Are They Emotionally Dependent? Are You?
How do I recognize emotional dependency? I am curious where the line is drawn from depending on someone for support and where that goes too far. How do I deal with someone who might be emotionally dependent?
Lean On Me
Before I talk about the unhealthy side emotional dependency I need to give a “shout out” to healthy emotional dependency. God designed humans to be social (Gen 1:26, Gen 2:18), to submit to one another (Eph 5:21), and to depend on one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). We can see this reflected in the fact that we are born with a body and a brain that expects and responds to physical and emotional connection. When we resist our need to depend on others we will experience a host of dysfunction and disorder. There is what is called constructive dependency, which describes someone who uses the emotional support of others to aid their own efforts to pursue contentment and confidence. The key to this healthy form of emotional dependency is that the support from others is an added resource, not the only one. Bottom line is, we need to be somewhat emotionally dependent.
The key to this healthy form of emotional dependency is that the support from others is an added resource, not the only one. Bottom line is, we need to be somewhat emotionally dependent
However, as you know, too much of anything is bad. I like to think of excessive emotional dependency as being in a boat without a paddle in the middle of the ocean where you drift, and the rockiness of the ride is at the mercy of the waves. In the same way, the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of someone who is excessively emotionally dependent is solely at the whim of what happens outside of them. This person often feels helpless and overwhelmed in their personal “ocean.” They find solace allowing the values and reactions of others to be their barometer for who they should be, how they should feel, and what they should do. While they may get some relief from the anxiety and stress that their world brings them, being tossed to and fro has its complications including, social anxiety, excessive need for approval, crippling fear of rejection, low self-esteem or feelings of emptiness, sadness and feelings of worthlessness, jealousy and possessiveness, constant difficult making decisions or starting things on their own, idealization of others, and anxiety of being alone.
This person often feels helpless and overwhelmed in their personal “ocean.” They find solace allowing the values and reactions of others to be their barometer for who they should be, how they should feel, and what they should do.
Those who struggle with excessive emotional dependency are going through a lot on the inside and can come off to others as hypersensitive, clingy, needy, demanding, insatiable, or exhausting. It can be really hard if you are on the receiving end of this. What I find helpful is to remember that this person is struggling with the terror of losing connection, the lifeblood of being human, just as you would be terrified to have your own hand cut off. If you or someone you care about struggles with excessive emotional dependency here are a few things that you can do that might also be helpful:
1. Find someone who challenges you to be you. If you find that your thoughts and feelings are tossed about by others, find someone who encourages you to make decisions for yourself and shows interest in knowing your thoughts and feelings. If you are in relationship with someone who seems excessively dependent, one thing you can do is restrain from making decisions for them and be the encourager. It would also be great to notice small moments when that person made a decision on their own or expressed their own thought or feeling about something and celebrate that with them.
2. Date yourself. People who feel excessively emotionally dependent tend to not know themselves well or simply not like themselves. One way to address this is to “date” yourself. Take yourself out and start to discover hobbies or other things that interest and invigorate you. If you are relationship with someone who seems excessively dependent you can encourage them to go on a date with themselves and maybe help them plan some of their date.
3. Seek therapy. It can be terrifying to feel like you cannot do things on your own or to feel like you are alone. Therapy is a place where you can experience a healthy supportive relationship, get practice in seeking constructive dependency, and understand the roots for excessive emotional dependency. If you find that someone you know has a lot of needs and few resources you might consider compassionately suggesting that the person seek counseling for additional support.
4. Know your limits. For those who are dealing with someone who seems excessively dependent, you will need to set some boundaries so that you do not become resentful of that person. This might look like limiting the amount of time you spend with the person or even reconsidering if the relationship is worth continuing to invest in.
Wishing you the best as you seek out healthy dependency and manage excessive dependency.
Dr. Aundrea Paxton graduated with her Psy. D. in clinical psychology from Rosemead School of Psychology. Currently, she serves as staff psychologist at the Biola Counseling Center and special appointment faculty for Biola University. Aundrea and her husband Kerry are both Southern California natives and have a passion for encouraging and supporting the development of healthy relationships and families.