Anxiety and Insecurity about One’s Sense of Self

Would you give up your autonomy for the illusion of protection?

Many adults do, especially those with anxiety disorders, fears of abandonment, or relationship insecurity.

As a matter of fact, many people with anxiety disorders feel that they must depend on others to accompany them places (for example, in case of agoraphobia, in which a person is afraid to leave his house) or to help them out with daily tasks such as paying bills or managing their emotions. Some people look to their relationships for a sense of being rescued from situations that feel overwhelming or traumatic, such as dealing with critical family members or memories of past abuse.

Anxiety can cause people to get into relationships with controlling people who offer protection- but may be abusive, critical, bossy, or domineering in exchange. Anxiety leads to fear of leaving these controllers who are also experienced as protectors. Leaving is not always necessary- but the ability to feel that one has a choice in the relationship, rather than desperation- can be quite important!

Many such relationships start off with a promise of being taken care of. It might be financial caretaking, or it could be emotional, or even interpersonal- someone comes along and seems to understand you really well, or offers to help out with your bills when you’ve been really struggling financially, or stands up for you when family members criticize you or try to overstep your boundaries. Whatever it is, these types of relationships often start off innocently enough, with one or both partners providing support and caretaking and both partners feeling safe and secure.

Feelings of dependency in relationships are not a problem in and of themselves. We all need other people to help us out at times and to complement our weaknesses or stand up for us when we’re in a weak position. As a matter of fact, not being able to ask for help from other or to express dependency when appropriate, comes with a host of problems of its own- as in a dismissive attachment style.

Rather, the problem comes when the roles get polarized; one partner is super dependent and the other one is domineering. Then the power dynamics start to shift from healthy interdependence- in which both partners take turns helping each other out, expressing vulnerability, and giving/receiving emotional support- to a relationship in which one person is the weak one and the other one has the power. Instead of both partners working on themselves to become more competent, one starts to embody “competence” while the other embodies “weakness”. Things get more and more uneven.

The weak partner may sacrifice his/her self-respect, independence, and sense of mastery for the feeling of being protected, cushioned, and taken care of. And if the powerful partner becomes abusive, it feels impossible to leave because there is a feeling of being completely unable to manage on one’s own. The weak partner may also begin to passively wield power in the relationship through dependence and helplessness (for example, coercing the stronger partner to do all sorts of things for him/her in the face of the complete helplessness being expressed- did you ever feel held hostage by someone’s desperate demands that you do something for them that really seemed quite simple??). This may create a sense of more power in the stronger partner, fueling the power dynamics and sense of having the right to be controlling. It also creates secondary gain for the helpless partner (positive reinforcement for being helpless) so that becoming stronger and more capable is not an option because it carries the threat of losing the power gained by acting helpless and weak.

Is your relationship in balance? Do you experience anxiety and insecurity about your ability to take care of yourself, making you feel dependent on other people to take care of you- even if they try to control you as part of the package?

Are you afraid to stand up for yourself, even when you know in your heart that your partner (or friend, or family member) is treating you unfairly, or making accusations that are unjustified? Do you ever apologize even when you know you haven’t done anything wrong, just to appease someone for fear of losing their help or protection?

These are questions you might ask yourself if you want to try to change the way you’re showing up in your relationships and your life. Learning to trust that you can take care of yourself when you need to- seeing yourself as just as capable as anyone else- may require a shift in self-perception, but it may just be worth it.

Even small steps in a relationship can help to balance things out…whether it’s a dependent partner becoming a bit more assertive and capable, or a domineering partner becoming a bit softer and emotionally receptive.

Why not give your relationship a chance to blossom in a different direction?

And if the patterns in your life and relationship feel impossible to shift, then there may be a rigidity that is closing off some of your choices. Taking some time for introspection can mean the difference between spending your life in a psychological prison or opening all sorts of doors that you never even knew existed.