“Most of us live in a state of codependence, be it with our partners, friends or social group,” according to Isha Judd, author of the books Love Has Wings and Why Walk When You Can Fly . We let others shape our beliefs and decisions — so much so that we lose sight of who we are, she said.
Darlene Lancer, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of Codependency for Dummies, also noted that many people don’t become fully autonomous, instead “forming our feelings and behaviors around something external.”
Autonomy means being the author of your life, she said. You compose the rules you live by. It means “owning your own reality, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, opinions [and] memories.”
Autonomy means having “the confidence to be ourselves, and the self-awareness to know who we are and what we want,” Judd said. ((I’m using the words independence and autonomy interchangeably. Lancer prefers the terms autonomy and interdependence, because we’re social animals who are dependent on others.))
She believes that true independence derives from self-love. “[W]hen I do not accept myself, I do not trust myself or my decisions, and so I let other people define who I am and how I behave.”
Below, Judd and Lancer shared their suggestions on how we can become more autonomous, step-by-step.
1. Get to know yourself.
“You can’t be independent if you don’t know who you are,” Lancer said. To get to know yourself, she suggested journaling and reflecting on what happened during your day.
Ask yourself: “Did I speak my truth?” “Notice the gap between what you’re feeling inside and your words and behavior, which you show to the world.” For instance, maybe you said yes to something you really didn’t want to do, Lancer said. What can you learn from that experience?
(Here are five additional ways to get to know yourself.)
2. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions.
Observe your beliefs, and be willing to question them, Judd said. “Often our opinions are so habitual that we don’t even stop to see if they reflect what we really feel: kneejerk responses simply reaffirming the past.”
Often these perspectives also are shaped by our external environments and the people around us. Re-evaluating our perceptions of ourselves and the world is key for growth, she said. “…[W]ithout change, there can be no evolution.”
3. Become assertive.
Becoming assertive is a powerful way to improve your life and boost your self-esteem, which in turn helps you become autonomous, said Lancer, also author of the e-books How To Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits and 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism.
Assertiveness is a skill you can practice. It means setting healthy boundaries, learning to say no and being clear about your needs and feelings.
It means respecting yourself and respecting others. According to psychologist Randy Paterson, Ph.D, in The Assertiveness Workbook:
Through assertiveness we develop contact with ourselves and with others. We become real human beings with real ideas, real differences … and real flaws. And we admit all of these things. We don’t try to become someone else’s mirror. We don’t try to suppress someone else’s uniqueness. We don’t try to pretend that we’re perfect. We become ourselves. We allow ourselves to be there.
4. Start making your own decisions.
One way to ease into making your own decisions is by determining how you’d like to spend your day, Lancer said. Ask yourself: “What do I want to do?” Consider your personal passions and hobbies, she said.
5. Meet your needs.
People in codependent relationships are great at meeting others’ needs but usually ignore their own, Lancer said. Everyone has a range of needs, such as emotional, social, physical and spiritual needs.
Identify your needs and discover ways to meet them, Lancer said. For instance, if you notice you’re feeling lonely, respond to that need by reaching out and planning dinner with a close friend. “This is becoming self-responsible.”
6. Learn to soothe yourself.
Give yourself permission to acknowledge and feel your feelings. As Lancer said, instead of thinking, “’I shouldn’t feel this way’” or ignoring your feelings, be a good parent to yourself and comfort yourself. Take time to figure out what calms and supports you and makes you happy.
Again, becoming more autonomous means living by “your own internal guidance system,” rather than external systems, Lancer said. And it’s key to fulfillment. “We can never feel fulfilled by following someone else’s dreams: independent living is the only way to find true satisfaction,” Judd said.