5 Keys to Emotional Independence

Too often we give others the power to make us happy or sad. Thomas Fiffer offers five powerful keys to taking your emotional life back.


One summer a number of years ago, I was riding the commuter train into New York, and an attractive young woman sat down next to me. Dark hair, green eyes, slender build, engaging smile. She was quite forward and wasted no time starting a conversation. She also let me know immediately how smart she was. I quickly learned she was a freshman at a prestigious Ivy League university with a coveted summer internship at a prestigious foundation. She then turned to the topic of her boyfriend, who was a year younger and had just finished high school, and who had the nerve to start dating another girl when my seat mate went off to college. She and the boyfriend were still “more than best friends,” and this bright, beautiful girl was trying to accept the idea that she would be one of two women in his dating life. She lamented, “If he would only decide that he really wants to be with me, I would be so happy.” I turned and said to her, “Why on earth are you giving him that power?” I asked her what she wanted and told her that if her so-called boyfriend couldn’t give it to her, she should go find it somewhere else. I explained they don’t teach these things in college. She was astonished.


Most of us fundamentally misunderstand emotional independence. We think it means not needing anyone or being alone. Emotional independence is nothing more than the power to make choices and the integrity to align those choices with our needs. We can choose the peace and simplicity of solitude, or we can embrace the excitement of intimacy and the complexity of long-term companionship. Either way, we must understand these are choices we make, not choices that have been made for us. Mastering the five keys to emotional independence not only frees you to make personal choices that serve you but also enables you to close the door on pathways—and people—who don’t.

1. You are responsible for your own emotions. This means you—and not another person’s words, actions, beliefs, or lack thereof—are responsible for how you feel at any given moment. A person may say or do something hurtful, your partner may cheat on you or badmouth you to a friend, but the feelings of hurt, disappointment, anger and whatever else constitutes your reaction—these originate, exist in, and belong to you. Think about how you take care of a house or car you own as opposed to one you lease or rent, and apply this attitudinal shift to your feelings. You’ll start taking care of yourself—and others—differently.

2. You are responsible for managing your own emotions. This sounds so similar to the first point that you may ask, why bother? But the distinction is crucial. Because the emotions you feel originate in you, it is up to you to deal with them and formulate a mature, healthy, and effective response—as opposed to simply reacting. In addition, if you consistently experience unhealthy emotions that influence your actions, it is up to you and you alone to manage your moods to minimize their destructive impact on the people you love. Abusers are people who lack emotional control and won’t own the need to get help. Instead, they say their partners made them do it. Making your partner or anyone else your emotional caretaker, using another person as a punching bag for your self-loathing or as medicine for your illness, creates a dangerous co-dependency and a toxic dynamic that will eventually destroy your relationship.

3. You are never responsible for another person’s emotions or for managing their moods. This is the logical flip side of points 1. and 2. It doesn’t stop you from being sympathetic, empathetic, and compassionate when someone you care about is hurting. You can minister to people in distress, try to soothe their pain, and help them heal. But ultimately, any treatment you apply is topical, for external use only; it may alleviate the symptoms, but it won’t cure the disease, and your help is a gift and not an obligation. Even if you help someone change they way he or she feels about something, remember you didn’t change the person—you only helped that person learn how to change themselves. Real, lasting change only comes from inside.

4. Never, ever take the bait. People who don’t practice 1. and 2. and don’t accept 3. will try their hardest to make you responsible for how they feel and what they do, especially when those feelings and actions hurt you. This is the heart of relationship dysfunction. Remember point 3. You’re not responsible. Obviously this doesn’t absolve you or give you carte blanche to enrage or hurt others. But it does free you from the suffocating stranglehold an emotionally unhealthy person can place on your psyche, and it enables you to walk away from situations orchestrated to draw you in, induce a predictable reaction, start a fight, and pull you down to the other person’s level. Keep your head above water, and don’t take the bait.

5. Practice consistency. Emerson called it the hobgoblin of small minds, but consistency is the fifth and most critical key to achieving and maintaining emotional independence. You may fall short at times, fall back into old habits, get caught up or drawn into someone else’s drama because it suits your own momentary needs, and begin to feel responsible for another actor’s lines. We all do. When this happens, remember that you’re the author, producer, and director of your own play. You set the stage. You cast the characters. You choose the part you want. You operate the lights and curtain. And you get to take the bow. It’s your show and no one else’s.


I don’t know what the young woman decided or how her life ended up. I never saw her again on the train, and she’s not my responsibility. But I do hope I taught her something. And I hope she declared her emotional independence.

Originally published on The Good Men Project

Portions of this article also appeared on the Tom Aplomb blog in “Situational Dysfunction” and “Independence.”

Photo courtesy of author.