How to Create Emotional Independence… | Counseling | Therapy

How to Create Emotional Independence Through Language

Tonya McDaniel , MSW, LCSW, MED, ABD — Therapist, director of program development


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If you have ever wondered how you can create emotional independence through language, then you are in the right place.

There’s no “I” in “team!” Many of us may be familiar with this adage. It’s meant to unite individual members together for the greater good of the group. The message is simple: the team is the priority, not the needs of the individual. Although this philosophy may be useful in a sporting context, it can be very damaging in personal relationships. In other words, if we are consumed with the other person in the relationship, we may not leave enough room for ourselves. Our world becomes all about them and we may lose a sense of who we are and what we want independent of the other person.

Emotional Codependence

This type of relationship has many names: codependence, emotional fusion, enmeshment, or undifferentiation. The common theme in these relationships is the inability to separate our needs, desires, feelings and thoughts independently from other people. As a result of this codependence or emotional fusion, we may internalize our partner or family member’s behaviors or thoughts as a reflection of how they feel about us. In other words, if my mother expresses displeasure in the way I have disciplined my children, I may think she is trying to tell me that I am a “bad mom.” Or, if my partner tells me that he doesn’t want to have sex tonight, then I may think he is really expressing that he isn’t attracted to me.

With this type of codependence, we can become very emotionally reactive to any perceived criticism or threats to the relationship. We can become defensive, withdrawn, critical and/or passive-aggressive. Often, these types of reactions create more emotional distance or disconnection in the relationship, which can provide further “evidence” that we are being judged or criticized. A problem with codependence, according to Western culture (NB: many Eastern cultures don’t value emotional independence in the same way), is that it robs us of our opportunity to truly understand other people and develop independently within the relationship. An emotionally independent person might have been able to hear her mother’s opinion about child rearing or her husband’s lack of desire for sexual intimacy at a particular moment as thoughts and opinions that are independent of her value and worth as a mother or wife. She might have been able to engage in more productive solution finding behaviors knowing that everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs and it is not her responsibility to change those beliefs or to change her own behavior, unless that is something she desired for her own personal growth or relationship enhancement.

As noted, emotional independence has many benefits, but it can be challenging for some people to find ways to change their codependent relationships. One of the simplest ways you can create emotional independence is through language.

Create Emotional Independence Through Language

“You complete me.” “I can’t live without you.” “You are my ‘everything.’” “You make me feel unloved.” “My children are my life.” “I live to make you happy.” These sentiments are the foundation of Hallmark cards, Lifetime movies, and romance novels. For some reason, we seem to be attracted to the idea of being overwhelmed by our need for another person (e.g., star-crossed lovers, soul mates) or sacrificing our needs for others (e.g., martyrdom). One could argue these themes make for powerful story arcs, but in the mundanity of life, they can create an unhealthy expectation.

Language is powerful. It shapes our understanding of the world and sets the stage for relationship expectations right from the beginning. If our family reacted to our perceived misbehavior as “how could you do this to me?” or “this was all my fault; I’m a horrible parent,” it can create an early association between our behavior and a beloved, family member’s emotional state or identity. Children are naturally egocentric, meaning they believe the world revolves around them. When you combine egocentrism and codependence language, it can easily create a relationship expectation of emotional fusion or codependence (e.g., everything I do has a significant impact on those around me).

Here are a few examples of how you can create emotional independence through language by replacing emotionally codependent phrases with emotionally independent phrases:

Instead of saying… Say instead…

“You made me feel unloved.”

“I got upset when you did X.”

“You complete me.”

“I am motivated to grow and be the best version of myself in this relationship.”

“I live for my children.”

“I get great joy being a parent.”

“I can’t live without you.”

“I would be sad if you weren’t in my life.”

“I live to make you happy.”

“I enjoy finding ways to support you in reaching your goals.”

One challenge to changing your behavior is that there can be a benefit to emotional codependent language: it can help with facilitating a strong and intense bond between people. If you are using emotionally independent language, it may trigger some insecurities in the other person who may think that you aren’t as interested or invested in the relationship. It may be helpful to let the other person know that you are working on your emotional reactivity and trying out new approaches, to help minimize the potential perceived threat on their end.

Another way you can also use language to create emotional independence is to help you see the other person as someone separate from the ties of your relationship. For example, the word “mommy” has different connotations as “mom” or even “Cathy.” The former is an expression often used between small children and their parent. It denotes a level of caretaking, hierarchy and power differential that is different than the expression “mom” which can be used between two adults. If you are struggling with your emotional codependence, part of the issue may be that you are still relating with your loved ones within an immature context. It may not be the most constructive relationship to have the same expectations for your parent (or children) as you did growing up as you do now as an adult.

One way you can start to create cognitive distance or perspective from people is to change the way you refer to them. If you are an adult and still referring to your parents as “Mommy” or “Daddy,” then try “Mom” or “Dad.” If you are still struggling with emotional codependence, then you can even refer to them by their first names when discussing your relationships with your partner, friends, or therapist. “Bob and Cathy” can create some emotional space as compared to “Mom and Dad.” You may not want to call them by their first names to their face, although, that is another option if you still need to create more cognitive distance while you establish healthy boundaries and emotional independence. The same principle applies to your adult children. “Little Jimmy” or “Becky” can be replaced with more mature, adult sounding names, such as “Jim” and “Rebecca” to help remind yourself that they are mature, independent adults and not your little babies that need protecting.

Becoming emotionally independent can be a challenging journey, although there are numerous potential benefits to reclaiming your own needs and desires and decreasing your emotional reactivity to other people (i.e., managing your own insecurities or unproductive relationship expectations). However, any change with one person in a relationship will have an impact on the relationship as a whole. If you find that you need more assistance working through this process with your loved one or need more guidance on how to create emotional independence through language, feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.

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