Takeaway: The idea of heading out into the world on your own can feel scary and unsettling. In this post we dive into what independence anxiety looks like, how to navigate it, and how to become a healthy, independent adult.
As a young adult, you have a lot going on. You are constantly stretching your comfort levels and embarking on new adventures. You may be experiencing things like going to college, moving to a new city, or living alone for the first time. But if you have anxiety, you might be scared of being an independent person.
Anxiety can make it difficult to make decisions for yourself and forge your own path in the world. And if you let anxiety and fear dictate your choices, you may spend your life trying to avoid potentially scary experiences – and end up missing out on big growth opportunities. Ultimately, anxiety might prevent you from believing in yourself, your capabilities, and your inherent self-worth.
I’m a therapist for teens and young adults, and independence anxiety is a common theme I see among my clients. The idea of heading out into the world on your own can feel scary and unsettling. It’s okay if you don’t know what to do about these feelings. If this is you, know you’re not alone – a lot of people experience this same anxiety at some point. So let’s take a look at what independence anxiety looks like, how to navigate it, and how to become a healthy, independent adult.
There is nothing wrong with depending on other humans. Humans are social creatures. We all need community and safe, healthy relationships in order to thrive. The idea of hyper-independence – of not needing anyone else – has been idealized in our culture, but it can lead to disconnect and loneliness.
Complete and utter independence is on the far end of the independence spectrum, and total reliance on those around you is way on the other end. There is a sweet spot between the two sides. And if you experience anxiety, it might prevent you from living somewhere in the middle.
Doing things on your own can foster a sense of personal resilience and capability. Being an independent person means trusting yourself and your decisions. It means you have the skills and resources to seek out what you need in order to feel fulfilled. When you have healthy independence, you feel confident in your ability to take care of yourself through hard and joyful times alike.
But anxiety can prevent this healthy independence. Independence anxiety can tell you that you aren’t capable of doing things on your own. It can stop you from feeling empowered by keeping you small. It can make you insecure and afraid of failure. It can make you scared of being independent.
Independence anxiety is a self-reinforcing cycle. It makes you feel incapable of doing things on your own, which then can prevent you from doing things on your own. The less you practice making your own decisions and doing hard things, the scarier those things will feel.
Fear of independence can pop up in a lot of different areas of life for many reasons. Regardless of how independence anxiety shows up for you, it can sometimes lead to feelings of overwhelm and shame that seep into the rest of your life.
Leaving home or living on your own can cause anxiety for a lot of people. You might worry that you won’t succeed in “the real world.” Maybe finding a job and figuring out how to live on your own feels like too much pressure. It might feel safer to be somewhere familiar, like staying in your childhood home.
Relationships, both romantic and platonic, can create stress and worry for many people. This anxiety might look like being nervous anytime a partner or a friend seems mad at you, or wants to take space for themselves. You might be afraid of being on your own, which can lead to unhealthy relationship dynamics. Or maybe dating feels like way too much work and the idea of putting yourself out there is scary.
Going to college and being on your own can also be stressful. Navigating a whole new environment with all new people and a new schedule can feel both exciting and terrifying. Maybe you experience social anxiety that tells you making new friends will be hard. Or maybe you worry that your time management skills aren’t going to cut it.
Making decisions and having “adult responsibilities” is another factor that leads to many young adults being scared of being independent. You’re suddenly faced with making choices like what kind of job to get and where to live. This can be nerve-wracking. And as you transition into adulthood, you’ll likely be on the hook for more responsibilities than you’ve ever had before. Life tasks like paying bills, filing taxes, and getting your own healthcare can pile up and feel overwhelming.
Although these are different situations, they all share certain common traits. Fear of failure, pressure to “do it right,” and feelings of overwhelm can all contribute to independence anxiety.
Overcoming fear of independence takes practice and patience. It might mean things like practicing resilience, allowing for messy failure, facing your fear of difficult emotions, and letting go of internalized “shoulds.” Everyone is different and has different backgrounds, and it’s good to experiment with different ways to cope with your anxiety. Here are three ways to start.
You can teach yourself to be less afraid of difficult emotions by building tolerance for internal discomfort. This might look like finding healthy ways to work through hard feelings, increasing your inner self-compassionate dialogue, or working with a therapist to figure out coping strategies that work for you.
The good news is, you can unlearn your perfectionism. Start by getting to the root of your perfectionism. What are your beliefs about success and failure? Ask yourself what being good enough means to you. Be honest about your fears. Then you can begin the process of learning to be okay with “screwing up” and living a messy life.
Believing that you can succeed in life requires putting yourself out there and trying. Proof that you are capable and resilient comes from practicing doing hard things and trying new experiences. Only then can you really believe in your abilities. It’s totally okay to take baby steps toward putting yourself out there. Start small. Practice doing little things that scare you. Celebrate each tiny win.
If you’re scared of being independent, you’re not alone. It’s okay to be anxious about independence. But you don’t have to navigate all the unknowns by yourself.
Consider therapy. I can help you learn new skills to build resilience and self-trust, get comfortable with new situations, and navigate life on your own. Together, we’ll work on overcoming independence anxiety for good so you can feel free and confident in your life.
Get in touch to learn more about counseling with me and see if anxiety therapy could be a good fit for you.
If you don’t feel ready for therapy yet, try my online mini course for anxiety management called The Path to Peace. This can help you manage the worries that you feel about becoming more independent. You can check out my program here.
Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.