We’re only as needy as our unmet needs Founder of Attachment Theory, John Bowlby
Have you ever felt needy? What comes to mind when you hear the word? Most of us consider it one of the worst possible invectives to hurl at another human being, conjuring stark images of pitiable panic and desperation. We imagine tearful pleas (“give me another chance!”), angry accusations (“you’ve never really cared!”), and late night calls and text messages demanding an immediate response (“where are you?”). When we’re gripped by the terror of neediness, we feel completely out of control. When we bear witness to it, we feel confused and overwhelmed, wondering if any amount of reassurance will ever be enough. How can we understand these moments? More importantly, how can the needy find relief?
As ill-defined as the experience of neediness seems to be, psychologists have made great strides in unpacking this complex state of mind. One line of research, which emerged from an attempt to better understand depression, sheds a good deal of light on what makes neediness so incredibly painful. Defining neediness, rather inelegantly, as “a generalized, undifferentiated dependence on others and feelings of helplessness and fears of desertion and abandonment, ” the investigators discovered that it has an important relationship to depression. The needy often feel hopeless and unhappy. But that’s the least surprising finding in these studies.
You’ll notice that the diffuse, inchoate nature of neediness is woven into its definition. That turns out to be extremely important, because there’s a related factor, connectedness—“a valuing of relationships and sensitivity to the effects of our actions on others”— that has relatively little to do with depression. Both items are part of the same scale, dependency, but neediness, it seems, is the unhealthy version of our craving for contact, marked more by helplessness, fear, and passivity than any clear emotional request. The connected are open about what they want from relationships. The same can’t be said for the needy.
To be sure, the needy want something—insatiably, in fact—but short of instant attention and constant reassurance, it isn’t terribly clear to themselves or anyone around them what exactly they’re looking for. This is perhaps the most vexing thing about neediness. It gnaws at us, driving us to chase after contact, advice, signs of love, but none of these actions seem to quell its fury. And now we know why. When researchers put neediness under the microscope, they find overwhelming fear, not need, at its unseemly core. Neediness is the formless shadow of healthy dependency.
Attachment researchers, who also examine needy behavior, have arrived at a similar conclusion. At the heart of attachment theory is the assumption that we all—all of us—have a basic, primal drive to connect. It’s wired into us, after millions of years of evolution, because on our own, we humans are weak, relatively defenseless creatures. That’s why emotional isolation registers in one of the most primitive areas of our brain—the amygdala—as a life and death situation (scientists call this the “primal panic”). The anxiously attached lack any faith that emotional closeness will endure because they were often abandoned or neglected as children, and now, as adults, they frantically attempt to silence the “primal panic” in their brain by doing anything it takes to keep connection. In short, they become needy. (The avoidantly attached shut their dependency needs and feelings off altogether, to escape the pain of having their longings ignored or rejected.)
It’s not need, then, that engenders neediness. It’s fear— fear of our own needs for connection and the possibility that they won’t ever be met. That’s what hurtles us into the abject despair of neediness. The only way to get rid of a need is to satisfy it, and the more anxious we are about having it, the more quickly we want it met. Overcoming neediness therefore demands that we disentangle the need from the fear, and there a number of ways to do this:
1) Breathe. If you recognize that fear is the problem, not loneliness or a desire for contact, you can escape the suffocating grasp of the neediness by using stress management skills. Go for a run, meditate, do diaphragmatic breathing—all of these will reduce your anxiety, along with your impulse to act out of neediness
2) Get connected. The researchers discovered a healthy version of dependency, one that involves a valuing of relationships. It’s not just more active, it’s more direct. Make clear requests. Neediness is all about blindly reaching when you don’t even know what you’re reaching for. Connectedness is about effectively depending on others.
3) Practice emotional mindfulness. Rather than acting on what you think you need, sit down and write about the feelings you’re having. Are you afraid of being alone? What’s it like to simply focus on that without trying to flee it by seeking contact? Instead of trying to get rid of the feeling, try to understand it. Not only does that make it easier for you to recognize and express your needs more clearly, it teaches you how to tolerate them.
4) Take stock of your relationships. Needy people often attract dates or friends who reinforce their neediness— people who crave connection, just like everybody else, but seem loathe to express the desire (they’re often avoidant). If your fear is the phone will stop ringing if you don’t call, ask yourself, am I the one who always seeks contact or reassurance? Am I OK with that?
5) Make room for your needs. When we hate or fear our needs it only makes them more intense because we’re tempted to hide or disguise them. That not only makes them confusing for others, but harder to satisfy. How you express your needs—whether for closeness, reassurance, contact, or love—will change dramatically once you start taking them seriously because you’ll have a far better understanding of what they are and where they come from.
When all is said and done, the key to overcoming neediness is to respect your needs for connection instead of fearing them. When you do, the chaos of neediness gives way to the clarity of intimacy. And everyone’s happier for it.
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A version of this article previously appeared in the Huffington Post
© 2012 by Craig Malkin, Ph.D. All rights reserved.