When your happiness starts to rely too much on any person, achievement or outcome (or a fragile combination of these) then you may discover that you’re emotionally dependent. That’s not an easy thing to face, nor is it in any way your fault but it is a challenge which may be vital to address.
It takes great courage to learn how to overcome this sense of being emotionally dependent on people, events or things 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 and isn’t always going to be easy but in my experience it can be done.
My main focus here is going to be on codependency, which is the tendency to rely too much on another person or people and to end up in unhealthy relationship situations. But I’m also going to touch upon the more general sense of relying on something just to feel okay. Here are 36 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 develop and preserve as much emotional self-reliance as you can rather than relying too much on them.
Developing this requires self-observation, learning and practice 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 sad, lonely, despairing or stressed out then you could experiment with different ways of making those feelings dissolve.
“It’s my job to look after me” (~)
This realisation can also be quite useful when you’re feeling needy. For example, if someone does not reply to a message then you might think “Why can’t they just reply?” But then instead of sending a second message, you take a step back and say “Okay, maybe I don’t want to be someone who pressures people like this”.
2. Practise being there for yourself more often
We all have an innate need to connect with other people and it’s worth developing good friendships and relationships. The answer is not to shut yourself off from the world, to imagine that you can be fully self-reliant, to commit to the existence of a hermit and to officially declare your independence from the rest of the human race.
However, it is important to learn how to look after yourself too. And the ironic thing about wanting to be less “needy” is that the solution is to recognise that your needs are very important and won’t go away if you neglect or ignore them. Dependency is often the result of having your needs neglected and then neglecting them yourself.
“Loving myself may sometimes seem incredibly difficult but it’s never a waste of time”
Here are some of the main ways to take greater care of yourself emotionally:
- Recognise your needs and prioritise your serenity and well-being
- Manage your needs regularly and strategically like a business
- Practise savouring your alone time and exploring playfulness
- Embrace real interest, curiosity, learning, discovery and wonderment
- Find or create a support group where you can express feelings
- 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
- Do some regular physical exercise to make your body feel better
- Treat yourself every week but also do something for your future
- Explore your capacity for sincere enthusiasm more often
- Wallow in anything positive and savour anything that brings joy
- Practise self-motivation or self-inspiration on a regular basis
- And finally, never forget that wherever there is life there is hope
Of course, you won’t always be able to do all of these things but you will often be able to do some of them and to gradually get better at both self-care and self-development over time. The priority is just being good to yourself, being genuinely kind, caring and helpful towards yourself in a way that you may not be used to at all.
Solitude is your greatest opportunity to explore all of this. Imagine if you decided to spend a few months in complete solitude, perhaps as part of a sponsored charity initiative. A good question to ask might be: “How could I make this phase of solitude peaceful, relaxing, healing, playful, constructive, meaningful or worthwhile?”
You would probably discover many surprising ways to amuse yourself, look after yourself and make yourself feel better: perhaps through calming meditation, movies, music, books, courses and interests or simply by going on long walks accompanied by your imagination. Make it your project to explore and repeat what works for you.
3. Really get to know your vulnerable self
Pushing away your feelings and thoughts creates a void where self-connection could be. A great way to fill that void is to practise expressing yourself through spontaneous voice recording, writing or journalling. Getting to know yourself through a process of authentic self-expression is how you can start to make friends with yourself.
We often want other people to listen to us, to understand us and to support us because we have given up on the possibility of doing that for ourselves. Discovering who we are through an experimentally honest, raw and unedited expression of our true thoughts and feelings is a very good first step to self-understanding.
We feel helpless when we are not able to express ourselves. Describing your needs, desires, frustrations, hurt, fear, sadness, shame, despair, stressful irritation and anger about what isn’t fair is a great way of giving yourself power so that you can be aware of what you are going through and help yourself in a spirit of self-compassion:
“Never judge yourself harshly for how you think or feel”
(and remember it’s not your fault when harsh thoughts occur to you)
It’s important to allow yourself to be as vulnerable as you truly feel inside and to express that vulnerability without reacting against yourself for being human. This means allowing yourself not only to express frustrations but also to say really helpless things such as “I’m scared that I just won’t be able to cope” or “My heart is breaking”.
The key to unlocking your self-compassion is to admit how hard what you are going through is. When expressing this, you may find yourself crying a little and feeling a sense of emotional release, which is wonderfully healing. It takes practice but it’s worth working on this regularly, maybe with the help of some emotionally inspiring music.
Even if your emotions appear to be numbed by a harsh sense of being removed from reality, it’s good to write about the confusion and despair that this makes you feel. Eventually, you can learn to fully sense your emotions and you will realise that there is really nothing more beautiful, innocent or adorable than your own heart1.
As well as expressing feelings, it’s good to write down your helpless thoughts so that you understand and can truly engage with your own mind. When you ignore your thoughts they are more likely to control you subconsciously. When you express them, you can start to deal with them more compassionately, rationally and responsively.
4. Practise loving self-parenting
Expressing vulnerability is a way of getting in touch with the part of you which is known as the inner child. The best way to empathise with and express that part of you is to identify with and speak directly as the inner child, saying things like “I feel really sad / hurt / scared / lonely right now” with real vulnerability in your voice.
Once you have sensed and genuinely expressed your helplessness, it’s good to respond to that part of yourself from a perspective of loving parental attention. The first thing you can do is to simply notice how adorably innocent, vulnerable and blameless2 the inner child is when expressing suffering and take a few deep breaths.
When doing this, it may help to visualise and gently connect with a mental image of how you looked at a very young age. You can then say something compassionately accepting to softly reassure your inner child that it is okay to think or feel that way. After all, you cannot help what helpless thoughts and feelings occur to you and so:
You can then resolve to help yourself with loving intention. At this point, you are expressing yourself as the responsible adult who is determined to do their best to take care of their adorable child. Even if you don’t know what to do, you can gently say “We’ll figure this out” or perhaps go further and make a promise such as:
“I know this is really hard. I know you feel lost and helpless.
But no matter how long it takes, I am here to do whatever I can,
one step at a time, to help you feel better”
You could follow this up with a statement of helpful action, such as “Okay, we’re going to do lots of deep breathing and relaxing. We’re going to have the most soothing cup of tea ever brewed. We’re going to watch that TV show! And slowly but surely, we’re going to let go of all the silly things that have caused you all that terrible pain”.
You can take a similar self-parenting approach to dealing with future challenges. For example, you might say “I know you’re afraid/anxious. I know that this won’t be easy. But I am here to do whatever I can to help you get through this situation. I know that everything is going to be okay because we can find a way to handle this”.
And so, we have a process for dealing with your thoughts and emotions. First, you can allow yourself to fully express them with authentic vulnerability. Then, you can respond with compassionate acceptance and understanding. Finally, you can express a loving intention to deal with them in a kind and helpful way.
Even if some of your thoughts seem silly, remember that it’s okay to have thoughts like that. You won’t help your inner child by dismissing, rejecting, censoring or punishing such thoughts so allow them, fully express them and listen to them with all your heart before even considering whether it might be possible to think differently.
When you’re going through a hard time, you may not always find a perfectly rational or balanced way to think about everything. But that’s okay because any thought experienced while suffering is still a valid expression of emotional needs, frustrations or pain which above all require your sincere and humane acknowledgment.
5. Let go of attachments by focusing on gentle, deep breathing
Whenever you depend on someone or something, your mind has become deeply attached to that person or object. Your relationship with anything you strongly resist or desire is one of intense involvement or engagement. And so, the solution is to practise becoming detached or disengaged while staying in the present moment.
Sometimes, we find ourselves caught up in an inner world of mental attachments and reactions. We know this is happening when we start obsessing about a person, issue or situation, helplessly swept away by a chain of intense, related thoughts and emotions which signify that our suffering is stuck in “replay mode”.
The best way to let of anything is to let go of everything, to change your focus so much that you give your mind a much-needed break from trying to control or cling onto anything or anyone. You can do this by focusing so much on your breath that the focus on everything else apart from the breath and body eventually starts to slide away.
“Embrace yourself with every in-breath,
let go of the world with every out-breath”
It helps to find somewhere quiet to sit, gradually slowing down your breathing and starting to focus only on your breath. Of course, you will still become momentarily distracted by thoughts, feelings, sights, smells and sounds but you can gently acknowledge these and then come back to focusing only on your breath and body.
Whenever you feel as though you are being swept away by life’s chaos or craziness, you can return to gently slowing down your breathing for a while. But it’s also a good idea to spend at least fifteen minutes a day in sustained focus on gentle, deep breathing because this creates a calm space that can free your mind.
What you are doing in that space is allowing yourself to relax a little despite how the rest of the world can be. Letting go of all mental clinging and reacting helps you to realise that it is not worth going back to being too involved with what might not be good for you anyway and that you can’t be bothered with that anymore.
6. Recognise self-harshness as a form of emotional cruelty
If you are used to dealing with yourself harshly then you probably developed this habit as a coping mechanism to deal with extreme circumstances. But self-harshness is best viewed as “inner child abuse”, a form of emotional sadism that a part your mind has been secretly getting away with in the absence of compassionate oversight.
The key to overcoming this is to realise that your inner child genuinely suffers, therefore must be essentially innocent and does not deserve any of the harsh punishments that you have habitually put yourself through. You will need many years of kind and nurturing self-support so that you can recover, heal, grow and develop.
“Behaving horribly towards myself isn’t fine just because nobody can see me doing it”
A good way to take responsibility for your self-harshness is to keep a list of the kinds of things you say, think and do to yourself that might be harsh. You can then ask whether each of these reactions is fair and helpful, whether you would do the same to someone you loved and whether you could replace it with a better response.
It’s especially important to watch out for suppressive thoughts and reactions. We often punish ourselves for thinking or feeling a certain way, for example by responding with “Don’t be silly” or “I shouldn’t feel this way”. It’s far more helpful to encourage your inner child to say whatever is on their mind and to fully embrace that.
Just imagine if you met a lost child in the street. The child is afraid, sad, lonely, despairing, upset, angry or helpless in some other way. 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 present with them, try to understand them and embrace their genuine concerns?
This is why making friends with yourself begins with being able to express and listen to your inner child. The part of you that struggles the most is the part that most needs to express itself, be acknowledged and feel understood. You are in the best and most proximate position to provide that understanding but it starts with self-expression.
7. Avoid confusing your needs with anyone’s responsibility
An important step along the road to freedom is allowing other people to be completely free rather than holding onto open or secretive 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 real solution to your situation.
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 similarly difficult situation. You can ask for help but there’s just no point demanding it because the harsh truth is that nobody really owes you anything.
“The only way to free yourself from some 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 have not yet learned to look after themselves, albeit through no fault of their own.
Imagining that anyone “should”, “must” or “needs to” 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.
8. Recognise and let go of self-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 and helplessness. The future does not have be like the past.
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 by discovering new ways of responding.
There is probably no substitute for a good therapist because it really helps when you grow through a relationship with a responsible parent-like figure who knows what is best for you and can help you in a far less conditionally caring way. But in the long run, the aim is to let go of the past rather than letting it control your reactions.
“The role of the present is not to compensate for the past”
Part of the solution is learning to distinguish between present situations and past situations they may remind you of. You can also distinguish between the utterly helpless child you once were and the increasingly self-calming, self-soothing, self-caring, self-understanding, self-approving and politely assertive adult you’re becoming.
You may identify certain “triggers” that made you feel helplessly attached or seemed to make an old reaction necessary. You can then start seeing similar things as an invitation to a trap which you don’t have to fall into rather than as something irresistible or impossible to ignore and which inevitably pulls you into deeper dependency.
This can also help you to recognise and let go of illusions at the core of the dependency. An example might be feeling a need to take responsibility for someone else’s problems or well-being. Another might be believing that your survival depends on securing one person’s approval or affection even at an unreasonable price3.
A common pattern in people raised by controlling parents is the idea that they have to do what someone else wants just because that person is upset or just because they are behaving in a cold or unreasonable manner. Patterns like this often result in the unhealthy suppression of healthy anger and a lack of assertiveness.
9. Recognise and manage any reckless impulsivity
Emotional dependency can create intense, overwhelming and confusing emotions. Reacting impulsively to that internal state can be very dangerous. What suddenly seems like a great idea when you’re in a “reactive” mood could turn out to be a really bad idea and so it’s worth recognising and stepping back from that.
It’s common to react to emotional overwhelm either by thinking “I can’t tolerate this for a single second” or “Oh God, this is me now and I will feel like this forever”. The good news is that neither of these automatic beliefs is true because feeling awful is a process which may have a few ups and downs but will eventually run its course.
Once you feel a lot calmer then you can think things through carefully. But feeling needy, upset, sad, stressed, angry, manic, tired, bored, hungry, low, high or drunk isn’t a great basis for drawing important conclusions or making big 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 that “This too shall pass” and wait it out rather than doing anything reckless to escape what they need to go through anyway.
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 better to express any intense feelings through private emotional journalling until you are in a fully recovered position to communicate far more carefully.
Whilst it can be good to express some feelings and needs to others, you can do so in combination with compassionate understanding, sympathetic attention and loving speech. And of course, it’s important to sympathise with yourself too in case you are just too overwhelmed to be quite so diplomatic.
10. Recognise when you start being too clingy
A bit of adventurous self-introspection can help you to 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 truly appreciating whatever is freely offered in a spirit of sincere gratitude.
Signs of premature attachment may include a feeling of giddiness or sentimentality, a possessive sense of wanting to have someone all to yourself, a dream-like desire to “merge” and a tendency to fantasise. None of these things have to be a problem but you could be leading yourself on by getting a little ahead of yourself.
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, exciting or inspiring 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”4
If you’re getting to know someone new then another sign that you may be over-attaching is that you seem to be a lot more involved with them than they are with you. Even if you cannot help being more interested than them, you can help your level of involvement and it may be a good idea to roughly match about the same level as theirs.
We might call this the principle of healthy reciprocation. One of my personal slogans in life is “I’m not keen on people who aren’t keen on me”. This way of thinking is useful because it stops me from wasting too much time or energy on people who through no fault of their own cannot truly understand or appreciate what I have to offer.
If you start attaching to anyone too soon then you’re prematurely giving them a degree of importance to you which they may not yet deserve. And so, you may need to give both yourself and them more distance to avoid overvaluing your interaction with them. The sooner you realise this risk the easier it is to avoid being clingy.
11. 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”
Part of the solution is to observe what makes you go deeper into such longing. For example, if you meet someone new then you may find that looking into their eyes a lot or focusing on their body makes you feel a little physically addicted and so doing less of that will help you to stay detached rather than getting carried away by possibilities.
Avoiding alcohol in these situations is also likely to help. As soon as you recognise that something could make you more addicted then the solution is to want less of it rather than more of it. This is because what you really want is to avoid losing your usual healthy self-control in the process of being swept away by desire.
A very common psychological aspect of romantic desire is fixation, an obsessive or exclusive focus on a particular person or thing. Without realising it, you may be fixating on someone by imagining that they might be “the one” instead of merely “one of a kind” and appealing in many ways but not necessarily right for you at all.
Another aspect of far-fetched desire could be the illusion of immediate urgency, the rather impatient sense that something has to happen right now or really soon. A desire for instant gratification may be a habit or simply a result of wanting to escape how you feel rather than dealing with it. But it might be better to say:
“Something along those lines would great at some point but
I can survive without it just fine for now”
This allows you to avoid fixating by broadening rather than narrowing the focus of your desire. Rather than thinking “Oh Henry! When oh when will you be mine?”, you will feel calmer if you conclude “Yep, what this feeling about Henry shows is that it might be good to meet a nice man at some point, perhaps one a little like Henry”.
Fixation is what makes people feel insecure about whether they will get what they have persuaded themselves they “must” have. A better way to view many encounters is like playing the lottery. There is no reason to take it seriously just because the stakes are high. The mistake is being “determined to win” when luck is involved.
That doesn’t mean that everything we try comes down to luck but it’s still best to view life’s opportunities as a series of games. You can eventually win one of those games especially if you accept that skill and effort are also required but the element of luck in any individual game is usually far too big to justify fixating on its outcome.
Another way to stop yourself from getting carried away is to be mindful of any tendency to fantasise. Even if you experienced a good connection with someone, it may not have meant as much to them. And while you are building things up in your imagination, they may have already gone back to their life and forgotten all about it.
What may seem completely amazing and the answer to all your problems may turn out to be surprisingly bad for you. And yet desperation has a way of making things look very different, urgent and unquestionable. It’s easy to get swayed by first impressions about new people and to forget that all that glitters is not gold. 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 infatuation or obsession 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 how someone first presents themselves with what they are 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 also very easy to confuse a beautiful moment of deep connection with the idea that your friendship with someone has “progressed to the next level”. People can be fickle, relationships have their ups and downs and even when intimacy feels good it may bring up unexpected issues that eventually create greater distance.
It’s not quite correct to believe that someone or something can “make me happy” even if they become your main source of joy. What’s happening is that you are making your happiness depend on them and that dependency can make you unhappy. The more you focus on what you think “makes” you happy the more you start to depend on it.
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 love that if it were possible”. You might start to think of any expectation as a mere preference.
12. View detachment from desire as a form of self-liberation
Whilst it’s absolutely vital to look after our basic needs, one of the dangers of the human condition is that the mind can always persuade us that we don’t have enough and that we need more. Desire can become insatiable and this often happens fairly soon after we get exactly what we imagined would bring us lasting satisfaction5.
Some of our desires might be viewed as a kind of inner tyrant, dictator or slave-driver6 who tells us what to do in the most unreasonably forceful way. It may sometimes be possible to detach by observing these inner demands as if they were coming from outside, for example by picturing a madman screaming “You must want this!”
However, it’s better to recognise that this part of your mind does have a positive intention: it only wants what it genuinely believes will be best for you7. And so, you can view it with compassion and understanding while also viewing it as external to your true self and recognising that its insistence may be a little misguided and unhelpful.
When you see your desire as part of yourself then you have almost no choice but to act on it since you simply see it as “what I want”. But when you see your desire as something outside of yourself which is pressuring you to do something then you have more of a chance to free yourself of any slavish or unquestioning subservience to it8.
“I don’t have to want this / I don’t have to fixate on this”
Some of our most basic impulses might be viewed as a result of the process of natural selection. They are geared towards doing whatever it takes to pass our genes onto the next generation9. However, there are many examples of situations where blindly following these impulses does not help us or others to live fulfilling lives.
A simple example might someone attending a social event in the hope of making a good friend. On their right is another nice person who shares lots of common interests with them. On their left is someone who they would not even get on with but whom they find very physically attractive. Which way are they more likely to focus?
Their feelings might urge them to look left even though focusing on the other person is more likely to be good for their long term well-being. This is because feelings are often used to trick us into doing whatever serves natural selection10. It’s rather like being hypnotised or fooled by a master who does not really care about us at all.
Sometimes, it’s possible to let go of desire by deliberately shifting our focus away. But when resisting only makes desire stronger then it may help to calmly observe or examine11 its pressuring for a while and to detach by viewing it as an interesting experience outside of ourselves rather than as an internal command which has to be obeyed.
13. Recognise and let go of any refusal to be happy
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!” The child may seem spoilt but it’s more likely that they are very distressed and genuinely believe that ice cream is what they must have to feel okay again.
To any adult observing the scene, it is obvious that the child could be okay even without any ice-cream. And so it is important to observe the child within yourself and to recognise when you might be holding your own well-being to ransom by insisting on something you can survive without because this inner tantrum can become life-ruining.
Again, it’s important to do this with compassion. Your inner child is tired of all that pain and distress and believes that the answer is to fight for what it wants. That’s completely understandable and so it’s important to respond with kindness because that is what is really needed. Only once you have done this can you let go of the demand.
It’s worth remembering that we can often experience great moments of relaxation or joy without needing to have some special reason for feeling good. But, of course, when we get carried away with desire, a part of the mind may start refusing to feel okay without having something which it believes we must have to be happy.
Being okay without what you wanted doesn’t mean that you’ve given up on your hopes and dreams. It just means that you are willing to make the most of any situation, even when it’s not what you would have preferred. And in some ways, that flexible attitude could be seen as the secret of true happiness, serenity or well-being.
Instead of thinking “What have I got to be so happy about?”, it’s better to embrace the idea of relaxing just for the sake of it and of being joyful just for the sake of it. Allowing yourself to feel okay whenever possible and in spite of the way circumstances are is what makes you less dependent on them and it’s worth being specific about this.
“I am willing to try my best to be okay in spite of X, Y and Z and even without A, B or C“ (^)
Identifying what you have recently made your well-being rely on can be an eye opener. For example, a troubling thought like “People are driving me crazy!” may be true to some extent. But it could also be reinterpreted as “I insist that everyone around me 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 insist that everything always makes sense” and is not strictly necessary. Recognising which arbitrary conditions you keep placing on your own serenity can increasingly set your mind free and improve your resilience through greater flexibility.
14. Practise letting go of the need to control others
The less you are able or willing to do for yourself, the more empty you are likely to feel on the inside and the more tempted you may then be to control other people so that they can do things for you instead. For this reason, emotionally dependent people very often struggle with a related addiction to controlling other people12.
Even if you have a noble reason for wanting to influence someone, trying to limit their freedom is likely to have a negative effect on how they perceive you. They may come to associate you with an uncomfortable sense of being manipulated or pressured into doing something against their will and may even start to secretly dislike you.
“Being controlling ruins relationships“
Some of our thoughts may be disguised forms of control based on what we incorrectly believe we must have. Here are some examples of what we may be unknowingly insisting upon in certain situations. The solution is to recognise if we are secretly making a demand and to transform it into a slightly more gentle preference or request.
- “I’m so lonely!” > but I may be insisting on company now
- “I need you!” > but I may be insisting on having you here now
- “I don’t need this!” > I may be insisting that this be otherwise
- “You don’t need to say that!” > I may be insisting that you don’t say that
- “You need to do this!” > I may be insisting that you do this
Of course, these statements may be expressions of valid concerns and do not always translate into unknowingly suppressed demands. But a good sign that you are in fact being rather too forceful, controlling, demanding, insistent or “pushy” is that you feel an accompanying physical “pushing” sensation of pressure within your body.
It’s also possible to feel a “pulling” sensation which often signifies that some form of resistance is causing us to insist on what we think we need. For example, if you subconsciously believe that you might die or be utterly helpless unless you get what you want then your insistence is likely to be driven by that resistant belief.
Part of the solution is to recognise that people’s behaviour is often as unpredictable or uncontrollable as the weather. That’s not always the case but it’s important to be able to recognise when it is and step aside. You may feel sad because you were hoping for sunshine but that doesn’t mean that it’s worth getting angry with the rain.
“It’s never worth trying to control the uncontrollable“
However, an equally important part of the solution is to acknowledge anger whenever it arises. Rather than suppressing anger and allowing it to control you subconsciously, it’s better to consciously recognise whenever you feel angry and to allow yourself to feel it fully because this gives you more of a choice about what to do with it.
A good way to make friends with anger is to say “I feel angry about this – and that’s okay”. Recognising that anger is totally understandable and neither good nor bad then allows you to say “Now, I have a choice: I can either do something reasonable to try to improve this situation or I can try to let go and come to terms with how it is”.
Anger is there to let you know that something isn’t good for you and to provide you with a burst of powerful energy which urges you to take action. But when there is nothing you can realistically do to improve the situation then you can free yourself of the need to control it by channelling that energy into a promise to take better care of yourself.
15. Recognise when your inner reactions make you more dependent
In addition to insisting too much on some things, dependent people often have an overly dependent attitude of resistance. It’s easy to believe that something might be intolerable, unmanageable or awful when in reality it could be handled. Such unnecessary dread-making resistance can cause as much suffering as unnecessary insistence.
Whenever we think we need something, we are more likely to start imagining that not having it might be an emergency. We might start thinking of the situation as more serious, important, drastic or catastrophic than it needs to be. And that makes us more likely to insist on something rather than being gentle and easygoing.
Part of the solution is to practise getting things in proportion. A lot of challenging situations can be thought of as “annoying rather than awful”, “stressful but not unmanageable” or “a pity but not necessarily a tragedy”. Some people can be thought of as “not very nice but hardly Adolf Hitler”. A good question to ask might be:
“Is my resistance / insistence making things worse in this situation?” (~)
Variations might include “Is my imagination / drasticising / awfulising / horrorising13 / intolerance / closed-minded aversion / demonising / fixation on disaster / impatience / inflexibility / over-certainty / greed / asking too much / lack of realistic expectations / over-seriousness / over-involvement / perfectionism / fixating making things worse?”
That doesn’t mean that you should start criticising yourself as soon as you feel distressed. As I’ve already said, it’s important to put self-kindness first. But once you have fully expressed, sympathised with and soothed yourself then it may be worth considering whether any unnecessary resistance or insistence played a role in your distress.
I’m not suggesting that a sense of insistence or resistance is always a bad thing because it could inspire us to take genuinely reasonable action to improve a situation for ourselves or others. But it’s always worth recognising when an internal attitude of excessive resistance or insistence creates suffering by making things worse.
We may insist or resist too much because our minds give something the wrong meaning. For example, you may subconsciously believe that you can only be okay if someone likes you or that if they don’t like you then that “must mean” that you are awful. Giving any situation a drastic meaning like that can also make you more dependent.
16. Take responsibility for dependent beliefs and attitudes
It’s very easy to suddenly become psychologically addicted to anything, such physical intimacy and external attention, kindness, sympathy, companionship or 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 then this is likely to significantly alter your mental 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 its own special system of self-reward and self-punishment around it.
“At least to some extent, we do these things to ourselves”
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, hoping for it and building my dreams around it then this will affect my emotions. If I see see the black cat then I may even feel blissful because I finally got what I thought I really needed.
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 most needed in the world. I rewarded myself with wish-fulfilling happiness at seeing the black cat and punished myself with a sense of frustration and disappointment if I didn’t see it.
If you do this with a person then you have turned them into kind of object, a mental object known as the object of desire. You might not really know what they are like but your imagination has seized upon the possibility that they could be good for you and this mere possibility can be enough to drive our silly brains wild with anticipation.
17. Challenge popular cultural assumptions about the nature of love
We may feel supported by personal, cultural or popular prejudices that seem to “confirm” some kind of value in sliding down the slippery slope of dependency. Falling “head over heels” and “madly in love” may seem “thrilling”, “caring” or “destined” rather than risky, unwise and merely a sign of preceding loneliness14 or self-neglect.
“Relying on romantic 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 creates strong and addictive emotions but, as beautiful as healthy love can be, such imbalanced longing is not something that needs to be idealised or seen as magical.
The danger of being romantic is that it may cause you to want to fall in love with someone, whether or not loving them will be good for you and whether or not your feelings will be returned. Romance wants you to become addicted and presents the state of being addicted as something beautiful for which people should strive.
18. Take people off their silly pedestals
Common themes in dependency include low self-esteem and a lack of assertiveness. This could be caused by a number of different factors but it is commonly the result of people being taught at a very young age that they are not fully allowed to express themselves, to assert themselves or simply to be the person they really are.
Children who are emotionally harmed in some way usually have no choice but to accept what is being done to them. They are in a natural position of both physically and mentally looking up to those who neglect or mistreat them. When they grow up, they then carry this model of child-like helplessness with them wherever they go.
This can result in a tendency to agree too much, to empathise too much, to give too much or to make too many excuses for the aggressive or manipulative behaviour of others. The best way to cultivate self-respect is to start respecting yourself, which means respecting your own feelings, needs, views, rights and personal boundaries.
“I don’t need a special reason to start respecting my own humanity” (~)
Even if you sometimes feel worthless, never forget that you are an equally deserving member of society with a right to the same respect, dignity and consideration as anyone else. It’s important to notice and diplomatically but firmly let people know when you disagree or when something isn’t good for you. I call this “the power of no”.
Here are some of the things that emotionally mistreated children need to unlearn:
- I’m essentially wrong so whatever others say must be right
- I’m worthless so I must treat others as more worthy than me
- I’m bad or guilty so others get to be the supreme judge of me
- I have no rights so others have a right to walk all over me
- My needs aren’t important so I have to do whatever others need
- My problems aren’t important so I have to take on other people’s problems
- I am low and all the way down here so others are way high up there
Reversing such beliefs will be a great step to better assertiveness. You are no longer a helpless child but rather an adult survivor willing to develop a sense of being able to effectively manage situations by being vocal, expressive, honest, direct, straightforward, calm, clear, firm, friendly, mature, persuasive, responsive and resourceful.
“I can do this. I can learn this. I can handle this” (~)
You can also give yourself power by viewing unreasonable behaviour from an independent position of critical disagreement and self-respecting fairness. If anyone behaves aggressively or manipulatively, secretly look down on what they are doing as rather pathetic, ridiculous, immature, clueless and unknowingly self-embarassing.
You may not have to look down at the person because there could be valid causal reasons why they are ignorant, confused, thoughtless or disturbed. But it’s still important to recognise any serious problem or threat in their behaviour and to deal with it in an assertive and balanced way that can realistically improve things for you.
19. Work on developing an authentically independent mindset
When you think about it, children “individuate” partly through disagreement. Occasionally saying no makes you an individual rather than a total conformist or slave. And so, when it comes to almost any issue always ask “What do I actually think about this?” rather than immediately deferring to what anyone else might happen to think.
Many emotionally dependent people will sometimes automatically view themselves from someone else’s viewpoint. For example, if someone else is being unfair towards them then they may over-empathise with that unfair person’s perspective and forget that it’s far more important to form their own independent viewpoint.
If a person’s dependency was caused by a bad parent then they will often keep viewing themselves from that bad parent’s perspective. The solution is to start a late teenage rebellion by disagreeing with the bad parent who now exists mainly in their own head. You can replace these outdated views with better ones based partly on kindness:
“From now on, I am the one who decides what I think about things” (~)
This means taking your view of yourself into your own hands and doing so in a spirit of fairness and consistency. For example, if you would never judge someone else for being in the same situation as yourself then there is equally no need to make a harsh exception by judging yourself for being in that situation either.
It also means that you can start daring to disagree with other people more often, not just for the sake of disagreeing but for the sake of being faithful to your true self. Wearing a mask just to please others can be humorously accepted as necessary in some situations but it is usually best viewed as a form of self-betrayal.
This doesn’t mean that your aim should be to start unnecessary wars or put yourself in harm’s way. But better assertiveness often begins with allowing yourself to honestly disagree, noticing when you disagree and being willing to express disagreement calmly and reasonably, no matter who someone else may think they are.
One of the reasons why some dependent people wear a mask is that they fear rejection but all they succeed in getting others to accept is a mask. Learning to express your true self at a support group can help you to build up the confidence and ability to get more of the real social acceptance which your true self wants and deserves.
So much of psychology is just about allowing yourself simply to be who you already are. You may think of yourself as the problem but you are actually the solution. And the more you realise that being yourself is the solution, the less you will feel as if you need to depend on other people’s permission or approval just to be yourself.
20. Develop a greater sense of assertive responsibility
If you are not used to being assertive then you may be accustomed to viewing many problems in terms of other people’s behaviour rather in terms of your ability to respond. For example, if someone misunderstands you then you might focus on how unfair they are being rather than seeing that as an opportunity to explain yourself.
When the idea of standing up for yourself seems strange or scary then you get used to having a very passive and defeatist mentality which assumes that other people can simply walk all over you and that there is nothing you can do about it. This may trigger understandably helpless feelings of anxiety, fear, despair, anger or even hatred.
If you assume that you are a powerless victim then your whole focus is likely to become preoccupied with what other people do and how they make you feel. In other words, your emotions are likely to depend on their behaviour almost as if they have a magical remote control that can make you upset whenever they choose.
You may find yourself constantly reacting15 to other people by saying things like “I just can’t believe he did that!”, “What on earth is her problem? or “Why can’t they just understand?” The solution is to let go of excessive control, to allow people to be unreasonable but to start responding reasonably and assertively to their unreasonableness.
“I am willing to make things better
by turning situations around rather than depending
on other people to make things easy for me” (^)
This does not mean that you will always get a good or fair result because outcomes can never be dictated. But even when you lose out in one of life’s series of games, it still feels good to play well by standing up for yourself in an optimistic but also realistic and undemanding way which allows people to have their flaws and differences.
Being independent is not just about self-care but also about a willingness to learn how to make moves and deal with challenges to try and improve your circumstances. Rather than obsessing about how bad a problem or situation is, your focus can switch to how you can handle it or how you can actively make make things better.
Realising how much power you can reasonably wield as an adult allows you to gradually replace the outdated model of childhood helplessness with a more hopeful and engaged outlook on life. The new assumption is that taking effective action is usually possible and can transform many negative situations into positive ones.
A good way to take a more active approach to meeting your needs is to set goals. For example, if you have a thought like “I never seem to make friends” then you could make it a goal to go to more social events. If you then think “Nobody says hi to me”, you could make it your goal to introduce yourself to at least two people every time.
The point is that you are no longer sitting back and depending on other people to improve things for you. Rather, you see it as your job to take reasonable action to increase the chances of improving your circumstances. In this way, setting goals can help you to take a more active and effective approach to just about any need or issue16.
21. Cultivate an easygoing sense of self-respect
Many dependent people live with a partly subconscious sense of being essentially flawed or defective to the very core of their being. They suspect that there is something not merely imperfect but fundamentally wrong with them and they depend on other people to deliver them from this rather drastic and far-fetched self-judgment.
This may lead to a compulsive habit of trying to secure external approval by proving themselves to be special or worthy. They may do this by chasing self-improvement, recognition, greatness, perfection or superiority in an area such as work, fitness, education, artistic ability, personal charm, moral image or physical appearance.
It may also result in a heightened sensitivity to the slightest possible implication of rejection. It’s as if they are always ready to doubt their basic human worth and reject themselves unless someone else makes them feel admired and desired because the core suspicion that they are shamefully terrible never goes away.
“I don’t need to do or be anything special just to be okay with myself”17 (~)
Part of the solution is to humanely reject the idea of being somehow “fatally flawed”. It’s completely normal for any human being to have a whole bunch of flaws and to make all kinds of mistakes. And having more problems to deal with than people who have been emotionally privileged in life doesn’t mean that you are the problem.
Another way of tackling the issue is to understand the belief as a symptom of brainwashing. At some point, many of us have had the unpleasant experience of being treated more like an object than a person. But it’s important to recognise if you learnt to copy rather than renounce this ignorant and inhumane attitude towards yourself.
If you look up to people who are not good for you then you may end up placing your self-approval in their hands, giving them the authority to act like a supreme judge who gets to make a binding decision as to whether or not you are okay. There is no need to outsource your self-acceptance to anyone, let alone to inconsiderate fools.
Self-respect doesn’t need to be about admiring yourself. It can simply mean respecting your needs and feelings as a person. Not even the worst insult, criticism, rejection or shaming experience can stop you from being essentially okay because being okay comes with being human and nothing can ever take away your humanity.
All self-esteem means is admitting and appreciating that you have some good points. But you don’t need to depend on self-esteem to be kind, friendly, caring or humane towards yourself. It’s enough simply to remember that you are a real person and that it’s never worthwhile, fair or necessary to have a problem with yourself.
22. Avoid idealising anyone
The more we idealise, 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 both addiction and almost inevitable disappointment. What seems like the Holy Grail can easily turn out to be more like a poisoned chalice.
Worshipping anyone as if they are some kind of “saviour” or “Messiah” figure is particularly dangerous. Imagining that someone has a supernatural ability to make you whole18 is really a way of persuading yourself that there’s something you can’t live without and that you could never feel okay or develop yourself independently.
It may seem like idealising someone is a great compliment but you’re not doing yourself or them any favours. Sliding into dependency through such self-delusion 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.
“The jury’s still out. This could be genuinely awful” (~)
Idealisation is a form of escape from life and from our own self-development. 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 disappointing19. Anyone we worship in our imagination can be boring, annoying or even quite obnoxious in reality.
A classic sign that you may have idealised someone is the tendency to disregard counter-evidence that contradicts your wishful sense of who you imagine they are. Your wonderful impression of them may be largely illusory and then you would end up saying “I fell in love with an idea of what they might be like”.
“Be careful what you wish for”
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 especially when it comes to progress.
It may become difficult to focus on things that are far less exciting than what our minds have persuaded us we need. But the art of concentrating on something less instantly gratifying and being willing to slowly “get into it” with an open mind can be viewed as an important life skill which is essential to beating any form of addiction.
23. Reassess your excuses for idealising someone
Your mind is likely to come up with interesting reasons why a person would be great for you. A common excuse relates to our simple way of equating different things by similarity or association. For example, there may be something about the person which reminds you of an ex-partner or someone else who was once good for you.
Perhaps they have the same first name or quirky characteristic as someone you used to know. Maybe they fit into a broad category in which you have placed too much faith, such as having the “right” star sign or Myers Briggs personality type. Or maybe it seems that they could never be bad because they work for a charity or hospital.
Broad categories are never enough to tell you what you need to know about a person. And the same goes for anything which you may have in common. It’s great if you like the same music and movies or share similar views about politics and religion but that doesn’t automatically mean that you have found a great friend or partner in life.
“That isn’t a good reason to idealise them / That doesn’t mean they would be great for me” (~)
An even bigger risk is the generalisation of a person’s good qualities. You may tell yourself that they are “so kind”, “so lovely”, “so good” and so on just because they have been rather charming up to that point. That doesn’t mean that they could never behave like a complete “A-hole” and so it’s often a good idea to reserve judgement.
It’s precisely that sense of charm, romance or beauty which causes us to get carried away with far-fetched conclusions. What seems like a fateful meeting of destiny driven by irresistible chemistry and an aligning of the planets could easily turn out to be a meaningless, random event of no real significance or consequence.
Wishful thinking can not only make you idealise another person but also cause you to misinterpret something they do as a clear sign of interest in you. Even if you normally consider yourself to be an expert mind-reader, it’s worth remembering that romantic thinking involves a somewhat worryingly naive tendency to see the bright side.
24. Be careful about what you worship
When you’re dependent, there is also danger of giving too much importance and imagined value to things as well as people. By “things”, I am referring not only to real events and physical objects but also to attitudes, principles and ideas. Giving anything too much value and attention could be a consequence of not giving yourself enough.
If we are not willing to love ourselves then we have to find something else to love. When there is not much love on the inside, many people look to the outside world and give external things too much importance. Others find themselves entranced by something which they discover in their inner world, such as a particular belief or notion.
In other words, we are often are willing to see extraordinary potential, beauty, importance or value in something other than ourselves. The danger is that we overdo it and start to worship what then becomes a false idol. What we worship may be good in some ways but we can still overdo our appreciation to the point of unhealthy fixation.
“Never overvalue what is merely valuable”
This explains why some dependent people become so intense about things that other people might consider trivial. It’s often because they are ready to see anything that is good for them as the answer to all their prayers rather than merely something neat to be added to the general mix of things that contribute to their well-being.
It may also explain why some people get so carried away about whatever principles they consider to be important. Of course, it’s good to believe in something but if you are willing to go completely nuts over an issue then there is a good chance that the degree of importance you have given it is partly a symptom of your own suffering.
Overvaluing things is an understandable response to the sense of desperation which many dependent people feel as a result of their own self-neglect. When you feel as though your general happiness level is a 3 out of 10 then anything which offers you the prospect of raising that to a 6 or a 7 may seem like a gift from Heaven itself.
But it’s still important to be careful about what you worship rather than merely value. Idolising something automatically lowers you in relation to it, turning you into an overly eager and submissive slave, minion or disciple. You become a wretchedly fixated and unhealthily addicted fanatic willing to do anything for another hit.
25. View what you idealise as a sign of what you could do for yourself
The ideas we fall in love with are still useful when viewed as an expression of our valid needs. Apart from anything else, there could be a valid need to fantasise. After all, exploring your rich imagination can be a very healthy distraction from frustration and boredom so long as you remember never to confuse what you imagine with reality.
But it’s also possible to recognise more specific needs in the clues that idealisation produces. For example, you may fantasise about someone acknowledging, connecting with and loving your inner child. That is something that you can start doing for yourself by increasingly noticing and sincerely appreciating your own adorable innocence.
“The more I can do for myself, the less I need to imagine others doing for me” (^)
It’s not a coincidence when people who do not take proper care of themselves fantasise about someone else behaving like a “caregiver” towards them. Many of those who don’t spend enough time listening to their own frustrations, feelings and thoughts will fantasise about someone giving them all of that much-needed attention.
The fantasy of either being saved by someone or of wanting to save someone also points to a valid underlying need. Maybe it’s time to become your own saviour. A good way to save yourself is to start figuring out what you might realistically do to improve your situation and then taking steps towards making that a reality.
26. Recognise when, how or why you might end up with a bad deal
At the root of all dependency is a desperate need for external connection to fill the void where internal self-connection could be. This desperation can blind people in a way that causes them to ignore when a situation might cause them real harm. It’s worth accepting that a deal isn’t working for you if:
- You keep trying to connect with someone who isn’t interested in you
- You keep trying to reconnect with someone who already hurt you
- You’re involved with someone who is malicious, aggressive or manipulative
- You find that you’re the only one willing to care or make a real effort
- You’re trying to be with someone who is very emotionally distant
- You keep hoping they’ll change but they just don’t, won’t or can’t20
It’s painful to acknowledge when what you most crave, focus on or see as meaningful in your life is bad for you and more painful to walk away knowing that you can never return. But paradoxically, the decision to subject yourself to the emotional pain of withdrawal could be one of greatest, bravest and noblest acts of self-love.
There are many reasons why people find themselves in hurtful social, workplace or romantic relationship situations but a common issue in dependency is a sense of general desperation emerging from the void where self-connection could be. This causes people to lower their standards in terms of the harm they are willing to take.
The common lack of self-kindness, moderate assertiveness or healthy boundaries may also occasionally attract the attention of people with a rather predatory approach to satisfying their needs. If your behaviour suggests that people can walk all over you then some people will see an opportunity in what you are unknowingly advertising.
The most self-effacing love addict is the one who keeps putting themselves down, viewing themselves as flawed and assuming that any problem is probably their fault. This causes them to sympathise too much, agree too much and allow too much. In other words, their lack of basic human self-respect causes them to love too much21.
Some people’s way of thinking about love is modelled on the dysfunctional family environment in which they were raised22. They may automatically associate love with coldness, neglect, hostility, manipulation or punishment because these were part of the package with which they received some of their parent’s love at a young age.
“Love doesn’t need to involve a reenactment of childhood pain”23
They are subconsciously used to the idea that they can or even must be treated badly by someone whose love they need. This may cause them to develop an oddly romanticised notion of their own role as that of a saint or martyr24, someone willing to nobly sacrifice themselves and put up with all that pain for the one they so love.
There may be an addiction to playing some other rigid role that stops them from being able to take part in healthy relationships. For example, they may find themselves becoming their partner’s shrink25, parent or caregiver. Or they may feel as though they always need a crisis just so that they can play the role of the saviour or rescuer26.
Often at the heart of this unhealthy arrangement is a kind of wishfully misconceived yet assumed contract: “Perhaps if I love you enough by letting you hurt me then you will eventually love me back”27. If this failed to work with a bad parent then they may be willing to try again with a lover who slightly reminds them of that bad parent.
They may even be attracted by signs that a person will treat them badly. After all, they subconsciously believe that love is pain28. And this sadomasochistic notion of what it means to be loved29 causes them to get excited by the prospect of being with someone who presents the kind of challenge that they think love has to involve.
Such factors explain why some people live in denial by blaming themselves30 or by making excuses for their partner’s hurtful words and actions. Rather than believing in a healthy notion of love characterised by mutual benefit, shared joy and reciprocal support, they believe that they get what they deserve when it’s bad enough31.
27. Allow everyone to be responsible for themselves
At the heart of relationship dependency is a commitment to one-sided over-involvement. Codependent people tend to believe either that some else needs to be responsible for them or that they need to be responsible for someone else. This is likely to undermine a relationship’s healthy foundation of reciprocal care and concern.
The dangerous idea of being responsible for someone else’s emotional well-being may be a pattern of thinking that originated in childhood. For example, someone may have had a parent who treated them like a surrogate partner or made them feel as if it was their job to take care of their needs rather than the other way around.
The person who seeks a caretaker may have been raised in a very neglectful situation. While that is undeniably tragic, it may lead to a slightly irresponsible mentality of expecting other people to compensate them for what they missed as a child. They may even become outraged when some else “fails” to take care of their needs.
“To some extent, everyone can discover an ability to sort themselves out”
While taking care of someone can be a beautiful thing, it is not usually healthy when one person makes their life all about the other person’s needs, especially if they don’t feel that they are getting what they want out of the relationship. This often happens because the other person has not taken enough responsibility for themselves.
It’s admirable to support someone who is genuinely honest, committed and focused on doing what it takes to deal with their issues. But the risk of falling into the role of a caretaker, protector or saviour is that you end up effectively enabling someone to avoid overcoming serious problems that harm both you and the relationship.
28. Figure out how to get a good deal from friendships and relationships
Developing a more pragmatic and business-like mindset can help you to avoid getting a really bad deal in future. I would suggest that the solution is to start thinking about whatever you do, focus on or involve yourself with in terms of the simple yet helpful paired concepts of an “investment” and a “return on investment” (ROI).
Any mental, physical or emotional energy which you devote towards anything in life is an investment which yields some kind of outcome, result or return. Sometimes, the return is worth the energy invested and sometimes it clearly is not and so it is important to start noticing and roughly calculating the difference between the two.
You can adopt this mindset without becoming in any way ruthlessly self-serving. For example, helping someone who genuinely deserves your support may yield a very worthwhile altruistic or personal return on your investment. But the key point is to start making all your ethically sound investment decisions with forethought and awareness.
Someone in an unhealthy relationship may find themselves investing lots of energy into playing the controlling roles of an investigator, prosecutor and prison guard. But although they may stop their partner from cheating, all they get in return is resentment. It might be better to spend their energy on themselves or on someone who cares.
It’s also important to think about your return on investment when looking for potential friends or partners. If you are focusing too much on what you can offer to get someone to like you then you may have overlooked the far more important consideration of whether they might be bad for you in some ways32. It’s time become a smart shopper33.
“I’m no longer in the market for pain or rejection34.
And the last thing I need in my life right now is drama!” (~)
The most profound love is not built on turbulence but rather on the much more peaceful and stable foundation of mutual respect. Questions worth asking might include “Is this person kind and considerate towards me?”, “Are there any signs that they might be bad for me?” and “Are we compatible in all the ways which will be important?”
Some people are attracted to unavailability perhaps partly because they wrongly imagine that someone must be god-like just because they aren’t interested. But it’s healthier to view disinterest as a clear indicator of disconnection. It may give you the misery which darkly draws you but you will miss out on the light of connection.
It’s also important to watch out aspects of denial in your process of selection. These may include self-effacing thoughts along the lines of “I don’t want to be judgmental”, “It’s not positive to focus on flaws”, “I don’t want to criticise”, “Maybe I can help” and so on35. These are all ways of blinding yourself to what could be bad for you.
29. Avoid over-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 depend36. It’s possible to reverse these assumptions.
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 this will only become a self-fulfilling prophecy until you realise that it might not have to be true and then a space for discovery opens.
That does not mean that you will never have to go through a painful, stressful or turbulent phase of life. But making the decision to survive and being willing to do whatever it takes can help. Rather than fixating prematurely on happiness, remember that making the most of a really bad situation is already a great achievement.
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 by expressing difficulties, understanding yourself, soothing your distress, letting go of attachments and eventually coming out stronger.
“Everything is going to be okay”
Believing in any form of general hopelessness can only make a person feel more needy and less in control of their life. Part of the solution may be to visualise yourself surviving and recovering in the long term. In case you are worried about anyone else who is involved then it may help 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 experience a rejection, 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 the rest of your life is going to be like. The truth is that we have no idea.
Bear in mind that I am not suggesting that you should suppress such thoughts. For example, if you feel as if you are going to die of loneliness then it’s good to write that down and fully express the emotions and thoughts involved. You can then take a step back, breathe deeply, feel a sense of release and let go of the belief.
Life is full of meaning because you always have an opportunity to gradually learn lessons, let go of the past, heal yourself, express yourself, connect with whatever and whoever is good for you, appreciate beauty even in sadness, have a kind impact on others and grow into someone with the power to truly surprise you.
30. 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. Greater flexibility is often a good way to solve fixation.
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, other sources of contentment can become a lifeline and so it’s worth developing these at least as an insurance policy.
What helplessness reveals is a need for more power. It is natural and very understandable to look to an external power source. But seeing something or someone as your rock or crutch means that you are relying on them as your sole source of power. And so, it’s good to develop a range of both internal and external power sources.
If your dependency has started to cause you a lot of stress or pain then 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 exclusive global monopoly on that benefit.
“Nothing is irreplaceable”
For example, if you love how much someone truly understands and empathises with you then you could look out for a few more people like that but also learn to do the same for yourself and others. Any need can be met in a variety of different ways and so learn to identify what you want and patiently go after it in more than one form.
Some desires might also be analysed. What is a hug, for example, if not partly a combination of physical nurture, emotional relief and the idea of a total embrace of who we are? The need for a hug points to a need for deep acceptance as well as warmth, support and safety each of which can be pursued in many different ways.
There are people get into trouble by developing an insatiable desire for some weak substitute for connection, such as public attention, approval or admiration. These are superficial alternatives to the deeper connection, kindness, understanding and appreciation to be found in a good friendship either with yourself or with another person.
A relationship breakup is one of the hardest challenges and similar to overcoming drug addiction. Some people are basically heroin on legs. And so, as in “rehab”, the most effective approach is “cold turkey”37, giving up all contact with the other person, starting a whole new chapter in life and remembering that time eventually heals all.
31. Let go of overly idealistic expectations about people
When you’re emotionally dependent, you’re likely to either make excuses for the bad behaviour of others or to have unrealistic and intense notions about what you can expect. The latter would 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 because this can affect your expectations subconsciously. 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. 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”, highly committed and involve “being there for each other” even in the very hardest of times or always being genuine and 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.
Whilst deep loyalty is undeniably beautiful, it’s too rare to expect or turn into a general rule. In most cases, friendship operates on the far more casual basis of mutual convenience. It works so long as neither side expects too much from each other and both sides continue to appreciate whatever they get out of the arrangement.
It’s good to replace any idealism about people with a more transactional view of friendships and to some extent also relationships. Just as in a marketplace, there is something you are willing to offer and something you want in return. However, both sides may need to explicitly communicate rather than assume any terms of agreement.
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 written or unwritten moral or contractual 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 saying exactly the right words to boost your confidence. Other people will be largely 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” so long as you remember what you can’t expect. Nobody can be an ideal friend, let alone a substitute parent, and their idea about how everything works may be much more laid-back. Many friendships are about occasionally amusing each other and nothing deeper. And that’s okay.
32. Think more in terms of virtues rather than obligations
One of the benefits of healthy anger is that it lets you know when and how you may have wasted your precious time and energy on the wrong people or situations. In this way, anger serves as a useful notification system that helps you to redirect your resources in ways that can then result in far better rates of return on your investments.
But if you find yourself stuck in a place of anger then there is a good chance that you have started to waste energy on that too. Resenting other people for failing to live up to your expectations or standards is completely understandable and sometimes unavoidable but it’s important to recognise that it does not get you anywhere.
Disappointment is a common experience but a good way to recover 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 about disappointing (though not abusive) behaviour 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!” As long as they are not being cruel or manipulative then 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”.
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 and simplistic to blame them for it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can never have a low opinion of anyone’s character but it means that you focus more on adapting your expectations to reality than on resenting anyone for failing to meet your needs. Even some of the worst betrayals are the result of people simply having unrealistic expectations about each other.
For example, some people feel understandably betrayed when their partner breaks the marriage vow “Till death do us part”. But it’s also worth asking whether it makes sense for people who are high on love hormones to make such a promise in the first place if their oxytocin levels cause them to ignore what is likely to go wrong in future.
33. Practise changing your focus regularly
In its most agonising moments, dependency is often accompanied by mental obsession. It’s important to be humane with yourself and to know that what this expresses is a profoundly understandable yearning for intimacy and maybe also a grief for lost self-connection both of which deserve your most heartfelt sympathy.
At the same time, it’s good to notice the role of your imagination in fuelling this state of unhealthy preoccupation. For example, your mind may be toying with mental visualisations of how things were or how things could turn out be in the future, gradually weaving together a whole storyline with which to fantastically bewitch you.
You may find yourself fixating on a past story or on an imaginary conversation which you wish you could have with someone. In this case, it may be worth writing down everything you would like to tell them or others to get it all off your chest. Once you have fully expressed everything, it’s time to let go and move on with your life.
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?” and “Is it worth focusing on this?” 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. Journalling and meditation can be great but if you can also find something healthy and inspiring enough to totally distract you then this will probably help you succeed.
“Maybe it’s time to spread my wings” (^)
People often distract 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 do that without making everything depend too rigidly on a particular outcome. The way to avoid lapsing into more dependency is to embrace exploration rather than “goal fixation”.
It may help to consciously and even somewhat firmly 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, email or chat apps and remove reminders such as photos, videos, social media and so on.
If you never focus on something then it can’t control you emotionally. You obviously don’t want your life to be all about the one thing that just isn’t working out. 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 then taking responsibility for making that happen.
A trick that will work for some people is substituting the object of their desire with something that meets a similar need. For example, if someone rejected your romantic advances then it may help to think of someone else to obsess about for a few hours to ween yourself off the original “target”. Focusing on many targets could also help.
34. Practise embracing multiple outcomes
Outcome-independence may be the essence of true freedom. You can often develop a much more independent frame of mind if you practise imagining the main outcomes that a situation could have and then embrace each of those scenarios by looking at them as positively as you can in terms of how you would handle them.
“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 to learn the amazing lessons that will result in becoming a much happier and more independent person in the long term. And sometimes the good experience we desire is not worth its eventual consequences.
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 results in a totally unexpected disaster. But whenever we don’t get what we want, we often forget that it might not have resulted in a fairytale ending.
A good way to detach is to view new people in your life as characters in a cool movie that is allowed to have any storyline. The aim is to have an interesting experience by seeing how the plot develops and what you can learn from it rather than insisting that it must become the story of a great friendship, partnership or romance.
Another method might be to imagine your situation as preceding a completely unrelated “happily ever after” story. You might tell yourself “For all I know, I will be happily married to a web designer from Peru one day”. This frees you from needing to make your long-term goals depend too rigidly on whatever is happening at the moment.
35. 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 somewhat cute but also embarrassing comic depiction helps me to detach and deters me from being too needy by reminding me of how I would probably never want to come across.
Seeming to need slightly more from someone than might be socially appropriate especially at an early stage can be quite a turn-off for them. But you can often avoid such unfortunate impressions simply by making it a personal rule to outwardly behave in much the same way as someone who has complete emotional independence.
No matter how you feel, you can make a sensible agreement with yourself to communicate in a way that allows people to relax and feel totally free around you. By doing so you are refusing to let any feelings, insecurities or difficulties get in the way of things going smoothly and you are also following a healthy life-enhancing principle:
“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 way too many friends. You would be much less likely to “come on too strong” or need “too much too soon” if you already had everything which you needed from life so why not behave similarly?
Playing the role of someone who “has it all” can help you avoid giving anyone a sense of being inappropriately pressured, pushed or relied upon. Without masking everything else, 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.
Even people in great relationships have a need for space, freedom and separateness which is easily disturbed by someone wanting more than they feel inclined to give. It’s healthy to notice if you are overstepping someone’s boundaries by asking too much, making decisions on their behalf or behaving as if you are joined at the hip.
This is even more important to consider when dealing with strangers. One-sided over-attachment can be quite creepy especially when it comes to the issue of flirting. Just imagine someone who is not your type repeatedly gazing into your eyes or making suggestive remarks while you sit there politely squirming with awkwardness.
But the main reason to take things slowly with new people 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 could never possibly be bad for you.
36. 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 rather too much on the next person or outcome that may or may not be good for you.
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 or force anything, it’s better to be patient and highly diplomatic, to accept that everyone has their good points or uses and to look out for people who are good for you.
If you find yourself constantly chasing instant gratification without much real fulfilment then the answer may be to spend a period of life not only doing more for yourself but also working on yourself in healthy ways. As a result, you are likely to have more to offer both yourself and others, leaving you with a sense of feeling more balanced.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day”
The search for a great connection with someone may involve not only time, effort and some self-improvement but also quite a few hurdles including some rejection and disappointment along the way. But eventually, the rare coincidence of two people being simultaneously available, compatible and open to each other can happen.
When we are going through a hard time, we may sometimes become possessed by an unnecessary, premature or overblown sense of despair. On a subconscious level, your mind may persuade you that “it’s now or never”, that if something does not work out for you this time then it means that nothing will ever work out in the long run.
Such despair is just as far-fetched as believing that something absolutely has to work out now. Both naive hope and cynical despair tend to be expressions of impatience. The alternative is to accept that progress is gradual. You are learning, healing and growing and so everything can get better but over time rather than overnight.
Nobody is entirely independent and even people who seem very “strong” are not as free as they imagine, present themselves or come across. Their sense of emotional well-being often relies partly on what’s going on in their lives and on knowing that someone who cares about them is just 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 doing okay, not so much because of what’s going on but in spite of everything”. Developing that resilient frame of mind takes time and practice.
An important part of the process is letting go of overly dependent ways of thinking. When you combine that approach with a willingness to broaden your horizons through a mix of relaxation, exploration, self-expression, self-compassion, self-understanding, self-care and assertiveness then the path to freedom lies before you.
Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. This work has been registered with the UK Copyright Service.
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