What is Emotional Dependence?
Updated: May 31
Emotional dependence is the opposite of emotional strength. It means needing to have others to survive, wanting others to “do it for us,” and depending on others to give us our self-image, make our decisions, and take care of us financially. When we are emotionally dependent, we look to others for our happiness, our concept of “self,” and our emotional well-being. Such vulnerability necessitates a search for and dependence on outer support for a sense of our own worth.
Being emotionally dependent puts us at the mercy of our fears and other people’s whims, and severely limits our freedom to be ourselves. Although our minds often know better, when we are emotionally dependent, we feel that others hold the key to our well-being, that they must know better than we do what is good for us. Or, we may believe that we must give ourselves away in order to gain and hold someone’s love. That belief makes reassurance a necessity rather than a nicety.
Before I ever heard the term “emotional dependence,” I knew that, in some mysterious way, I turned my life over to other people. It didn’t really matter who they were—my parents, husband, kids, friends, coworkers. If they were happy with me, then I could be happy. If they approved of me, then I felt worthwhile. If they granted permission, then I believed it was okay for me to do or be something. I looked to others for approval before feeling confident enough to take a step or a stand. I wasn’t myself; I was whoever I thought the person I was trying to please wanted me to be. Since I wasn’t a mind reader, no matter what form I pretzeled myself into, I wasn’t able to please everyone all of the time. But I tried. That’s emotional dependence!
Denying or sacrificing ourselves on the altar of others’ expectations—or what we perceive to be their expectations—leaves us with no self. Without an awareness of our self, the courage to express who we are, and the willingness to experience the discomfort and exhilaration that follows, we are not truly living. We are existing merely as mirrors, reflecting other people’s lives. Until we are able to be our unique and beautiful (and, sometimes, ugly and mundane) selves, we cannot truly love either ourselves or others, and love is what life is all about.
Why do so many women have trouble maintaining emotional strength? As many researchers have shown, women have a deep need for emotional connectedness and intimacy. In fact, one of the premises of Carol Gilligan’s book, In A Different Voice, is that women’s voices are easily silenced by the culture because of their need for copacetic connectedness. This desire is not all bad, since it is what makes us such wonderful lovers, friends, and mothers. But when the need for connectedness is not balanced with the need to be our own person, we can become emotionally dependent, losing sight of ourselves and all our capabilities. We become afraid of anything that seems to threaten our relationships with others. Being disconnected can feel life threatening and is, therefore, terrifying to us. Out of our terror we often do exactly what we are afraid others will do—we abandon ourselves, littering the sides of our personal life-road with forsaken desires, goals, talents, and dreams.
Fear—of not being loved, of abandonment, of being thought to be selfish—is the main thing that keeps us vulnerable and bound in the chains of emotional dependence. Therefore, our two most difficult challenges are to truly believe it is okay for us to be ourselves and to learn to live with, move through, and heal our fears.
For many years, I was run by my fears. For example, I was deeply afraid of rejection or of offending anyone and would go to great lengths to avoid disagreement of any kind. But very few people who knew me would have said, “Wow, there’s a woman who is really afraid!” I hid it well. And so, I was to learn, did countless other women.
Unfortunately, many of us have allowed fear to block our awareness of our inborn strengths. I myself used to be a master at doing that. Although other people perceived me as a strong and independent person, I frequently felt I was only playing at being grown-up. Others saw me as successful and mature, but inside, I felt buffeted by other people’s moods. I knew that I hadn’t taken responsibility for my own life, and I was afraid to do so.
Even though I had a master’s degree in counseling and had been in private practice for several years, inwardly I felt I was “just a wife and mother.” Sure, I had performed the work of an adult person, leading groups and seeing clients, but inside, I felt like a little girl dressing up and playing at these roles, hoping to gain the approval of others.
What changed? A great deal! I turned forty, met a wonderful woman friend who wouldn’t let me lie to myself, and, most important, I began to really listen to myself. Each of us has a “still, small voice” inside that speaks to us continuously. The trouble is, we seldom listen. Yet, if we let it, our inner authentic self can guide us unerringly. You, too, can hear the voice inside you that will help you realize you have the courage to become who you really are.
I don’t want to imply that I am now “fixed” and never wrestle with low self-esteem, because I do. There are times when I sink into vulnerability and inwardly protest that the consequences of being myself are too harsh and unfair. In reality, all my protests are not inner ones. I’m also prone to groan and moan outwardly and loudly to trusted friends when I’m feeling upset about something. Many of those grump-fests end in laughter, and it’s with great relief that I can assure you that my painful stretches are not as long or hard as they once were. Sooner or later the lessons I’ve learned and the insights I’ve gained surface and act as a ladder to help me climb out of the pit. Growing through tough times and circumstances becomes easier and easier the more deeply I appreciate the fact that not being myself reaps the most serious consequences.