conclusions from parental neglect. Shame makes it very hard to believe that they deserve their own self-care, let alone that they can develop the ability to do it in the midst of so much emotional turmoil.
As a result of that turmoil, they may never learn to experience and manage their emotions calmly and may often suppress them as a coping mechanism. All of this keeps them in a state of helpless reliance on their unreliable caregiver and results in a tragic form of mental addiction for which they are in no way to blame: they get used to constantly hoping that someone else, anyone but themselves, might be willing to take care of them.
How things get worse in adult life
The problem of childhood anxious attachment can very naturally morph into love addiction in later life. An anxiously attached person can quickly become needy or clingy around friends, colleagues and especially potential romantic partners. As soon as they meet someone who they unconsciously identify as a kind of substitute caregiver, they will want too much too soon from that person because they are essentially re-experiencing their childhood predicament and trauma all over again to some degree.
At first, they may involuntarily idealise the other person. This happens because the child-like part of them still needs to believe that someone other than themselves will be there to take care of all their needs. This is a form of wishful thinking that might be compared to what some religious people experience: the need to believe that a divinely caring being or saviour figure is out there.
The problem with subconsciously assigning the role of a caregiver to another person is that they can never live up to that responsibility and they are under no obligation to do so. At some point, the love addict will often re-experience the fear and anxiety of their childhood all over again because they need a level of reassurance and support from the other person which is unrealistic, or because they re-experience the disappointment of not being taken care of well, bringing a lot of their suppressed and unprocessed childhood pain back to the surface. In some cases, those feelings of childhood abandonment may be so unbearable that it will cause them either to cling even more to the other person or reject them altogether.
The most extreme pain will often be experienced in cases of unrequited love because that will be like going through the pain of their childhood all over again. In some cases, the love addict will not be aware of the extent to which what they are experiencing has virtually nothing to do with the other person and so they will feel as if that other person is to blame for causing them all that pain when in reality most of what they are experiencing is the original childhood wound which needs to be fully experienced so that it can be healed.
Some of the solutions to love addiction
1. Practise viewing yourself through the eyes of a loving parent and taking active steps in self-care. A good way to open your heart to more of your own kindness is to imagine how you might respond if you saw a lost child in the street. Imagine that the child is afraid, sad, lonely, despairing, upset or helplessly angry. Would it be helpful to ignore the child or tell them to “Shut up”? Or would it be more helpful to listen to the child, be gentle and present with them, to try to understand them and embrace their real concerns? Encountering the vulnerable emotional states which therapists refer to as your inner child is no different.
It’s important to view that part of yourself through the eyes of a loving parent who feels sincere compassion for what their child is going through and is able to notice their adorably child-like, cute and unmistakably innocent nature. It can help to visualise and connect with a cute image of yourself as a child (for example based on a particular childhood photo). Notice how innocent the child is and give them a big hug. Practise talking to yourself in a much more caring way and, once it feels right, consider sincerely addressing your inner child using an affectionate name such as “sweetheart”, bearing in mind that you are addressing the most helpless and vulnerable part of yourself that has always needed your affection.
In terms of loving action, a great start is simply helping yourself to relax. Once you feel less stressed, you’ll see that it gets easier to become more gentle and open your heart to more of the self-compassion, self-understanding and self-care you’ve always deserved. You can learn to lovingly ask your inner child what they might need and then respond by giving that to yourself as much as possible. When answering that question, it can help to go really deep into what your inner child is feeling so that you can express your needs and emotions from a place of vulnerability. You can switch back into the loving parent and respond to those feelings and needs.
2. Be willing to re-experience the fear and pain of your childhood but this time with your own caring support. For example, if someone isn’t there for you or doesn’t give you what you desire, go through the anxiety and pain knowing that what you are experiencing comes from the distant past and needs to be re-experienced. Rather than trying to control the external situation, be willing to face and cope with your internal situation even though it can be really difficult. The aim is to do this mindfully, i.e. to physically feel what is happening as much as possible without getting distracted by thoughts about it.
Dealing with turbulent emotions gets easier with practice and sometimes you can only allow yourself to feel a little at a time so that it’s bearable. However, it’s an opportunity to release pain and trauma, develop greater resilience and form a closer bond with yourself through self-compassion, self-soothing and self-calming. If you feel a lot of fear, practise slowing down and relaxing different parts of your body one at a time. Remind yourself that everything will be okay in the end because you are safe even though you are going through some very fearful memories and temporary sensations: this too shall pass.
The only way out is through: the more you can practise physically feeling those emotions rather than trying to escape from them, the more you can learn to process them and release them. You can’t really be friends with yourself until you have made friend with all your emotions so it’s worth putting a lot of time into this. The more you can sit with them and be there for yourself, the less you will feel the need to reach out to anyone else
3. Consider the more radical idea that nothing can really harm you emotionally if you become an expert at calmly experiencing all your emotions. We spend so much of our lives worrying about things that might make us feel a certain way. We fear outcomes that might cause sadness, hurt, loneliness, fear or shame. But if you get used to calmly experiencing each of those emotions, they eventually lose their power over you.
To achieve such inner freedom, all you need to do is meditate for around half an hour a day and then practise what you learn from that approach at various points throughout your day. Meditating on emotions means doing nothing but breathing, letting go of all thoughts and calmly focusing on physically experiencing your emotions as fully as possible. Asking “What emotion am I feeling?” and “Where in my body can I feel it?” can help you to accept your emotions, lower any suppressive resistance to them that causes physical tension and make it easier for your body to process them so that they can be felt and flow through your body
4. Be willing to challenge the negative beliefs or conclusions behind distressing emotions. Once you allow yourself to experience and accept a challenging emotion, you can often investigate whether there might be a false or overgeneralised belief behind that feeling. For example, you may feel shame because deep down you believe that you are not lovable just because of a few bad experiences that don’t need to define you.
You can reverse this tendency by looking for reasons why the opposite is true, writing those reasons down and then reminding yourself of them on a regular basis so that you start to reinforce a more positive outlook about yourself. You can also develop a habit of noticing the positives in your behaviour on a daily basis to improve your self-esteem
5. Avoid blaming others by realising that although you didn’t create the pain and fear of your childhood you alone are responsible for your own healing and that when pain or fear comes up again that has very little to do with anyone who merely happened to trigger it. Some people’s job is to reintroduce us to our childhood wounds so that we can heal them. Resist any urge to criminalise someone just because it turns out that they may not have been very virtuous, humane, courageous or considerate. Whatever they may believe about themselves, they’re only human and the less you focus on trying to change their natural limitations or engage in a pointless protest against the reality of who they are – which on some level they cannot help and do not have to change for anyone – the easier it will get to do your deep inner work.
One of the saddest and most painful truths about life is that other people are not always humane when we really need them to be. But needing people to be more humane than they really can be – or blaming them for being far less humane than you thought they could be – is unrealistic and crazy-making. Ultimately, nobody owes you anything but you owe it to yourself to gradually work on becoming the only person worth relying on. True freedom is realising that you need less from others because you deserve more from and can do more for yourself
6. Notice when you want too much from another person and step back from the relationship a little so that you can focus more on supporting yourself and gradually feeling more free. Notice if you want someone to be more like a parent or caregiver than what they really are, e.g. a simple acquaintance, a silly relative, a casual friend or a partner with their own inevitable flaws and limitations. It’s generally wiser to expect and take a little less from others than they are willing to give because then they will will feel really free around you rather than feeling pressured, smothered, or slightly strangled.
Notice when the child-like part of yourself starts to become rather naive and overly trusting of others especially if you haven’t known them for a very long time. Ask yourself how you would feel if they were to disappoint you, for example by suddenly losing interest or by behaving rather rudely. If your world would fall apart as a result then this is a reason to detach a little, let go any child-like expectations, become more flexible and look after yourself more so that you avoid relying on them too much
7. Become more independent by realising that you don’t need anyone else to confirm that you are special. You are already an evolutionary miracle by virtue of being a human being with all your good points: whether others truly understand your value is never as important as your own ability to notice it. A child needs to say “Look Mummy” 0r “Look Daddy” and hear “That’s wonderful darling” whereas an adult notices whatever they value for themselves and acknowledges the goodness in it. There’s nothing wrong with pointing at what you are doing and saying things like “Come on, that’s awesome!” because then you are doing your own self-parenting through active self-encouragement
8. Become more independent by realising that you don’t need anyone’s permission to be who you are. Develop your own tastes, preferences, beliefs and opinions and stand up for them rather than thinking that you need anyone else’s worthless approval. Their approval only tells you what THEY like, value, think and believe. It should have little impact on what YOU like, what YOU value, what YOU think or what YOU believe.
The anxiety you feel at not getting someone’s approval is the same anxiety experienced by the child who is learning to be their own person and embrace what nobody else needs to “validate” since nobody has the authority to reject what is valid for you anyway. Keep celebrating your authentic differences and one day you will become fearlessly assertive because you will have developed inner authority. Nobody else gets to decide what is important to you. Let them be whoever they need to be, even if they disapprove, and allow yourself to be who you are but aim higher than mere self-acceptance: see the true nature of your personality as a gift and practise positively reveling in the glory of your own being!
9. Take other people off their silly pedestals by realising that nobody is really all that amazing. If anyone seems too good to be true it’s only because you haven’t seen their bad points and limitations yet so develop a degree of healthy cynicism without going too far. Challenge any excuses for idealising people and remember that sometimes we do that for the silliest of reasons, such as the fact that they just happen to look attractive or smile at us a lot.
Remember that although everyone prefers to present their best side to new people, we all have flaws. Many people wear social masks because it’s a great way to get what they want from others and even what looks like saintliness is often a disguise for something quite cold and calculating. It’s also just a bad idea to give away your power by treating someone as if they are above you. Not only are you setting yourself up for the worst disappointment but they may end up looking down at you as a result. The truth is that nobody is all that amazing: we are all both great and pathetic in different ways: it’s called being human
10. Notice if the child-like part of you idealises other people into a kind of substitute caregiver. This is likely to be a turnoff for the other person. It’s a very unrealistic way of looking at relationships in which both sides need the other person to be able to stand on their own two feet. See what that child-like part of yourself is doing as a good reason to become a better caregiver to yourself. At the same time, start to look down on the idea of needing a caregiver since that can stop you from growing into the self-sufficient and independent person you want to be in the long term
11. The flip-side of the previous two points is to avoid behaving in a way that gives people the impression you are beneath them. Stop looking up to people, grovelling, over-apologising and putting yourself down like a self-loathing beggar. Stop rushing to please others in a way that stresses you out. Stop giving them the importance that YOU deserve. Instead of constantly selling yourself out or selling yourself short, switch allegiances by developing more loyalty to yourself
12. Recognise self-abandonment in its various forms. For example, stop looking at yourself through the eyes of people who don’t understand or appreciate you. That’s you forgetting to be your own person and outsourcing self-acceptance to the wrong people. It takes practice but you can keep giving yourself the understanding and appreciation you deserve so that other people’s shallow judgments eventually become irrelevant. Another example of self-abandonment is when you’re not really living your own life, working towards your future and pursuing some of your own passions, for example because you’re too busy obsessing about someone else. It’s important to check in with your needs and feelings on a regular basis and show up for yourself as a good friend, parent and coach
13. Take things less personally by realising that nobody can really “reject” you since you already have a right to be who you are in the world and eventually let your greatest qualities shine. Nobody, no matter how arrogant or judgmental they are, can can ever take that away from you. While negative feedback can be useful, whether or not anyone likes you or what you do is often arbitrary and random in many ways. There’s no pleasing some people but others will understand and love your true value even when you’re making mistakes. That’s because your value is always there whether anyone else happens to see it or not. Some people will find you too difficult while others will think of you as the easiest person to get along with. Ultimately, we are all here to be who we are, to make mistakes and learn lessons in the process but never let one person’s arbitrary dislike of you define your worth
14. If you find yourself obsessing over the wrong person, face the most painful truth by reminding yourself that they are never going to love you or be there for you. Every time you think about them, you are barking up the wrong tree. We have to try to move slowly in the direction of where we realistically want to be in the long term, which is far away from what doesn’t work and towards what can help us heal. There are really only two choices: you can either spend the rest of your life hoping for the impossible or you can very gradually move in the direction that leads to a new life.
This means being willing to work through the grief, let go of their importance, focus on new people and activities that substitute whatever benefits you used to associate with that person and gradually rebuild your happiness. Another way to think about obsessing over the wrong person is that you’re essentially trying to solve an important problem but on a somewhat superficial level. The deeper solution is to start connecting more with yourself and especially with your emotions rather than repeating the same childhood pattern of constantly looking to an external caregiver who won’t meet your needs
15. Avoid contacting anyone you need to be getting over. As tempting as it may be to get things off your chest or try to make them see something, there are three good reasons why it’s usually never worth contacting someone you need to be getting over. The first reason is that you are unlikely to get the result you want from that interaction. The second reason is that it can pull you deeper into obsessing about the person rather than helping you move in the right direction. Finally, it can become a source of embarrassment and regret in the long term. I shudder to think of some of the emails I have left in other people’s inboxes. It’s better to go through hell, fully recover and then be glad you didn’t send too many of those.
16. Forgive yourself for having a dark side because it’s not your fault. For example, if one of your parents was aggressive and controlling there’s a good chance that you normalised such behaviour at a young age and it may come out in your own behaviour when you’re stressed. You didn’t create such problems so don’t beat yourself up, accept that we all unconsciously learn a few bad habits and congratulate yourself for recognising what you are more than happy to work on eradicating altogether.
In my case, what I have decided is that I would like to become a more graceful person. What my greatest mistakes have taught me is that I gain something by being gentle and accepting rather than forceful and controlling even if that means having my heart broken and allowing people to be unreasonable in their own way. No matter how I feel, I can’t change others and the more I try to pressure anyone to be different form how they’re meant to be the more I start to resemble my parents in a bad way.
17. Be radical in becoming your own best friend, coach and parent at the same time as accepting that it will take a lot of patience, gentleness and some experimentation. Be willing to take care of yourself as though you were the last person left on earth, i.e. with nobody else to support you. At the same time, don’t be perfectionistic about it. Check in with your needs and feelings regularly, ask “Is there anything I can do to help?” and be proud of any effort aimed at expressing, soothing, healing, guiding and inspiring yourself
18. Dissolve any shame, harshness or unwillingness to help yourself through greater open-mindedness and self-compassion. Everything we judge about ourselves is adorable from a more compassionate perspective but sometimes we forget to empathise with ourselves and this can bring out some of that old self-harshness or self-neglect which we may have wrongly learned as children. Are you ready to receive more kindness from yourself or is some part of you resisting? Whenever you’re being self-harsh or self-neglectful, stop and ask “Am I really being fair to myself here?” Just think of all the times you suffered because you treated yourself more like an object than a real human being. After everything you’ve already been through, do you really need to keep punishing yourself or refusing to give yourself a break? Isn’t it time you took your own side for a change?
19. See yourself as a late developer rather than a lost cause and get excited about any area of your life where you can learn and grow. It’s not just that personal transformation is an amazing prospect but it no longer has to rely on waiting for someone else. By becoming your own saviour, you become the one you’ve been waiting for all these years because you start giving yourself some of the love which you always thought had to be for someone else
Sometimes, life may seem utterly hopeless but the cool thing is that even very small changes can make a big difference further down the road. You don’t have to change everything in a single week or month but never give up on yourself and remember that one day your journey of survival, as impossible as it may sometimes seem, will become someone else’s greatest inspiration. And the best part of all is this: that someone else will be you.