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Dependent personality tendencies or Dependent Personality Disorder is something you might recognize in yourself or someone you know. It’s marked by a strong need to rely on others for care and support. When you have this tendency, making decisions on your own can be a real challenge, and you might often feel helpless and overwhelmed when you’re not in the presence of someone you can lean on. Low self-esteem and the belief that you can’t do things independently often accompany this trait.
If you have dependent personality tendencies or Dependent Personality Disorder, the idea of being independent or going it alone can be intimidating for you. It might feel like being left wholly isolated in the world, and that’s a daunting prospect.
It’s essential to understand that having a dependent personality is not a personal failing or character flaw. It often stems from childhood experiences, where there might have been a lot of chaos or overly controlling and needy parents who demanded an extremely close, enmeshed, codependent relationship.
The good news is, even though dependent personality is a long-standing pattern, it’s not set in stone. You can change it with insight, patience, and the right approach. It’s possible to shift from emotional dependency to self-trust and the ability to stand on your own two feet.
<< This article is written by Imi Lo>>
Dependent Personality: Do You Resonate With These Statements?
– You find everyday situations, especially interpersonal conflicts or anything involving responsibility, challenging to manage.
– You feel constantly needy. Whenever a partner goes away you want them to come back immediately.
– You feel powerless and have little confidence in your sense of agency, power, or ability to solve life’s problems.
– You worry about things that most would not worry about, such as unexpected disasters, plane crashes, or other impending disasters.
– You are unable to make decisions without the input of other people. Even after deciding, you often seek approval from your close family members or friends.
– You have difficulty spending time alone. When others are not by your side, you worry that they will never come back or leave or reject you.
– You feel much younger inside than your actual age.
– You are constantly afraid that something terrible will happen, and you will be powerless to prevent it.
– You find the idea of ‘setting boundaries’ or ‘being independent’ frightening, as that makes you feel all alone in the world.
– You may be in a co-dependent relationship with a close family member, friend, or partner and feel compelled to tell them everything that is going on in your life and ask them for advice on what to do.
– You do not trust your judgment. You feel that you are constantly screwing up the “easiest” things.
– You procrastinate and avoid doing things you need to do, including chores and administrative tasks (like working out your bills or taxes).
– You often feel confused and lost, as if you are unsure of what is happening in life and around you.
– You feel the need to please everyone around you.
– You constantly worry that something terrible might happen and can not fix it.
– You feel like you do not deserve love and respect. You may compromise your standards just to be with someone or to be surrounded by people.
– You do not have a strong sense of self, and sometimes you do not even know what you like, dislike, want, or need.
– You feel confused about your calling and life path. When there are set rules or structures, you do not know what to do with yourself, your time, and your life.
– You allow others to rule your life, even if they control or abuse you.
– You are very quick to believe other people’s judgment and criticism of you. Instead of getting angry or evaluating what they say, you immediately assume they are right, and something is wrong with you.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story… I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.” – Cheryl Straye
What is Dependent Personality Tendencies?
When you carry a dependent personality into adulthood, it’s often because you missed an essential stage of healthy individuation and separation from your parents. This is the phase where you typically begin discovering your self-confidence, personal preferences, and life ambitions. Unfortunately, these formative experiences might have been stunted, leaving you uncertain about your likes, dislikes, and what you wish to achieve.
Having a dependent personality can also blur the lines between personal boundaries. You may find it challenging to determine where you end, and others begin emotionally and energetically. This lack of clarity can make asserting your needs and maintaining healthy boundaries difficult.
In one way or another, you might have internalized the belief that self-reliance and self-trust will inevitably lead to failure. This fear of self-blame and shame can drive you to overly rely on others for support and guidance, perpetuating a cycle of dependency.
This reliance on others often remains unconscious until it starts causing significant challenges in your interpersonal relationships. It might manifest as extreme social anxiety, making it nearly impossible to form friendships or have a normal social life. Alternatively, your partners might feel overwhelmed by your neediness and dependence, which can strain relationships.
The symptoms of dependency can severely impact your life. The constant fear of abandonment can erode your self-confidence and personal agency. Paradoxically, the more you avoid life’s challenges and responsibilities, the worse you might feel about yourself, leading to an even stronger need for guidance and approval from others. This self-perpetuating cycle can steadily diminish your confidence in leading a self-reliant, normal life.
You might grapple with an overwhelming need to ensure someone is always by your side to avoid the inner emptiness and terror you feel when alone. It may seem as though you are ‘addicted to relationships,’ but this isn’t necessarily because you enjoy others’ company more than solitude. Your heightened anxiety often prevents you from truly enjoying relationships. Instead, you might use relationships as a shield against the inner void and dread.
You often struggle to say no, having never learned or dared to establish boundaries. You tend to prioritize the needs of others while suppressing your own desires, and you may downplay your abilities to avoid threatening others.
You might feel unusual familiarity in encounters with dominating or controlling individuals and become involuntarily drawn to them. You might even attract exuberant, narcissistic personalities or bullies despite knowing, on an intellectual level, that you are being mistreated. This dynamic can leave you feeling helplessly enmeshed in toxic relationships.
Furthermore, you often repress your anger, leading to interpersonal issues and potential physical consequences. Your anger does not dissipate; instead, it lingers within, manifesting as physical tension and discomfort. You may also express your anger through passive-aggressive behaviors, such as subtly provoking others, withdrawing when challenged, giving silent treatment, ‘forgetting’ commitments, or neglecting responsibilities.
Dependent Personality Disorder: What is it?
At its worst, relational dependency issues can turn into what is known as Dependent Personality Disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
To be diagnosed as having a ‘disorder,’ the person’s issue with dependent personality must have reached the point where their lives are significantly impacted. For example, their pervasive fear of abandonment is everywhere in their lives, and their inability to make decisions on their own might affect their abilities to hold down jobs or maintain social relationships. Symptoms of Dependent Personality Disorder typically begin in early adulthood; children and young people are rarely diagnosed with Dependent Personality Disorder because many symptoms are age-appropriate. However, having chronic illnesses, adjustment disorder, or separation anxiety can predispose one to develop Dependent Personality Disorder.
According to the DSM-5, there is one criterion with eight characteristics for dependent personality disorder:
- An excessive and pervasive need to be cared for, submissive, clinging, needy behavior due to fear of abandonment. This may be expressed by:
- Difficulty making routine decisions without the input, reassurance, and advice of others.
- Demanding that others take on responsibilities that he should take on himself.
- Fear of disagreement with others and the risk of being disapproved.
- Difficulty starting projects without the support of others.
- Excessive needs to be nurtured and supported by others, even allowing others to impose rather than risk rejection or disapproval.
- Feels vulnerable and helpless when alone.
- Desperately seeks a new relationship when one ends.
- Unrealistic fear of being left alone and unable to care for oneself.
(American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
“Who wouldn’t live in utter despair if their sense of self depended entirely on the opinions of others?”
― Marty Rubin
Dependent Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder
Regarding personality disorders, they don’t continuously operate in isolation. It is common for one personality disorder to co-occur with another, and this phenomenon is known in psychiatric circles as ‘comorbidity.’ As you explore the intricate world of personality disorders, you might find that Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) often intersect, adding a layer of complexity to the clinical picture.
In Dependent Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder, you’ll find symptoms that mirror each other. The excessive fear of abandonment and heightened sensitivity to criticism are common threads.
However, the nuances are where the differences emerge. The type of Borderline Personality disorder (e.g., quiet BPD or high-functioning BPD), can influence the severity and expression of these shared symptoms. For instance, someone with high-functioning BPD may not initially come across as dependent on the surface but dive deeper into an intimate relationship, and you might unearth a wealth of dependency-related symptoms.
Mood swings are often the focus of a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, while other symptoms, such as fear of abandonment, may be more prominent in Dependent Personality Disorder. This fear is a driving force, influencing behaviors and decisions, often propelling individuals towards relationships, sometimes prematurely, to alleviate this pervasive dread.
The coexistence of DPD and BPD is not as surprising as it may initially seem. Both disorders share common roots in a tangled web of factors. A history of abuse, developmental trauma, or a childhood marked by narcissistic, immature, or emotionally stunted parents can sow the seeds for either or both of these disorders to take root. Overly controlling parents can also contribute to the picture.
From a treatment perspective, managing both DPD and BPD can be complicated. While therapy and interventions for these disorders share fundamental principles like healing relational wounds, stabilizing mood and life, cultivating a sense of agency, and dismantling dysfunctional schemas such as emotional deprivation and defectiveness, the interplay between the two disorders can complicate the therapeutic journey.
Some therapists and psychiatrists advocate addressing emotional dysregulation as a priority, as achieving stability in mood and emotions can create a fertile ground for untangling complex interpersonal patterns. Others argue that working on multiple symptoms within the same treatment model is feasible. The choice of treatment pathway often depends on your unique needs, goals, and the expertise of your mental health professionals.
In essence, the convergence of Dependent Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder reflects the intricate nature of human psychology. Just as no two individuals are exactly alike, the path to healing and recovery can take various forms tailored to the specific interplay of these complex personality disorders within you. Seeking support and professional guidance is a significant step towards unraveling these complexities and fostering personal growth and well-being.
Causes of Dependent Personality Tendencies
There is no specific cause of dependent personality disorder, but rather a variety of factors that may contribute to its development. Some possible causes include genetic vulnerability, parental abuse, sibling abuse, neglect, or attachment trauma. Although aversive childhood experience is often a big piece of the puzzle, not everyone with a dependent personality has abusive parents. One might also have internalized their parent’s fears of the world and modeled their parents’ paranoia or fear-based views of the world. Other factors, such as being a refugee, poverty, and transgenerational trauma, can also be contributing factors.
The following are some possibilities of how a person, as an adult, could have a problem with a dependent personality. If you identify with some of the above descriptions, it is worth investigating if some of the below experiences also apply:
Some researchers believe that excessive care or overprotection by parents can contribute to the development of a dependent personality. Because the child was coddled too much, they never had a chance to experience making a mistake and then getting back on their feet. This means they never learned to consolidate the messages that are essential in dealing with life’s challenges, such as ‘I can deal with things,’ ‘I can recover from setbacks,’ ’ ‘I can do it.’
Some overprotective parents may mean well or simply respond to specific needs you had in unusual circumstances (e.g., a physical illness or premature birth). Others may be reacting to a traumatic experience in their own childhood or want to give their child something they never had themselves.
If you have over-protective parents, you may find it difficult to blame them, as everything seems to have been done for your benefit and protection. However, their need to protect you from danger and failure can be excessive and damaging and stem primarily from their own trauma and fears of the world.
When your parent lacks boundaries and focuses too much on shielding you from ‘negative emotions’, but without providing structure or discipline, it can hinder your personal growth. For example, when they sense that you are feeling down, they immediately jump in to offer solutions. You might have been unintentionally molded into the ‘eternal child’ of the family – someone who never truly grows up. This can make you appear flaky, dependent, and immature. While this might seem like caring parenting from the outside, excessive attention and constant attention can be harmful. Even if you didn’t realize it then, you might have felt overwhelmed by inappropriate intimacy and constant boundary violations.
Once a child has learned to follow the “family script” and be the codependent child, they are indoctrinated to follow it for life. For example, anything that you do to disrupt the family dynamic can upset your parents or other family members and trigger massive conflicts. For example, if you suddenly decide one day that you will move out or start taking care of your daily life without your parent’s help, they may get upset, show you how sad and abandoned they feel, or guilt-trip you by saying they are ‘such bad parent,’ or get angry and punish you, albeit in passive-aggressive ways. Being highly sensitive and not wanting to hurt anyone, you may sacrifice your need for growth not to upset the equilibrium at home.
Unfortunately, your parents’ fear of the world can also become ingrained in your psyche. This means you might also have inherited your parents’ belief that the world is dangerous and that they cannot survive without help or protection from someone more powerful.
When you have not gotten the opportunity to learn to become autonomous and self-reliant, it is only natural that you now have to rely on others to make decisions for you. When such a pattern is set, it can pervasively influence all aspects of your life. This means you may become dependent on your parent, significant others, and friends.
The truth is, you were not ‘born’ to be more dependent than others. You were trained to ‘play a dependent child’ to appease your parents and siblings who follow the same family script.
Having Controlling Parents
Having a controlling parent is similar to the above but usually more toxic.
Many parents feel the need to control their children and can be very possessive of them. This often starts when you are young and continues into adulthood. A controlling parent will tell you what to do, who to be with, and how to behave. They also punish you in overt or covert ways if they perceive disobedience or disagreement.
Many controlling parents are anxious, paranoid, immature, and unable to regulate emotions. They may feel threatened and lose control whenever you contradict their perspective, even when done kindly and respectfully. Their reaction may be rage, defensiveness, or passive-aggressiveness.
To make matters more confusing, these parents are usually not overtly abusive. They can be very generous and loving. On the flip side of what they give, however, can be a need to control and own your life completely.
When a parent is controlling, they create a worldview in which the world is threatening and indoctrinates you into believing that only their way is the right way. When emotionally triggered, parents tend to have rigid black-or-white thinking and a “me-versus-you” attitude. Until they can emotionally calm down, there is no way you can reason with them.
If and when you protest or present your alternative view, they may become angry, hysterical, threaten to abandon you, or even threaten to hurt themselves to get you to relent. Or, they abuse you subtly, like guilting, shaming, or criticizing your life choices. They may gaslight you and make you feel you are ‘sick’, incompetent, or untrustworthy. When this happens repeatedly, you would have learned that it is better to follow their will. Thus, you give up on your opinions, likes and dislikes, and direction. Over time, your sense of self and confidence is inevitably eroded. You no longer feel you know who you are otehr than being an extension of your parent’s will.
As your unpredictable and dominating parent takes up more and more space at home, your that you, too, have a right to your own feelings and opinions is further weakened. Even when you become an adult, you may not feel you have a right to take space and have others listen to your words.
It was not your fault that you never had the opportunity to learn to feel your own power and find your individual strengths. You had learned to dilute and suppress your own voice because you were punished whenever you tried to have a say. If the message you have received all your life is that your needs and points of view can lead to conflict, then it is only logical that you have learned to suppress them, withdraw, and always make room for others, even to your detriment.
Not knowing how to change your situation, even though you know deep down that something is wrong, can lead to a chronic sense of helplessness that ironically exacerbates your dependence on your parents. At some point, however, you will have to stand in the world as an independent adult. Deep down, you have known for a long time that your parents had not done the right thing and that you can not continue to live in the uncomfortable “comfort zone” or co-dependent with them.
Having Emotionally Vulnerable Parents
It may seem counter-intuitive to think that having a vulnerable parent and parentification (i.e., the task of caring for one’s parents or growing up too quickly and too soon) will lead to the formation of a dependent personality. But this can happen because things are not always what they look like on the surface.
If you have a vulnerable parent, you were deprived of the support, care, and guidance you needed as a child, so a part of you has never grown up and continues to feel as helpless and fragile as a newborn. This is especially true if you have early attachment trauma, where the separation from your significant other began in the womb.
Even though you may have outwardly developed a functioning, even high-functioning (see ‘high-functioning BPD’) personality, a part of you remains stuck at a young age, longing for something you missed and needed but never got. Being dependent on someone other than yourself is a legitimate developmental need, albeit only age-appropriate when you were a child. If you never met this need, you can try to get it later in life. For example, you may find that you are extremely strong and independent when you are alone, but as soon as you enter a significant relationship, you suddenly become needy, jealous, anxious, and dependent. Even if you have achieved a lot in life, you may still feel like an imposter who is empty on the inside.
You may find that in other areas of your life, you can keep your dysregulated feelings under control and compartmentalized. Most of your dependent personality only comes out when you enter an intimate relationship. This is because the repressed inner child senses that there is a chance that its attachment needs might be met, so it allows itself to be vulnerable and tries to meet those needs. All your longings, fears, and needs are triggered as if the prospect of a new attachment relationship unleashed them.
While your dependency needs are appropriate for a child, in an adult’s body, it can lead to problems at work and in relationships.
Dependent Personality Disorder: Maybe it was not you to begin with
Although this is rarely addressed in psychology, one truth about dependent personality is that you are not dependent on your parents, but you are taking care of their needs to be needed. This is an unconscious dynamic that was established at a young age. Highly sensitive, empathic, and gifted children tend to become parentified. They intuitively recognized their parents’ weaknesses and emotional needs early on and tried to meet them. You may have a parent whose life lacks meaning and passion and for whom parenting is the only job. If you feel this unconsciously, you will do everything possible to make them feel like they are “good” parents. You do this by making yourself overly dependent on them so that they always have something to do, someone to advise and serve. You make yourself small so they can play the role of a caregiver, a rescuer, and a superhero. In explicit and hidden ways, your parents have made it clear that their lives are all about you. It may be hard to admit it, but you may notice your parent seems to ‘come alive’ when you are going through difficult times and need them. Furthermore, they live vicariously through you and would not be able to survive without you. Even as an adult, to protect them from the inevitable “empty nest,” you sacrifice your own needs to individuate and stay home longer than you would have to.
All of this can happen unconsciously. Since you have played the ‘needy child’ role from childhood and have always done so, you may have forgotten that this is covertly scripted. You embody the identity so much that you really believe that you are so weak, needy, and dependent and that you cannot make the right decision on your own without other people’s input.
From a psychodynamic perspective, your parents have unconsciously transferred their own insecurities and emotional dependencies onto you. This psychological phenomenon can be explained through projective identification, which involves individuals projecting their concealed emotions, desires, and vulnerabilities onto another person. They then combine these projections with behaviors and actions that compel the other person to partake in this projection.
Essentially, your emotionally vulnerable parent is so developmentally damaged that they cannot healthily separate from their child and see their child as independent. They find themselves in a co-dependent relationship, perhaps because they experienced this with their parent or because they are using it to compensate for a lack of needs in their childhood. Co-dependency is a dysfunctional relationship in which one person relies on the other to an excessive or unhealthy degree to meet their emotional and psychological needs. Your parent has involved you in this enmeshed relationship with few boundaries, and the line between their emotions and yours is blurred. This means you have difficulty separating your thoughts, feelings, and needs from your parents. You need to tell them everything that is going on in your life. Even when you are not seeking advice, you feel almost a compulsion to tell them about your comings and goings, especially with new people who come into your life. If you do not, you feel guilty and restless. Unconsciously, you may feel you have betrayed your parents when you let new people into your life, and sabotage those new relationships.
In the case of emotionally needy parents, they project their profound dependency and insecurities onto you, effectively casting you into the dependent child role. However, it’s essential to understand that the reality is quite different; they are the ones grappling with dependency issues, not you. Their actions may not be driven by malice or intent; instead, they stem from unresolved emotional wounds and patterns developed during their own upbringing. Often, these parents lack the self-awareness and insight to address their needs directly. As a result, they indirectly seek fulfillment through your dependence, creating a complex interplay of emotions and behaviors within the family dynamic.
If you have controlling and anxious parents, it’s important to turn back the clock and examine how things got to be the way they are. Although dependency was healthy and natural in your childhood, your development was interrupted at some point, and part of your psyche became frozen in time and held in a childlike state. It is very likely that at some point in your late childhood or early adolescence, you received the implicit message that if you did not give up your individuality and merge with one of your parents, you would be abandoned and completely alone. So, at a young age, you did the only “sensible” thing: to give up your identity to maintain the connection with your caregiver.
This was once a necessary psychological strategy to survive, but now that you are an adult, dependency, and fusion have become obsolete as functional ways of being. When you were younger, maintaining a connection with your parents, even in dysfunctional ways, was paramount and essential to your survival. But now that you are an adult, your parent is only a part of your much fuller, larger life, and no longer everything. Unfortunately, being a child in an adult body no longer serves you.
Cultural Caveat to Defining Dependent Personality Tendencies or Dependent Personality Disorder
Cultures often have their own set of norms and values that shape what is considered socially acceptable behavior. In certain societies, filial piety and obedience are highly prized qualities. Individuals who conform to these norms and exhibit traits of submissiveness may be positively reinforced by their communities. For instance, cultures that emphasize collectivism over individualism may prioritize submission and conformity to maintain harmony within the group.
There can be a blurred line between what might be perceived as healthy interdependency and what could be considered toxic dependency. For instance, in some Asian cultures, the Confucian value of filial piety strongly emphasizes showing respect and obedience to one’s parents, even into adulthood. This cultural norm encourages a sense of emotional and practical dependency on family members. This support system can be seen as a manifestation of close-knit family bonds. However, in some cases, this may evolve into toxic dependency, where their family members dictate an individual’s entire life and decision-making process. What initially appears as strong familial ties can become a situation where the individual lacks autonomy and agency.
In cultures with strong hierarchical structures, such as those with a rigid caste system, individuals may find themselves in positions expected to follow the authority figures in their community unquestioningly. While respecting authority can be a valuable cultural norm, it can sometimes lead to unquestioning obedience and a lack of independent thought, blurring the line between healthy respect for tradition and toxic dependency.
In collectivist cultures, the group’s needs often precede individual desires. While this promotes cooperation and social harmony, it can sometimes make individuals feel obliged to suppress their personal needs and aspirations for the greater good. This can result in toxic dependency, where individuals are afraid to assert their wishes and may endure situations detrimental to their well-being.
In these examples, what might initially seem like healthy interdependency can evolve under certain circumstances or when taken to extremes into dysfunctional dependency or the development of dependent personality disorder.
In other words, it’s vital to account for cultural factors when assessing relational dependency and the presence of a dependent personality. What may be perceived as a dependent personality disorder in one culture could be regarded as a sign of strong familial ties or a harmonious partnership in another. The lens through which these behaviors are viewed can significantly impact the diagnosis and understanding of such traits.
Therefore, clinicians, psychologists, and mental health professionals should approach the evaluation and treatment of dependent personalities with cultural sensitivity. Acknowledging the potential influence of cultural norms and expectations can also lead to more accurate assessments and more effective therapeutic interventions, considering the unique cultural contexts in which individuals exist. This approach ensures a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of dependent personality traits and their potential cultural underpinnings.
“When we stop looking for someone to complete us, we find completion in ourselves.”
― Vironika Tugaleva
Treatment of Dependent Personality Disorder and Dependent Personality
When people with dependent personality disorder first seek help, they face many natural and psychological obstacles. One of them is that it is often very difficult to turn things around when a relational pattern has been set for a long time and is ingrained in an existing family dynamic. Sometimes, it may even seem that a high level of dependency is the only thing that keeps a family together, making it hard for the person to risk changing anything.
Perhaps you have had a long-standing enmeshed relationship with your partner or one of your parents. You feel that you cannot survive without being very close to them and having the promise of their support. In your everyday life, you are used to telling them everything about your life. You may also expect them to tell you everything about their lives and dread the prospect of anything changing.
At the same time, you are reading this because part of you knows something is wrong. Your need to seek others’ reassurance and approval does not feel like part of a healthy bond but rather compulsive desperation. You may constantly feel younger than your actual age and often feel disempowered. Although you are used to not knowing where you end and the other person begins, you may also recognize the effects of feeling constantly overwhelmed and crushed.
If you have controlling and anxious parents, it’s essential to turn back the clock and examine how things got to be the way they are. Although dependency was healthy and natural in your childhood, your development was interrupted at some point, and part of your psyche became frozen in time and held in a childlike state. It is very likely that at some point in your late childhood or early adolescence, you received the implicit message that if you did not give up your own individuality and merge with one of your parents, you would be abandoned and completely alone. So, at a young age, you did the only “sensible” thing: to give up your identity to maintain the connection with your caregiver.
This was once a necessary psychological strategy to survive, but now that you are an adult, dependency, and fusion have become obsolete as functional ways of being. When you were younger, maintaining a connection with your parents, even in dysfunctional ways, was paramount and essential to your survival. But now that you are an adult, your parent is only a part of your much fuller, larger life, and no longer everything. Unfortunately, being a child in an adult body no longer serves you.
Here is a list of something you can do to start the process of reclaiming your sense of self and heal from any dependent personality tendencies:
Set Your Intention
Seek to understand the motivations behind your desire for change. Are you looking to foster self-respect, regain autonomy, or protect your emotional well-being? Identifying your motivations helps you clarify the driving forces behind your decisions. Start by setting healthy boundaries by constructing a list of what you stand to gain. This may include increased self-esteem, improved relationships, and personal empowerment. Simultaneously, list what you may stand to lose or the challenges you might encounter, such as potential conflicts or discomfort.
Explore the “worst-case” scenarios associated with setting healthy boundaries. This exercise helps you prepare for potential challenges, fears, or resistance.
But also consider the “best-case” outcomes of establishing healthy boundaries. Visualize the positive transformations and the fulfillment of your goals. Envision a future filled with personal fulfillment, where you live authentically and confidently, free from dependency or overextension.
Review this occasionally, or create a vision board and place it somewhere accessible.
Independent Decision Making
Empowering yourself to make independent decisions is a valuable step towards self-reliance and personal growth.
Begin by acknowledging the pattern of seeking approval from others. It is a habit rooted in a desire for external validation, which can limit your autonomy and self-confidence. To break free from this pattern, initiate the process with small, inconsequential decisions like what to eat for lunch and planning activities for the day. Seemingly small decision helps you begin exercising your decision-making muscles.
Take a moment to reflect on your preferences, needs, and desires. When making small decisions, practice assertiveness. Be clear and confident in your choices- you are not being selfish or unaccommodating. You can always negotiate with others. Understand that your choices are valid, even if they differ from what others might choose.
As you grow more comfortable with independent decision-making, gradually increase the complexity of your choices. Progress from straightforward choices to more significant decisions. For instance, when planning a trip with friends or family, take on a more prominent role in suggesting destinations, activities, or accommodations. Instead of seeking approval, ask for feedback or input. For example, When working on a team project, you can say, “I’ve outlined my approach for this project. I’d appreciate your feedback and any suggestions for improvement.” This shift in your approach fosters collaboration while maintaining your autonomy. Even if a choice doesn’t yield the desired outcome, view it as a valuable experience contributing to your growth.
The more you practice making decisions and observing the positive impact of your choices, the more your self-confidence will grow. This newfound confidence will help you continue to assert your autonomy in various aspects of your life.
Begin role-playing or imagining what it would be like to set boundaries with others. Beginning with interactions with strangers and gradually progressing to those with close friends or loved ones. For example, imagine you’re at a social event, and a stranger asks overly personal questions about your life. Politely respond, “I prefer not to discuss that topic,” while maintaining a friendly demeanor. If you feel overwhelmed in your close relationship, you might say, “I value our time together, but I also need some alone time to recharge. Can we find a balance that works for both of us?” Setting boundaries is a skill that improves with practice. Honoring your needs while respecting others is the key to maintaining healthy relationships. Each situation is unique, and the way you communicate your boundaries may vary accordingly. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become in asserting your needs and nurturing balanced, respectful connections with others.
Inner Dialogue with Your Younger Self
In a safe space, such as therapy, or privately in your journal or with art, explore the pain of your inner child, who was desperate for connection and had renounced who they are to please others. Envisioning a dialogue with the part of you that seeks dependency and enmeshment with others can be a helpful and transformative exercise.
Begin by acknowledging the presence of this younger aspect within you. Picture this part of yourself as a child, perhaps with their unique voice, fears, and desires. T Then, create a safe and nurturing environment where you and your inner child can converse. This space should be free from judgment, criticism, or external influences. It’s a sanctuary for emotional exploration.
Approach your inner child with love and understanding. Tell them their feelings and needs are valid, even if they seem challenging. Reassure them that it’s okay to seek support and connection from others. Engage in a gentle conversation with your inner child. Ask them about their fears and concerns. Why do they feel the need to depend on others? What do they hope to achieve through enmeshment? As you gain insights, offer gentle guidance and support.
Understand that your younger self might seek the emotional support they didn’t receive as a child. They may long for a lack of security, love, or acceptance. Then, encourage your inner child to explore healthier ways to fulfill these needs. Suggest seeking support from friends, family, or professionals who can offer guidance and connection without compromising your autonomy.
As you engage in this dialogue, aim to bridge the gap between your adult self and your inner child. Ensure that your adult self provides the guidance and reassurance your inner child needs. The ultimate goal is to achieve inner harmony and integration. Your adult self and inner child should coexist in a balanced manner. Your inner child should know they are heard and supported, while your adult self maintains the autonomy and self-reliance necessary for personal growth.
By engaging in this internal conversation, you can better understand the roots of your dependency tendencies and work toward healthier, more balanced relationships with others. This process of self-exploration and self-compassion can pave the way for personal growth and emotional well-being.
Attempting Anger Expression with an Empty Chair
Recognizing and expressing repressed emotions, such as anger, is pivotal to personal growth and healing, especially for individuals with dependent personality disorder who may have difficulty identifying and articulating their feelings. Here’s an expanded perspective on this process, including the use of grief work and therapeutic techniques like the “empty chair” exercise:
Many individuals with a dependent personality have a history of suppressing their feelings to avoid conflict or maintain harmony in relationships. As a result, they may find it challenging to identify what they are feeling. Anger is not ‘bad’; anger is a natural response to perceived injustices or boundary violations.
The “empty chair” or “chairwork” exercise is a therapeutic technique often used in psychodynamic or gestalt therapy. It involves imagining that someone or something is seated in an empty chair, and you address them as if they were present. In recognizing and expressing repressed emotions, you can use the “empty chair” to converse with the person or situation that triggers your anger. Express your feelings, concerns, and unspoken thoughts to the imagined person or situation. This process can help you release pent-up emotions and gain clarity.
Standing Up For The Younger You
Revisiting the past and engaging in an imagined conversation with a controlling parent is a therapeutic and introspective exercise that can help individuals with dependent personality disorder address unresolved emotional issues.
Begin by creating a secure mental space to revisit the past comfortably. Picture your controlling parent from the past. Try to recall their physical appearance, mannerisms, and the specific circumstances where their control and influence were most evident. Imagine yourself in your current adult form, going back and standing up as the advocate and protector of your younger self. Begin the conversation by honestly expressing the emotions you experienced as a child. It might include fear, frustration, sadness, or confusion. In your imagined dialogue, ask your controlling parent to understand the impact of their actions on your emotional development. Tell them how their behavior affected you as a child. By vocalizing these emotions, you’re acknowledging and validating your younger self’s experiences on their behalf.
Then, articulate the unmet needs and desires you had as a child. These may encompass needs for love, validation, support, or personal space. Speaking on behalf of your younger self, advocate for these unfulfilled needs.
After the visualization, take time to reflect on the conversation you had with your controlling parent. Consider how this exercise made you feel and any insights it may have brought to light.
This exercise provides an opportunity to release repressed emotions and unresolved conflicts from childhood. It fosters a sense of empowerment as you step into the role of protector for your younger self and allows you to acknowledge and validate your inner child’s emotions and unmet needs.
Visualizing an Energetic Boundary
Visualizing an energetic boundary, such as an impenetrable wall, is a powerful technique to safeguard your emotional and psychological space.
Begin by finding a quiet and comfortable space for visualization. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to center yourself. In your mind, picture a protective barrier you are about to construct. This energetic boundary is entirely controlled and serves as your personal space. Imagine the size and dimensions of this barrier. It can be as broad and tall as you desire, tailored to your needs. Some people prefer a small, intimate boundary, while others opt for a vast, expansive one. Consider the material and texture of your energetic wall. It can be constructed from anything that resonates with you: solid stone, shimmering light, a transparent force field, or any other material that symbolizes strength and security. Visualize the color of your boundary. Choose a shade that signifies protection, strength, and empowerment to you. Common choices include vibrant blue for clarity and calm or a radiant white for purity and light.
As you construct your energetic wall, hold the intent of its purpose firmly in your mind. Its primary function is to create a safe and inviolable space that only permits what you consciously choose. Envision your boundary as the guardian of your inner world. It separates your authentic self from external influences, ensuring that your emotional and mental space remains clear and pure.
Imagine activating this barrier at will. You can raise or lower it as needed, giving you control over what enters and exits your personal space.
Regularly practice this visualization, especially when you anticipate interactions or situations challenging your boundaries. It reinforces your ability to establish and maintain your energetic wall.
Build Healthier Relationships That Support Your Independent Self
Establishing healthy relationships with supportive individuals is instrumental in healing from dependent personality disorder and gaining the strength to assert yourself. Begin by identifying and fostering connections with individuals who genuinely believe in you, respect your boundaries, and do not overpower or control you. These relationships can be with close friends, partners, or a therapist.
In these relationships, prioritize emotional safety. Ensure you feel secure and comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment or domination. As much as possible, have open and honest conversations with them. Share your experiences, fears, and insecurities, especially those related to your past and dependent tendencies. Seek their help in helping you break patterns. You may also pay attention to the dynamics and qualities that make these relationships positive and try to replicate those qualities in your interactions with others. As you gain confidence and self-empowerment through these supportive relationships, you become better equipped to stand up for yourself in various situations.
(Re) Discovering Who You Are
Developing a strong sense of self is crucial in breaking free from dependent personality tendencies and becoming more self-reliant. Begin your journey by engaging in self-exploration. This involves delving into your thoughts, feelings, and experiences to understand yourself.
Make a list of the things you genuinely like and dislike, no matter how unique or unconventional they may be. Then, identify your areas of competence and those that require growth. Understand that your likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses make you unique. Embrace your individuality without comparing yourself to others.
You may wish to identify with or connect with fictional characters from movies, novels, or television shows who resonate with you on a personal level. By identifying with these characters, you can gain insights into your values, aspirations, and even areas where you feel challenged.
You may also use established personality inventories such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Enneagram. These tools provide a framework for understanding your personality traits, preferences, and tendencies. They can offer valuable insights into your unique qualities.
Regular self-reflection and journaling can be powerful tools for self-discovery. Document your thoughts, experiences, and insights. Reviewing your journal entries can reveal patterns in your behavior, emotions, and thought processes.
Finding Your Way Back Into Who You Are
If you have always been merged with another person, the idea of a “sense of self” may seem foreign. It may not even sound enticing, but scary and lonely. But imagine being able to make your own decisions, no longer haunted by the constant fear of being abandoned, and having the joy of knowing who you are and liking who you are.
Change means embracing something unknown, and that can be an intimidating process. But on the other side of positive change is the discovery of your unique talents and personality, the ability to form deep adult relationships, freedom from obsessive needs and attachment fears, and the ability to achieve goals that are important to you.
This is not an easy process, but if what you have been doing is no longer working for you, it is reasonable to explore a new way of being. Independence and a sense of self do not necessarily mean separation and loneliness, and only when you have a definition of “you” can you build a real relationship with others.
You can reclaim your right to your interests, choices, voice, ideas, and life goals. You will no longer feel that you only partially exist. You will no longer have to laboriously conform to what others expect of you or what you should do. You will have the right not only to be happy and fulfilled but also to express sadness and anger when you need to. With careful steps, one day you can be truly happy when you look back and know that you have done all you can to become who you are.
“Like a butterfly stuck in a chrysalis, waiting for the perfect moment, I was waiting for the day I could burst forth and fly away and find my home.”
― Emme Rollins
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.