“I need your love” is probably one of the most common messages in love songs throughout time and cultures, regardless of social status, age or gender. It’s a feeling nearly all of us can relate to and I’m no exception. If I had just the slightest talent for music, I’d probably compose my own song about it. I’m unfortunately not unfamiliar with emotional dependency which has accompanied me throughout most of my relationships. Once I started to understand the destructive nature of this dependency, I did all I could possibly do to stop depending on others for emotional fulfillment and start finding it in myself. I have been on this journey for ten years and along the way I’ve learnt a lot and I continue learning. It’s a vast topic with many facets which are impossible to fit into one post, but I’d nevertheless like to share the insights of my journey with you, hoping that you, too, can find some more emotional freedom.
So, what do I mean with emotional dependency? In my case, it meant that I’d give away the control over my emotions to someone else. Subconsciously, I had decided that my emotional healing was dependent on the love I’d receive from someone else. I used external validation as a way of proving my own self worth. Therefore, my emotional state always depended on whether I was receiving the amount of love and affection I was hoping for. Most of the time I’d depend on a significant other, but I also caught myself being emotionally dependent on my family members and even friends.
I’m naturally a very emotional person, not only in the sense that I feel emotions easily (I can cry about the smallest things and I LOVE it!), but also that I have a very strong need for emotional intimacy. In my relationships I always felt the very strong desire to emotionally connect on a deep level with my partners, by having heartfelt conversations, communicating truthfully and treating each other respectfully. Anytime, my partner would not comply with these relationship rules I had internally set, I’d feel rejected, pushed away and neglected. This is how I gave away the power over my emotions to someone else: By expecting them to take care of them according to the rules that I had set. To make matters worse, I did not only give away the control over my emotions, but tried at the same time to control my partners into giving me my desired affection and attention being emotional.
Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that of course life would always send exactly the guys on my path who would do anything but comply to my rules which made me want to subconsciously control them even more which led to a terrible power struggle instead of a loving and harmonic relationship! A typical scenario would look like this: I’d be looking for connection with my partners who instead of opening their hearts would pull back (probably because they felt my control and the pressure on an energetic level). This would make me feel so insecure and scared, that I’d feel that only reestablishing the connection with my partner could soothe the pain again which only caused me to try to control my partners into loving behaviour by either being emotional or shaming them for their unloving behaviour. Needless to say, this behaviour wouldn’t bring me closer to my partner, but only made him run away faster from me. Continue reading, if this pattern sounds familiar to you…
It took me some years before I could understand my role in this whole game. I learned about the concept of emotional dependency and realized that I was guilty as charged. Knowing that the problem was not necessarily my partners, but mine, made me undertake every possible step to get rid of this evil emotional addiction and my need to control. I’d silence my need for emotional connection, convincing myself that I was asking too much, telling myself that I was too “intense” and that my desire was not something a person could possibly ask for. I’d shame myself for my ridiculous needs and told myself to just cool down a bit. Not only did I lower myself to some kind of emotional junkie, I also mentally turned my partners into innocent emotionally broken children. I used their emotional instability as an excuse to allow them to do basically everything with me, no matter whether it was painful or not.
I put up with the pain, because I had mentally developed a master plan. My solution to the whole problem seemed to be simple: I had to work on myself, make myself the most “perfect” human. Once I was perfect, my partner would be lured by my irresistible radiance, would magically turn into Prince Charming and we’d live happily ever after! What at the time being sounded like a brilliant waterproof plan, obviously turned out to be a flop.
My action plan was flawed in two ways. First of all, initially my main motivation was not to change myself as a way of bringing myself closer to myself, but in order to make myself a better person for my partner so I could finally (!!!) get the love and attention I so desperately was looking for. Basically, this was just another way of trying to control the situation. Secondly, I tried not so much to heal my emotional dependency but rather to overcome it in order to become emotionally independent myself (in other words: cutting off my emotions). Once I had gained a little bit of distance from my partners I stopped victimizing them (“Poor guy had this horrible childhood, how can I expect from him to open up? He just needs my unconditional love, no matter what I get back from him!”), and instead started to blame them (“What a loser! Why am I actually wasting my time with someone who can’t even open up emotionally? Am I dating a grown-up or a teenager here? Well, I am a woman who dearly loves herself and I need to be with someone who’s worth my time and energy!”). This is not what healing looks like, these are defense mechanisms.
To be honest with you, these defense mechanisms have actually helped me to a certain degree. In the beginning, I was too wounded to see this whole situation in any other way than with the help of these defense mechanisms. But after some healing, I had enough distance from my wounds to see through my own defenses which helped me to go through the real process of healing my emotional dependency.
Step 1: Overcoming your shame
What I list as step #1 was actually my latest realization, the realization that has really set me free. All those years, I had never realized how much shame was revolving around my emotional dependency. Especially the past years, where everything seemed to go very smooth, I didn’t expect my subconscious to still be so shame-ridden. But shame sits deep, very deep. It’s the one emotion no one would voluntarily dedicate their time to, simply because it’s so painful. We all hide it somewhere very deep inside, hoping we will never have to look at it. Which is very sad, as having an honest look at your shame is probably one of the most liberating thing you can do.
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
— Carl Jung
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to face your shame, as it often comes in disguise and can feel so intense, you immediately identify with your shame, making it very difficult to look at it with your Inner Observer. The trickiest thing about the shame is that memories of shameful situations, sometimes as little as a thought, can immediately catapult you back into the feeling. Shame builds up in many layers and obviously, the more the layers, the easier it will be for the shame to be triggered. In a way, this can even add up to our shame, as suddenly one unreturned phone call or one delayed response makes us time travel into the days of emotional dependency. The power of these situations, is that we’re not only remembering our emotional dependency, we are actually reliving it, which makes it difficult to distance ourselves from what’s really going on.
If you find yourself overreacting and getting lost, stay calm! You’re not going insane, this is just a sign that there is some hidden shame which needs to be uncovered. The only way to really release our shame is by going through it. Don’t try to skip this step by only focusing on the easy accessible and shiny aspects of the process, such as self-worth and self love. They are important and they need your attention, but you need to go through the darkness first before you can get to the light.
You can start with the mere recognition that shame is at play. Dare to look at it, acknowledge it and name it. In my case, I realized that the feeling of being rejected made me feel flawed to the core. I took the rejection personal, because a part of me already believed I was deficient and at the same time the rejection also intensified the feeling of unworthiness. Since I had subconsciously decided that I “needed” my partners love, this feeling of shame could conveniently hide under my feelings of fear, the fear of not having my needs met and therefore, on a very deep level, the fear of “dying”.
From the perspective of a child this fear is very legitimate, as it really wouldn’t survive without the love and care of its caregivers. But I’m an adult now and fortunately I got to understand after a while that I didn’t need my partners love in order to survive. In fact, it wasn’t even his task to love me, that was mine. This insight was, on the one hand, very liberating, but on the other hand it also burdened me with an unforeseen consequence. It did take away my fear, but the fear got replaced with more layers of shame: the shame for not being able to provide for myself and ** the shame for my weakness of not being able to leave the relationship**. Especially our loving family and friends can unintentionally deepen our shame, by pleading us to leave. They indirectly show us how “stupid” it is of us to stay in the relationship and how weak we are to depend on someone else instead of relying on ourselves.
Dependence is equaled with weakness, independence with strength. This is probably the reason why we come up with the defense mechanism of healing our partners with our “unconditional” love, as this is our justification for staying in the relationship. Like this, we feel we have a mission which makes us feel stronger again, covering up the shame. At the same time, we can focus on our partners problematic behaviour and his commitment issues which conveniently distracts us from our own problematic behaviour and feelings.
Unfortunately, this “unconditional” love which is geared towards healing the other in order to make him or her stay (just another way of control!), is never going to work. Not on the long run. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself defeated. Drained with no energy to “love” anymore, you’ll have to hate your way out of the relationship by telling yourself the other is unworthy of your love. Here, we try to turn the shame around, by blaming the other. Needless to say, the shame will catch up on us and we’ll start to feel ashamed for blaming others which leaves us with no other option anymore: We need to shine the light on our shame (which I will discuss in step 3) and we need to accept a universal truth which I will discuss in the next step.
But before I move to the next step, I’d like to share an insight with you which has greatly helped in overcoming my shame. Throughout the process of uncovering my shame, I started to realize that my perceived weakness was actually a gift. At the core of emotional dependency is the strong desire to truly connect and to make meaningful connections. I started to realize how much I appreciate it whenever other people open themselves up emotionally, show their vulnerable selves and interact with me in a way that shows me that they don’t only want to be able to truly see me, but also want to show who they truly are. How could I punish myself for such a long time for a trait I highly valued in others? Wasn’t it this emotional transparency and clarity I was seeking in my partners? It took me a fair amount of time to find out that my “biggest weakness” was actually my most powerful strength and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of hiding my highly emotional Self, it was time to unapologetically live this part of myself!
Step 2: Accept Our Oneness
In order to really heal from our emotional dependency we not only need to see our own innocence, but also the innocence in the other. But not by seeing their “weakness” and by accepting their inability to make meaningful connections, but by recognizing the other as yourself. We’re all human, we all have our flaws, but we also have our virtues. We all have needs and desires which make us suffer to some extent. But what really hurts is thinking we are separate from each other and you could be in some way different. You hurt yourself by thinking your need for connection is invalid (because no one else has this need) or by telling yourself you need the love from someone else in order to heal because you yourself are incapable of doing so. Other people will never have less or more power than you do, as we all essentially are the same. It’s by giving away this power (I need your love to heal my pain) or by claiming this power (You need my love to heal your pain) that the real struggle starts.
Yes, love is important, I would never deny that. To the contrary: Essentially every human being is hard-wired to connect. But true connection is simply not possible through control and requires true compassion. Therefore, it’s important to give up our idea of separate selves in which we play different roles, be it the “victim”, the “perpetrator”, the “good” or the “bad”. We’re all longing for the same love and connection, but we also all have different experiences which makes us deal with things in different ways.
Even though I was actively pursuing “connection”, I was not any better than my ex-partners by judging them as either “emotionally broken victims” or “emotionally handicapped losers” and by trying to control them. With my judgement and control I was making true connection just as impossible as they were with pulling away from it. In hindsight I find it almost funny to see how my behaviour sabotaged the possibility for true connection and how I never gave it a thought that maybe my partners were looking just as desperately for connection, but also sabotaged themselves into ways of disconnection by running away.
But only because they don’t do it on purpose doesn’t mean you have to continue staying with them in a relationship. As we don’t depend on anyone’s love in particular, the most loving step sometimes is to leave. Just because you leave, doesn’t mean you judge your partner for his inability to connect with you. To the contrary, by staying you subconsciously enable him to stay in his cocoon and to further project his pain on you (and vice versa). By leaving you can give him and yourself the fair chance to move on and grow. You don’t leave because the other is incapable of making you happy, but because you love yourself and the other enough to wish both of you to be in a different situation. In the end, staying in the relationship in order to “heal” the other is a form of control and an indirect way of devaluing the other by believing he’s not capable of achieving inner freedom independently. Lovingly letting go is possible and sometimes very much needed for both partners involved as this can be a powerful way to learn how to stand on your own feet and tap into your own inner source of love.
Step 3: Heal your Inner Child
Of course I couldn’t finish off this post without mentioning my beloved Inner Child! In the past ten years I’ve done every imaginable thing in order to heal from this unhealthy and addictive pattern, ranging from self love, over forgiveness and mindfulness to surrender. All these aspects have helped me getting a little bit closer to feeling more whole and connected to myself. But the true game changer has definitely been the reconciliation with my Inner Child.
Essentially this is the part that is yearning for connection, the part that wants to be seen, held and accepted. It’s the part that wants to know that it’s enough, that it doesn’t need to be ashamed of it’s wants and needs. By feeling and knowing that you are complete just the way you are, you’ll notice that other people’s actions (neglect, unwillingness to connect, anger etc.) can’t hurt you anymore. The only reason you were hurt, was because you thought it had to do something with you, but once you realize you’re essentially good, you can accept your partner’s behaviour for what it is: A reflection of his own wounded Inner Child.
Your Inner Child needs to know that it’s safe and provided for. What makes us cling to someone else for love is the fear of the Inner Child of not getting it from its Loving Inner Adult. Once we learn how to reach out to this part within ourselves and how to nourish it, we will automatically feel less inclined to cling onto someone else. We now have our reliable inner source, why spend our energy on an unreliable outer source? There’s no need to control anyone else anymore, which already leaves you in a state of inner peace, even though it might be scary at first. Standing on your own feet after all those years…
There is no need to be afraid, because the “work” is in fact very simple. Much simpler than what you have done for the most part of your life. What the Inner Child needs most of all in order to feel emotionally provided for, is basically just to feel your presence and acceptance. Show your Inner Child that you acknowledge its pain and that it’s safe to feel the pain. This part is so important, as we have shamed ourselves for too long for being “too emotional”, we really need to accept our emotions. Next to having an Inner Child we also all have an Unloving Inner Adult who tries to protect us in some way. It tries to protect the Child from its own feelings by either being very controlling and trying to shame the Child for its feelings (“Stop crying! Get your act together!”) or by walking away and abandoning the Child by numbing their feelings through some addictive behaviour such as drugs, sex, food or any other kind of distraction. Either way, our true feelings haven’t been acknowledged and accepted for what they are for many years which has added up to the pain. But these feelings need to be released in a safe space. And this is where your Inner Child is in dire need of your Loving Inner Adult who accepts, holds and loves all of you and your feelings without fear and judgement.
Having feelings of being emotionally dependent, doesn’t necessarily mean you are emotionally dependent. Most of your feelings are stemming from somewhere else anyways. What you feel are the feelings of shame, of abandonment, of feeling lost and lonely. The only reason your feelings have ever made you emotionally dependent, is because you’ve hoped someone else would soothe the pain for you. Knowing that you’re perfectly capable of healing yourself, will not make your feelings disappear straight away. It will take time to embody this new knowledge. You might still yearn for your significant other to stand by your side. That’s okay, just acknowledge the feelings without judgement and avoid trying to speed things up (which would be the work of the Unloving Inner Adult). This process is going to take a long time, believe me. Every time you think you make two steps forwards, you’ll probably make a step backwards. It took your Inner Child years to build up the negative beliefs about the world and itself, be prepared to also spend years on reversing these false beliefs. There are no shortcuts, no spiritual bypasses, no exemptions. The only way out is through…
Next to accepting the feelings of our own emotional dependency, we need to accept the negative feelings our Inner Children might have towards our (ex-) partners. It’s part of the defense mechanism which helps us cut the cords to our significant other. Recognize it as such, but don’t throw oil on the fire by confirming that your Inner Child is right. Just accept that it’s feeling this way. Once it has cooled down a bit, you can always teach your Inner Child to be compassionate for the suffering of others. Make it realize our Oneness. In the end, we can only truly heal when we understand our interconnectedness and the fact that separation is nothing but an illusion. This process is not going to happen overnight and you might have to remind yourself over and over again, but believe me in the end you’ll be released from a lot more than just your emotional dependency ;)