Many of us have been implanted with the idea that you can only be powerful when you’re independent, that when you’re self-reliant, only then can you live as the best version of yourself. Understandably, being self-reliant is a great characteristic, but societal emphasis on its importance can make the idea of dependence off-putting to some people as an implied indication of weakness. But can our perception of dependence change when we’re speaking of emotional reliance?
Emotional Dependence vs Emotional Independence
Emotional dependence occurs when we rely on another person — who may be regarded as loving and caring, when in reality they might hold traits such as dominance and possessiveness — to sufficiently fulfill our emotional needs. You might think that emotionally dependent people are aware that they need someone to care for them, but that’s not really the case. Instead, their non-cognitive mind triggers feelings of “despair” when the person who they are emotionally dependent on is absent. Feelings of loneliness and emptiness take the reins because they become convinced that their “survival” is literally threatened, even if no tangible threat is present.
Having said that, an emotionally dependent person won’t assume that these feelings can be explained by emotional dependency. In fact, they believe they’re perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, and still seek out a (presumably) caring and loving person in all their interpersonal relationships to provide them with a certain level of affection.
This is where emotional independence gets tricky, because while you don’t want to ruin your social and love lives by being overly attached, you also don’t want to close yourself off entirely from the people you love and care about!
So, what makes a person emotionally independent? Simply put, emotional independence is when you possess the ability to fulfill your own needs without requiring external help that will respond to your every need in a certain affectionate way. What’s great is that you can be emotionally independent and still count on others to be there for you when need be!
It’s all about finding the line between being pathologically dependent, where we’re most likely to put our individual wellbeing at risk, and having a healthy attachment to the people in our life. When we’re comfortable with who we are, we gain more self-confidence and this makes us strong enough to handle the potential departure of somebody we care about. In this way, our wellbeing isn’t tied with someone’s presence in our lives.
Key Benefits of Being Emotionally Independent
- Finding a healthy balance between being distant and being overly attached to someone.
- Gaining better self-understanding. When we are emotionally independent, our beliefs, thoughts, and values are influenced by our personal understanding of our surroundings rather than being influenced by the opinions of others.
- Being emotionally independent helps us recognize our weaknesses before our strengths in a healthy way. Eventually, this will help us to take more control of our emotional wellbeing.
- Avoiding toxic relationships. An emotionally independent person will be able to recognize a truly loving person from a person who simply appears to be loving.
- Being emotionally independent helps us overcome any need to receive validation for our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and other aspects of our identity. When we’re ‘‘secure and content” we say goodbye to needing unnecessary external validation.
Cultural and Social Relevance With Emotional Dependence and Emotional Independence
It’s a given fact that cultural and social values affect our interpersonal relationships and how we generally behave, but do cultural and social constructs influence how we view emotional independence? Well, let’s find out!
Some cultures believe that being emotionally dependent is a sign of vulnerability and insufficiency, a characteristic that is deemed unacceptable by their respective societies. This perspective dictates that the mere need for affection should be demoralized by parents or caregivers from early childhood stages, as this will (presumably) create an emotionally dependent person. Be that as it may, there are other sociological aspects we need to consider, that majorly determine how emotionally dependent or independent a person can be. It’s time to get theoretical!
To this day, some sociologists find it confusing to decisively categorize which cultures encourage emotional independence and which cultures discourage the idea intrinsically. The funny part is, the extent of people’s emotional dependence or independence isn’t decided by culture per se; rather, it’s influenced by the way the society functions, if it works “individualistically or collectivistically.”
An individualistic society is one in which no one is connected, forcing each individual to take care of themselves and their immediate family. That’s it – that’s the extent of affection, and that’s the viscera of an individualistic society. In a way, collectivism is individualism’s arch-nemesis. In a collectivist society, you’re forced to live in groups, caring for not only yourself and your family, but friends, distant family members, friends of the family…‘etc. This makes people living in a collectivistic society tightly connected and “unquestionably loyal” to one another. Do you want to take a shot in the dark and guess who’s likely to have more emotionally independent people?
Validation – we may be familiar with the term, but are we familiar with how “identity validation” shapes emotional dependence? Your identity plays a huge role in social situations. But with each situation and each social group, you manifest expectations based on your interactions with your social circle(s). Naturally, because you’d want to fit in, these expectations could reshape your identity from its very core! Because those expectations are directly linked to your emotions, you either feel validated by your social group — which, as you can expect, feels great — or you will not feel validated by it, which is not such a great feeling. Can you imagine the toll this could have on the mental wellbeing of someone constantly expecting validation for their self-worth?
Psychological Relevance to Emotional Dependence and Independence
Of course, when we first think about emotional independence, we don’t imagine someone who experiences a healthy attachment; instead, our minds practically steer our thoughts to the opposite side, and justifiably so! This is why we’re not really shocked or in awe when psychologists relate whether we were brought up to be independent or not to our levels of emotional independence today. Still, that doesn’t quite explain how we could be emotionally independent through being primarily emotionally dependent, does it?
Well, psychologists now discuss a concept referred to as attachment theory, which asserts that we should be able to rely emotionally on our significant others during particular situations. The main idea is that attachment should be accepted and encouraged as a part of human nature, or in other words, that developing emotional independence is the key to developing emotional stability.
The notable psychologist Brooke C. Feeney, emphasizes the point that when we’re used to receiving “comfort, support, reassurance, assistance, and protection,” the feeling of safety we come to experience will eventually help us feel more “secure and content.” In turn, such a feeling can motivate us to become the best version of ourselves!
But, all that aside, don’t you think the idea of emotional independence should be linked to our understanding of our emotions?
The emotions we feel and express are reasonably associated with a certain situation or circumstance. If you recognize how you were the cause of someone’s problem, you might feel guilty, or if you recognize how someone caused you a problem, you might feel anger or despair. Then, if it’s straight-up fate or luck that caused the problem, you’re likely to feel disappointed, sad, hopeless, or any number of similar emotions.
Yes, such associations are perfectly normal — if you’re hurt, you’re justifiably sad and/or angry, and that doesn’t really make you an emotionally dependent person! But, for an emotionally dependent person, it’s not just the intensity of unpleasant emotions that wreaks havoc on their mental wellness, but rather it’s the anxiety and stress triggered because of their constant fear of abandonment.
Neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud explains that anxiety functions to “warn individuals of a serious danger to their mental health”. In the case of an emotionally dependent person, the anxiety resulting from fear of abandonment is unbearable – they literally feel like their life is at risk. As such, emotions are employed by the cognitive mind as “messengers for the self” to prepare an emotionally dependent person for a bad situation, which is one of the reasons the intensity of their emotions could lead to depression.
Some Steps We Can Take to Nurture Our Emotional Independence
- Overcoming self-judgment by mindfulness and self-affirmation. Self-criticism, or thinking of ourselves negatively, can be the reason we seek out others to show us kindness, love, and affection – things we might not be providing for ourselves – so what could be a better way to defeat such habits other than practicing mindfulness and positive reaffirmation!
- Recognizing and understanding our emotional needs: when we’re able to accept that we have both positive emotions and negative emotions, we can understand why there is no shame in experiencing either. Our feelings exist to guide us through life – try to observe your emotions and attend to them. Trying to express our feelings, for example, through a healthy medium, such as journaling, can help us to better reflect on a situation or event that caused unpleasantness or conflict in our interpersonal relationships.
- It’s important that we encourage ourselves by appreciating the progress we’ve made and the milestones we’ve managed to reach, regardless of how tiny these might seem. Always acknowledge your strength!
- Nurturing healthy attachment: in order to establish a healthy attachment, we need to feel mutual emotional security and stability. To put it simply, emotional support isn’t a one-way street; we should be happy to provide emotional support as much as we’re happy to receive it.
How Can Emotional Independence Influence Our Holistic Wellbeing?
Once we develop a strong sense of emotional independence, we can reach a point where we no longer feel the need to surrender our wellbeing to someone else, which can ultimately help us reclaim our agency. That means we’ve emotionally elevated ourselves to a point that we don’t feel like we need a special someone with us to live our lives to the fullest. So, here are some examples on how emotional independence relates to different dimensions of holistic health which explain how it can boost your holistic wellbeing and help you reclaim your agency!
- Mental: while it’s great to have someone to lean on during troubling times, you can try to ask ourselves if you’re only being emotionally dependent. Does that mean we should constantly live in fear that they might leave? NO! And that’s the role of emotional independence – not only will we be more able to avoid panic attacks, resulting from anxiety or stress when you think of someone leaving you, but you’ll also avoid paving the way for depression caused by severe emotional dependence. Yes, of course, sadness and hurt are valid emotions, but you won’t feel helpless and vulnerable, to the extent of collapsing and losing a grip on yourself entirely.
- Physical: when we’re emotionally independent, we prioritize our needs above all else, which includes our physical health. We all want to become the healthiest version of ourselves, but for whom? In contrast to an emotionally independent person, an emotionally dependent person often goes to excessive lengths to “look” healthy rather than focusing on being healthy. An example of this is choosing to look physically attractive at the expense of your physical wellbeing to receive your partner’s or friend’s validation of your physical appearance. Emotional independence provides us with the confidence and security we need to seek physical health and physical appeal simultaneously, without neglecting or harming our mental or physical wellness.
- Social: rather than conforming with people in your group or your society, as an emotionally independent person you’d be able to assess beliefs and values based on your own morals. When we are emotionally independent, we share emotions with our partner/friends, rather than dropping the weight of our emotions on them without being able to carry their emotional weight as well! In addition, emotional independence can help you differentiate between toxic people who are only interested in you as long as they can manipulate you, and people who truly admire you for your beautiful self.
- Spiritual: the link between spirituality and emotional independence is cyclical. For spirituality, we’re always keen to reach emotional abundance, and in order for us to achieve that state, we try our best to be emotionally independent. Interestingly enough, the best path to develop your emotional independence is through practicing spiritual exercises such as self-affirmation, breathing and redirecting any negative thoughts, and journaling to process and contemplate your feelings.
It’s not the people’s perception of emotional independence that matters – your holistic wellbeing comes first and foremost. Your emotional stability shouldn’t be bound by someone else’s presence or absence, and your pursuit for wellness shouldn’t be for the benefit of pleasing someone else. Your willingness to nurture what you believe can improve your holistic wellness speaks louder than anyone’s perception. The important thing is that you prioritize yourself and your needs. Never let anyone steal your spirit!