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Stop Over-Depending on Others and Seeking Their Approval: How to Set Yourself Free

woman with puppet strings

“Some people think it’s holding tight that makes one strong, but sometimes, it’s letting go.” ~Unknown

I got a week off of work recently to spend with myself, which is always a wonderfully centering experience for me. I’m an introvert, so I love my alone time. But as I took the time to introspect about some relationships in my life, my Zen-like vacation mindset disappeared.

It had happened again, and my mood alternated between mad and depressed all weekend. You see, sometimes I turn into a puppet.

You probably know the feeling, even if you’re not sure what I’m talking about yet.

There’s a sense of being a little out of control of your life, powerful emotions pulling you in different directions, a nagging sense of worry that never lets up, and losing your grip on that sense of who you are and what’s important to you. That’s my least favorite part—the loss of identity.

“A lie keeps growing and growing until it's as plain as the nose on your face.” ~The Blue Fairy, Pinocchio

For me, these feelings come from becoming overly emotionally dependent on others, usually particular relationships in my life. For many others, and maybe for you, it might not be so specific. The dependency might be spread out over your peers, friends, coworkers, or parents.

What is Over-Dependency?

Let’s start out with this: dependency is not a weakness. It’s actually healthy, as long as you can keep it balanced with independence.

We all need to be taken care of, validated, encouraged, and given support. When we can receive these things from others and use them to nurture our spirits, this is healthy dependency. When we draw strength from these experiences, it allows us to more easily be independent at other times—relying on and caring for ourselves, and being the one to support others.

This is called interdependence, and it’s a beautiful ebb and flow in relationships of both giving and being able to receive. As social as we human beings are, this is pretty necessary for our survival. The instincts for it run deep in our nature.

Over-dependency is when you find yourself struggling to return to emotional independence when needed. For me, this involves a lot of worry and obsessing over what someone else thinks of me.

It feels like an intense need for someone’s approval, otherwise I’m not okay or enough. Sometimes it comes out as continuous attempts to prove myself, or be perfect, or seek compliments. Other times, I give up too early or avoid people who I feel may never approve of me.

You might see it in others—you know, those genuinely great people in your life who never admit to being good enough.

When we try so hard to constantly please someone else, we start to become unreal. Over-dependency gives us feelings of emptiness, inadequacy, loss, confusion, and insignificance. We feel unreal not because we don’t matter to others, but because we are making ourselves fake.

Where Does It Come From?

This varies for different people. Maybe it was the way you were parented, or being bullied in school. How about becoming a teenager and suddenly feeling the cultural pressure to be a model/genius/super-star? Maybe it was being treated badly in a romantic relationship.

Mine comes from an abusive relationship I experienced several years ago. My abuser was highly psychologically manipulative, cornering me into compliance with threats, insults, intimidation, blaming, guilt tripping, shaming, and praise.

He praised me highly when I did what he wanted and attacked my self-worth when I did not. I learned to feel fear and anxiety any time he wasn’t happy because I knew it meant I was at risk for being told that I was unlovable and inadequate.

It was highly victimizing to know that my worth in his eyes was conditional and dependent on how I made him feel, rather than being recognized as a valuable human being with my own needs and emotions.

Becoming a puppet was a way to try and protect my little scrap of self-esteem.

But when I left and cut ties with him, I didn’t realize my puppet strings were still trailing behind me. My victim mentality followed me into other areas of life, and it has taken great courage and a lot of practice to learn how to take it off and let my self-worth stand on its own again.    

Whatever your own experience, over-dependence usually happens when we try to rely on someone in a healthy way and get hurt instead of being supported. Our instincts kick in, and we try new strategies, looking for ways to get the love we need and avoid the hurt.

But the more we try, the more we tend to lose sight of ourselves. Slowly, we start trading our unique face for a closet of masks and a set of puppet strings. It’s a cheap trade in the end because we only get temporary approval where we needed unconditional acceptance and love.

Ways to Ease Back into Interdependence

Pinocchio: “Don't hurt him, Jiminy. He's my best friend.”

Jiminy Cricket: [outraged] “Your best friend? And what am I? Just your conscience? Okay! That settles it!”

1. Let your conscience be your guide.

Listen to the small voice inside you. It’s our warning for when things are becoming unhealthy. Be aware of yourself and how you start to act and feel when you’re wrapped up in pleasing others. Think honestly about how you’ve been caring for yourself lately.

2. Get some distance.

Try spending some time with yourself to see if it clears your head. It’s also a good way to mentally check your relationships. The healthy people in your life will give you space when you need it, then be glad to see you return.

If you don’t do this often they might express concern, but in a way that isn’t blaming, guilt tripping, or desperate. This helps you realize you are a real boy, after all. Maybe you don’t need those puppet strings.

3. Give yourself love.

Others aren’t the only ones who can fulfill your need for love. In fact, if you don’t love yourself, you might have a hard time accepting or feeling like you deserve their love.

Take some time to really accept yourself. When you do this, there’s no need to tell fibs and watch your nose grow just to be loved. Yes, you are flawed; this makes you no less lovable. You deserve time, attention, care, acceptance, appreciation, honesty, and gentleness. Take a weekend to give yourself these things.

4. Give others love.

Strangely, over-dependency becomes highly self-focused. I’ve found the easiest and warmest way to slip back into the ebb and flow of interdependence is to give in small ways to other people around me, without expecting anything back.

This is different from being a puppet, where I’m dancing around just for the sake of earning some cheap affection.

Gently release those puppet strings and make your own decisions about how you want to interact with people. When I’m focused on giving, it’s also easier to recognize when others are trying to give to me. Then you can accept it back with gratitude.

Jessica King is an intern Couple and Family Therapist, painter, and wife to her loving husband Kenneth. Her passion is working with survivors of trauma, abuse & neglect. She likes to spend time thinking deeply, crafting, and cuddling with their cats Lilly and Luna.
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