Blog Short #95: Are you too dependent?
Photo by Roman Didkivskyi, Courtesy of iStock Photo
Did you flinch when you read the title of this blog? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. We live in a culture that values independence, so the idea of being dependent doesn’t sit well.
That said, there are many reasons you could struggle with dependency even if you’re well into adulthood. Some of the most common ones are:
- An insecure attachment style
- History of emotional trauma or child abuse
- Growing up in a chaotic and unreliable environment
- Having parents who were consistently depressed or emotionally unavailable
- Losing a parent (or parents) early in life
- Being in foster care
- Having a primary parent who was critical and cold or a helicopter parent who didn’t allow you to develop your independence
- Taking on adult responsibilities as a child
Here’s the problem in a nutshell:
From birth through childhood, you depend on parents and caretakers for most of your needs, especially to feel loved, valued, and worthy. You’re in the process of building your sense of self and foundation for becoming independent. When those needs aren’t met, you’re left floundering as you move through adolescence and into adulthood.
It’s confusing. You’re supposed to take charge of your life, yet you feel inept and overwhelmed by the enormity of these expectations.
You’re told directly or indirectly,
“You’re an adult now. It doesn’t matter what happened before. Suck it up. You’re responsible for yourself.”
And, unfortunately, it falls on you to make repairs.
How Dependency Shows Up in Adulthood
If you’re unsure where you are, here are some measures you can look at to decide if you’re struggling with unmet dependency needs.
You can’t carry out the regular daily requirements to run your life.
This includes things like managing your finances, keeping up with laundry and household chores, feeding yourself properly, sleeping during regular hours, attending to personal hygiene, and getting to work on time or keeping a job. You might succeed with some of these but have great difficulty with others.
Have difficulty making decisions.
Decisions cause you anxiety, and you’d rather someone else make them for you or help you decide what to do. These can be big decisions like choosing a career, buying a new car or a home, getting married, having children, etc. They might also be simple daily decisions like what to eat for dinner or whether to say yes to an invitation to do something with a friend.
Other people’s opinions of you hold a lot of weight.
You’re easily hurt or upset if people don’t like you. You could swing from feeling inferior to others to acting superior and being critical. You might also feel offended or defensive when there’s any hint of criticism.
Difficulty taking responsibility for yourself and your behavior
You might blame others for your problems, see yourself as a victim, and make excuses for lapses in behavior. This one’s hard because, in some respects, you still feel inept to take on adult responsibilities even though the expectation is there. You didn’t learn the skills or get the emotional support you needed growing up to learn how to do this, so it seems unfair to be held responsible now, but you are.
You may act fiercely independent yet are unable to run your life.
This shows up by:
- Being overly opinionated.
- Fighting with others.
- Taking offense when someone tries to help you or is consistently nice to you.
- Having tantrums when things don’t go your way.
- Complaining often about being mistreated.
- Hopping from one relationship to another or one job to another.
- Not finishing things you start.
These behaviors are characteristic of pseudo-independence and don’t apply to everyone, but if they apply to you, it’s important to recognize them and see them for what they are.
What You Can Do
Your goal is to become more independent. Even if you didn’t get your dependency needs met growing up, you can do this. It’s not a quick journey but still something you can accomplish.
If your history’s weighing you down, try counseling with a competent therapist who can help you review it and work through the issues holding you up. This is not something you can gloss over with positive thinking. It requires revisiting, working through, and letting go.
Secondly, begin developing the habits and characteristics that will help you become more independent. Here’s a list to try.
1. Develop more self-awareness.
Practice noticing your thoughts and feelings throughout the day, especially when you feel reactive to something. The idea is to become familiar with and aware of how you think and react emotionally. Don’t approach this exercise to validate your thoughts, but more as a method of watching them and getting to know your soft spots. It’s also not an exercise in overthinking. Just observe.
2. Take responsibility.
Work on becoming more responsible for your life and how it proceeds. That means watching your money, taking care of your health, and doing your best work at your job or home if you’re a stay-at-home person. Notice how often you blame someone else or circumstances for why you can’t be responsible. That’s a critical insight. It’ll help turn that pattern around. Above all, be proactive as much as possible instead of reactive.
3. Shift your sense of worthiness from what other people think to what you think.
Get used to the idea that not everyone will like you, nor do you need that. Learn to like yourself and feel good about who you are and what you’re doing. Befriend people who appreciate you and don’t worry about the others.
4. Use your thinking more.
Independent people have a good balance between thinking and feeling. They can think rationally, creatively, and analytically and express their thoughts and feelings directly. Don’t worry if you don’t succeed right away. Just keep at it. When you feel emotionally reactive, turn your attention to analyzing your feelings and where they come from. Try saying it out loud or writing down your thoughts.
5. Learn to set boundaries and say no.
If you grew up as an adult child, you’re likely a caretaker and quickly get taken advantage of by people. Setting boundaries is not something you learned, but you can do it now. It’ll give you confidence. You can read this article to help.
6. Practice making decisions.
Make small ones to start. If your house is in chaos, make 10-minute decisions on things to do to start cleaning it up; ten minutes washing dishes, ten minutes sorting laundry, ten minutes running a vacuum. Decide what to eat for lunch. Decide what to wear to work. Don’t vacillate once you make a decision. After you get good at small decisions, move on to bigger ones.
7. Catch yourself making excuses.
This is the last one. When things don’t go as you like, watch how you justify them. Who or what do you blame? Then ask yourself what you could have done differently to get a different outcome. You want to work on taking charge of your life, which also means being responsible for how it goes.
Don’t waste time blaming your history or parents for what you didn’t get. Likely your parents endured similar circumstances. Use your energy to address the problems and work on yourself. If it feels overwhelming, by all means, don’t go it alone. Shift some of that dependency to someone who can help you.
That’s all for today.
Hope you have a great week!
All my best,
Covey, S. R. (2020). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (4th ed.). Simon & Schuster.
Feeney, B. C. (March 2007). The dependency paradox in close relationships: Accepting dependence promotes independence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92(2), 268-285. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118
Kitayama, S., Karasawa, M., Curhan, K. B., Ryff, C. D., and Markus, H. R. (December 2010). Independence and interdependence predict health and wellbeing: Divergent patterns in the United States and Japan. Frontiers in Psychology 1(163), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00163
Reindal, S. M. (June 1999). Independence, dependence, interdependence: Some reflections on the subject of personal autonomy. Disability & Society 14(3), 353-367. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599926190