6 Steps To Becoming Emotionally Independent
"I will be happy when..."
Insert anything you would like to happen. Have you ever made a statement like this?
Maybe you think you might feel happier if someone you admire approves of you, if your relationship changes, or if your partner starts to do things your way. This sentiment is very common: It's the idea that our happiness depends on something outside of us. This is known as emotional dependence; it is when our feelings and self-worth are based on external factors such as how another person feels about us. But if we want to find a sense of peace within ourselves and our relationships, then it is important to shift from emotional dependence and into emotional independence.
What is emotional independence?
Emotional independence is the ability to regulate your emotions and still feel good about yourself even when difficult situations present themselves. It is also the practice of being able to regulate your emotions without seeking constant approval, attention, and validation from another person.
One of the downsides to emotional dependence is that when things don't happen in our favor, our mood and feelings of self-worth are likely to be negatively affected. Functioning in this way affects our sense of peace because factors outside of us continually ebb and flow. People's opinions of us are outside of our control.
Those who are emotionally independent typically don't have to look to sources outside of themselves to let them know that they are OK. Of course, it is normal to want to have validation from those we love. But emotional dependence crosses a line when our self-esteem and self-worth depends on how other people are feeling toward us. Emotional independence is the ability to have the balance between paying attention to what is happening outside of you and having some control over your response to those events. With emotional independence, your sense of self remains intact because of your inherent belief in yourself.
People who possess emotional independence are able to cultivate a sense of happiness and peace despite what may be happening in their lives and relationships. This is not to say that they are never affected by things that happen outside of them, but they still have a sense of who they are and can fulfill their own needs internally.
How to become emotionally independent:
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment. It's the awareness of what is happening inside of you (thoughts, feelings, sensations) and outside of you (situations and other external factors) without judging them as good or bad. Practicing mindfulness can help you build emotional independence because it can help you increase your awareness around your reactions and responses when things don't happen as planned.
We cannot heal what we are not aware of. Therefore, mindfulness can help us increase awareness around the patterns of behaviors and thoughts that maintain emotional dependence.
Identify your "why."
You can begin by using these questions as journal prompts to dig deeper into why you want to build your internal resiliency.
- Why is it important for you to become emotionally independent?
- How does it make you feel when you have to depend on others or things outside of you to make you feel better about yourself?
- What has this experience been like for you?
- What does it mean to you to become emotionally independent, and how do you see your life changing as a result of being able to have more control over your emotional states?
Having a clear understanding of your "why" will serve as a motivating factor to continue to do the work that it takes to become more emotionally independent.
Rewire your thinking.
Write down the thoughts and beliefs that keep you emotionally dependent. For example, "I need other people to feel good about me so that I can feel better" or "I need things to go my way so I can feel in control of my life."
When you come across these kinds of thoughts (also known as automatic negative thoughts), practice replacing them with something neutral and adaptive such as "I can handle difficult feelings that come up" or "I am capable of feeling OK with myself despite how someone else may feel about me."
Being able to replace the automatic negative thoughts with alternative, adaptive statements can help you with rewiring your thinking.
Ask yourself, what are you avoiding by being emotionally dependent on another person? Is it loneliness, sadness, fear of rejection? Pay attention to what lies beneath feeling emotionally dependent on another person and give compassion to the underlying feelings.
Here's what giving yourself compassion might sound like: "It is OK to experience sadness and loneliness. There is nothing wrong with me for feeling uncomfortable with rejection."
When we can sit with the underlying feelings that drive emotional dependence and give those feelings love and compassion, then we can increase our ability to tolerate difficult emotions without having to soothe them away by seeking approval from someone else. In a sense, practicing self-compassion is a form of self-soothing when we are feeling overwhelmed with emotion.
Oftentimes, emotional dependence intertwines with being a people-pleaser. This looks like shrinking yourself and shifting your boundaries in order to accommodate someone else.
Practicing self-validation means that you give yourself permission to feel your feelings and are accepting of your thoughts and emotions. Here's what that might sound like: "My feelings make sense. It is OK to feel what I am feeling. I am allowed to set boundaries."
Self-validation is helpful in giving space to your feelings. If you struggle with self-validation, the next time you are seeking validation from someone else, ask yourself, "What is it that I would like to hear from this person?" Then practice saying those words to yourself.
Practice letting go.
Emotional dependence is when we feel like we can't be OK unless someone else is OK with us. Practicing letting go means releasing the need to control how other people feel about us so that we can be OK with ourselves. By learning to let go of these expectations, we are also taking responsibility for our feelings without making another person responsible for them. This is a true form of acceptance where we can acknowledge that other people are entitled to their own feelings toward us, but this doesn't change the core of who we are and how we feel about ourselves.
Shifting from emotional dependence to emotional independence can be difficult, especially if we came from a childhood that was invalidating. The good news is that learning how to become emotionally independent is a possible feat that comes with patience and practice.
Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and certified cognitive therapist with nine years of experience treating depression, anxiety, trauma, issues with self-esteem, body image, and the inner child. She received her bachelor's degree in sociology and social work from California Polytechnic State University, Pomona and her master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She has provided clinical treatment for children, adolescents, adults, and families in outpatient and residential settings, including with the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic at Harbor-UCLA, the Child and Family Guidance Center, Counseling4Kids, and in private practice.
She regularly shares insights and wisdom on her popular Instagram platform @alyssamariewellness, where she has over 66,000 followers.