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

woman girl stylized like marionette puppet on string

“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.

Photo by byronv2

About Jessica King

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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  • Noctu Sova

    This really opened my eyes.
    My life has gone downhill since my first experience with dating and getting dumped.

    I have dropped 3 semesters of college because couldn’t motivate myself.

    I plan on asking someone I like out as a freind.
    She is a coworker from a different shift, but I have worked at the same place as her for a year.

  • T

    Thanks. Off to work now

  • I know the feeling of being over dependant. It is like you are leaning against the wall and over time you think it is always going to be right where it is… forgetting how to stand on your two feet on your own. Then, that wall crumbles and falls one day and… there is nothing left like to stand up and learn to depend on yourself.

    And may I just say, that happiness starts with us – not with our relationships, not with our job or money, but with us…

  • Jessica

    Hi Noctu,
    I’m glad it gave you some insight. It’s definitely hard to stay motivated if you’re used to putting all your energy into what other people want, and then that gets pulled out from under you. Whether you go out with this girl or not, don’t forget to make time for you :). Your unique identity was meant for something in this world. I hope you find someone who appreciates you as you are.

  • Jessica

    Wise words 🙂 that’s a great mantra for learning to feel secure in oneself! Thanks for the comment.

  • Jessica

    😀 😀 😀 happy faces! Thanks for sharing.

  • Noctu Sova

    Thanks I did tell her I would like to go out somewhere as friends but set no date on it.
    And told her it would be fun no matter what we do because she is a nice person :3

  • krutika

    nicely written im speechless! you should always be yourself never try to be fake it causes more problem than you are in sometimes. 🙂

  • Flo

    Jessica, I had a week to myself last week (a very rare event for me) and went through the exact same fluctuation in emotions but I had no idea why. Thank you so much for explaining to me the subconscious puppetry I have been subjecting myself to. As a result I’m determined to give my puppeteer a wide berth for a while so that I can assert myself once again.

  • Jessica

    Good for you, Flo. Making healthy choices in relationships is a continuous practice. It’s hard, but it really amazed me how much mental energy I freed up when I started doing these things more often. Hope you enjoy yourself with that space and have a similar experience.

  • Jessica

    True! And thank you for the nice compliment.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    As someone who struggle with ‘over-dependency,’ as well…this was really helpful; thank you for sharing. By the way; loved the analogy with Pinocchio; it took me back to a lot of childhood memories; hahah! 🙂

  • Shakerul Tazu

    very effective and well written dear. it’ll help me a lot. it’s like I was searching for something like this and here it is! thank you so much! I really appreciate. and very effective writing style so far I read here on this topic. please keep writing.

  • Jessica

    🙂 Thanks Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt. I was worried the pinocchio thing was too corny. Glad you liked it and found it helpful!

  • Jessica

    Wow, thanks Shakerul! This is my first public piece, so your comments are really encouraging. I’m happy you found what you were searching for, and I got to be a part of it.

  • xfile73

    I know all of this very well. I am disabled and have to depend on some people but I reciporocate using my knowledge to help them out of some problems.
    Recently I was given the news that I had an inherited metabolic disease that is fatal. My mother passed from it at age 59. I was given 2 choices by a team of doctors. Keep going and I will have 10 yrs of pain imprisoned in my own body then have my organs fail one by one;or have a hybrid gastric sleeve surgery to remove 20yrs of damage from a chronic stomach condition in danger of rupture with the nice side effect of resetting the metabolic endocrine system…tricking the brain…
    I am 40…docs did the math…I chose better odds….
    Now to the friend whom I had been through thick and thin with…selective memory…
    She had spread rumors that I was using surgery like a cutter uses to feel …Hypochondria, laziness…you name it.
    My friend since 2nd grade (J) got ticked and msgd her telling her that to take 5 sec to say good luck after not a word to me after letting friends and family know the date of the surgery and I was scared. She told her money problems will be there tomorrow…a risky surgery a human life of a friend may not be there tomorrow.
    Well After I heard what my friend (J) msgd…
    I texted the other friend to apologize that I in no way told her to do this.
    Day after surgery still in the hospital I get…everything is about me…while also admitting she did not read my msgs…soo…ok
    I had always asked if she needed to talk msg me and I will call day or night. Whatever I can do let me know. She says I have no idea what is happening in her life and do not care. Ok well mind reading with no responses tricky aside from trying to cheer one up.
    My fiancee and I went to her destination wedding a yr ago and she started in on the fact we were hit by a criminal scam involving insertion of a hotel employee…anyone not buying in will suffer consequences. I had made sure my doc had everything squared for an atypical seizure w the clinic. Since we had expidited passports we had the trip registered with the dept of state. Doc made complaint and we had to finish. Long story short doc had to MacGuyver stuff I had with me to get to the reception and I was refused care. Not to mention I trekked to her shower w giftsand a heartfelt letter of how she has been a good friend and has become a wonderful woman
    who found the soulmate truly deserving of her. 4hrs one way. Oh us consolate told my fiancee to get in touch with wedding coordinator or anyone because this was right after the Boston Marathon Bombing…2 Americans disappearing would be bad. So after multiple calls to front desk in Spanish and English I just asked can you just connect me to the maid of Honor…nice they connect me to the bride and briefly explained I had to miss the ceremony because I could not get my shot for some reason but will be there for reception…and was crying in pain and utter embarrasment.
    At that point she told me I should have known to give her space… Again …contadictions and mind reading… Then she said I just don’t have time for this friendship.
    Also filling in blanks in her head without asking the questions.
    After my mom being sick I took on the mantra to love thyself last…people are more important. There will forever be problems but friends who will be there for you…have a lifespan.
    I gave her space at least after all the circular speech she came out and said it.
    I answered that last msg with I apologize…I really do for upsetting you. And take your space and if you want to talk I am here on your terms…Be well…just be well♡
    So am I insane to think that even though she has not blocked me from social media etc…that she when her problems settle down that I am not going to be the receiver of misdirected anger and she might listen to the truth? Thoughts…anyone….

  • M.

    I can imagine your manipulative ex-boyfriend being over-dependent himself, seeing as he needed your affirmative behaviour in order to behave lovingly toward you. Reading this, I recognise some of his qualities in myself.

    Anyway, thank you for an enlightening text. It was just what i needed. 🙂

  • Evelyn

    Thank you for this wonderful article! I’ve found that I over-depend on
    situations too, it’s as if I will validate myself for persevering with
    something and not changing a situation.
    Another point is that some
    times we over-depend without someone actually asking for it, it’s our
    projection of ‘how well I’ll be received/loved/admired if I do this’;
    and then we somehow make less and less decisions based on how they will
    benefit us and only us.
    What you said ‘Think honestly about how
    you’ve been caring for yourself lately’ hits the spot for me, it’s a
    circle of: I’m not getting something, I’m not giving it to myself,
    something’s missing, hmm let’t turn to food! That’s my indicator..
    We learn and continue though..that’s life!

  • Jessica

    Hi Evelyn,
    Very astute. Your concept of over-dependence without someone asking for it is exactly how my victim puppet strings followed me to new relationships. ‘If I try this will I be loved? Will this make me good enough? I can’t upset her; then she won’t want to be pals anymore,’ and etc. We learn to do the puppet dance to please others so they will respond kindly, maybe even fill one of our needs.

    Hmm, I feel your own article coming on, maybe about filling the What’s-Missing?-Hole with healthy self-care instead of unhealthy, feel-good stuff. Do you write?

  • Jessica

    Dear M,

    I can imagine that too. He wasn’t comfortable unless I was expressing warmth to him in exactly the way he wanted it and it fit his current perceptions.

    You’re a brave person to admit to identifying with him. If everyone were able to answer that question honestly, we’re all capable of going through periods of over-dependency, and feel angry, hurt, jaded, quickly offended, and sad when others don’t respond with validating behaviors. Some dependency is fine; too much makes us question our self worth.

    Anyway, thank you for the compliment! Glad it helped.

  • Jessica

    Hi xfile73,

    Wow, this was quite the story. If you like you could repost it in the Forums section of the blog to receive answers from other tinybuddha readers & writers. They may be able to give your story better attention and responses than I can.

    My brief two cents:
    At this point it seems like you & your friend both think you need each other. What do you need each other *for*? Are you hoping they will provide you with something (safety, confidence, validation, forgiveness)? Is it possible you could give yourself whatever you wish she would give you?

    You have great insight that you both made mistakes, and some things were out of your control. If you feel that you communicated this to the best of your abilities, you have no more responsibilities. It’s up to her how she takes it.

    You be well too 🙂 Continue following the four steps above and I hope they’ll bring you some clarity.

  • Evelyn

    Hi Jessica,
    You’re right, maybe the timing is right, after I’ve analysed and comprehended it, it’s time to put it in words. I started writing a blog as an experiment but master procrastinator only allows a piece every 2-3 months!
    http://evelynontherun.wordpress.com/

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Not at all…it brought a child-like innocence & clarity to the story! Plus, we can’t please everyone…

  • Tim

    I am over-dependent in my job which causes me to seek satisfaction outside of work when things get slow. I have trouble self-starting and not becoming distracted. I have no confidence to do anything on my own for fear it will be berated or worse, not even acknowledged and just passed over and a whole different idea or direction taken not only negating or nullifying what i have done, but actually condemning it in a sense and giving me a dark sense of myself and my “abilities”
    .

  • anja

    a very bad article with a lot of misinformation. until reading this, i thought that this site was great.

  • Rieae

    I am currently severely depressed and your article hit every single nail on the head. Im an extrovert but this spoke so truly to me.

    Please can you give me any other tactics or things I can do to feel better? I’m just stuck in this pit of lost of self and I’ve lost my empowering independence. …

  • Jessica

    Hi Rieae, it’s been awhile since you posted so I hope things are a little better now. Both extroverts and introverts can feel the need to please others. If you gain energy from being around others, take care to choose the company of people who treat you kindly and with respect. I’d suggest talking to a therapist or finding a self-help book that focuses on changing negative self-thoughts and promotes self-acceptance. Consider creating a mantra that you can repeat in your head every time you catch yourself looking to others to define your self-worth. Something like, “Others’ actions are about them, not me. My worthiness stands on its’ own.”

  • Athena

    Thank you for sharing this. I am trying to find myself a door way out, and this could be it. Often times I think that what I felt is not normal, and so I want to end my life because of it. I don’t see the beauty of life, because i have let myself be strangled by wanting other people’s approval- and all that ever matters is on how i treat and value myself. I am also an Introvert, and often times i keep my worries to myself, i trust only few people on whom i can share my worries with. But what i am doing now, maybe i am trying to find some answers, a friend, a support group, or anything that can help me understand what i am feeling. I love psychology so i can understand my own behavior. i tried different ways on how to manage my emotions- its just that when it fails i easily give up.and now i am trying again… its true that its hard to trust a stranger. but what i have observe that we all have something in common and that is the quest in finding our purpose in life.I haven’t find mine yet, but i know it is directed in helping others. we all struggle emotionally… but what works for us best is usually the one’s we use- like on how someone cope. i often asked myself why do i have to strive?, why do i have to live? but then happiness is not found when you focus on to yourself alone (i can always be happy when i’m with myself) but when you get to share that happiness to other people gives a different impact.and i guess, that is what matters…its hard to break the chain when your always accustomed to negativity. the world is still a wonderful place as they may have said it- it is only a matter of how you view it. but when your in the verge of giving up like i always do- the best way to do is to find the reason why you wanted what you want in the first place.

  • Sur

    Apparently being me is not appreciated by others. I am cheerful person. Love being around people. Never talk sad stuffs or bad events in my past ! Yet I am
    Shunned and told I am immature and too friendly ! So I have to be fake at times

  • Sur

    I hear u. I feel exactly the same how u feel only I am an extrovert. Unfortunately my so called friends don’t appreciate my willingness to share some
    Quantiy time together and share some joy ! I have noted communication is only on their their terms and timings. So I cut all contact with others since i felt alone when with them anyways. Now I find myself all by myself. No much Correpsondence from
    Those I know ! Time
    To love myself enough so I be self sufficient and care less about those who r self centered !

  • Simmi

    This is very impressive post. It ‘s like I am reading about myself. Same incident and same feelings. Thanks Jessica.

  • Mary

    I’m just starting to acknowledge some of the things that apparent about my character. This article is scarily true for me. I’m one of these people who has to move at a 100 miles an hour, but when you take the things i’m doing away from me i’m lost. As much as i’ve always said i love my own company i fear doing things by myself and my own time seems to be spent pretty reclusively. If i’m not doing things for other people i’m not worthy of their company and friendship.
    This is the first time i’m admitting this to myself, let alone anything else and not sure where it will take me.