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Loneliness vs. Neediness

Only the lonely can know if they are emotionally needy.

Key points

  • Common loneliness ameliorates somewhat with sensory stimulation.
  • Emotional neediness manifests when being alone diminishes the sense of self.
  • To overcome neediness, practice self-compassion, self-validation, and self-empowerment.

It’s easy to tell when others are emotionally needy, but difficult to know if we are.

Everyone gets lonely sometimes. Only when lonely can we understand, without judgment, what it means to be emotionally needy. Only when lonely can we truly know whether we’re emotionally needy.

Being alone is harder on extroverts than on introverts. Extroverts might confuse their desire for social stimulation with neediness, while introverts might confuse their desire for private downtime with self-obsession.

Here are a couple of easy ways to tell the difference between common loneliness and neediness.

Common loneliness ameliorates somewhat with sensory stimulation, which is why we turn on a screen or play music when coming home to an empty house. But emotional neediness can intensify with sensory stimulation while alone–the music makes you sad or anxious, and you can’t focus on the video.

Common loneliness is missing company. Emotional neediness is feeling bad about yourself for being alone.

Emotional Neediness

Emotional neediness manifests when being alone diminishes the sense of self. Emotions turn volatile. Anxiety or depression sets in, along with obsessions (thoughts you can't get out of your mind) or an inability to concentrate or think clearly.

In relationships, emotionally needy people interpret their partners’ distractions as rejections. Disagreement feels like a betrayal or a threat of abandonment.

Though they can’t stand to be without the people they seem to need, the satisfaction when they’re together is short-lived, giving way to boredom or conflict.

When someone is not focused on them, it feels like they might be defective in some way. They have little confidence, worry about the future, and grow less sure of who they are. They feel nervous, empty, inadequate, and unlovable.

Not a Psychiatric Condition

Emotional neediness is more perception and judgment than psychiatric condition. Once the brain decides that it “needs” something or someone, that person or thing assumes the status of food and water. Pursuit seems like life or death. If they get what they “need,” they’re hyper-vigilant for early signs of losing it.

For those who are emotionally needy, anxiety amplifies perceptions of need.

“If I’m nervous about not having it, I must really need it.”

Unrelenting self-criticism exacerbates the sense of neediness. The more we devalue ourselves, the more it feels like value has no internal source and must the poured into us from outside.

Certain relationship dynamics emerge when partners are emotionally needy, beginning with over-reliance on validation from others.

We all like to be validated. But it’s unreasonable to expect more validation than we give, a trap that emotional neediness springs on those who suffer it. They may feel like they have a lot of love to give, but they come off as more demanding than giving. Sadly, validation from others cannot feel authentic without self-validation.

Relationship Dynamics

Emotional neediness causes several relationship dynamics, which are patterns of automatic reactions between partners.

  • Rescuer-persecutor. One needy party is emboldened by “rescuing” the other. When they inevitably fail in the long run, they blame the “rescued” and become the persecutor:

"You’re too needy, insatiable, emotional, difficult, crazy…"

  • Seducer-abuser. A needy partner goes full steam at seducing with charm, gifts, sex, money, or status. Once seduction is accomplished, they begin dwelling on “faults” in the person they’ve seduced.
  • Pursuer-distancer. One partner wants more connection and intimacy than the other can tolerate. Attempts to get closer drive the distancer further away, increasing the emotional neediness of the pursuer. Pursuers don’t decide how much closeness they really want; they just keep chasing, lest the distancer gets too far away. Distancers usually want more intimacy than they let on, but resist showing it, convinced that the needs of the pursuer will overwhelm them. They want their partners close, but not too close. The roles typically switch near the end of the relationship when the pursuer, exhausted by repeated rejection, gives up.
  • Enmeshment. Diffuse identity is characteristic of emotional neediness, and that creates porous boundaries. Emotional reactivity is through the roof, as partners try to control themselves by controlling each other.

Overcoming Neediness

To overcome perceptions of emotional neediness, the following are necessary:

  • Self-compassion. Sympathy for your anxiety, depression, and neediness, with motivation to heal and improve. It’s not merely feeling sorry for yourself; it’s a continual focus on making your life better by increasing self-validation and self-empowerment.
  • Self-validation. Recognizing and confirming your value and worthiness.

"I know I’m okay when I act on my deeper values."

"I know I’m worthy of love, because I can be compassionate and kind."

"I know I can be a good partner because I can see and respect my partner’s perspectives."

  • Self-empowerment. Developing the confidence and skill to improve your life. This begins with learning emotion regulation skills–the ability to calm yourself when upset and cheer yourself when down. Accept that your emotions are within you, and that is where they must be regulated. Other people can support self-regulation but cannot substitute for it.

It helps to distinguish “needs” from desires, wanting from needing. Desires stimulate appreciation and positive motivation. The perception of emotional needs causes obsessions, compulsive behavior, possessiveness, and relationship failure.

Perhaps the greatest disservice of pop psychologists and short-sighted therapists is framing love as “getting your needs met.”


Emotional neediness cannot be overcome without expanding the capacity for appreciation. Those who are emotionally needy have trained their brains to look outside for what they seem to lack internally. They want someone to fill them up. But they can train their brains to look for things to appreciate–in family, friends, pets, community, nature, creative works, and spiritual experience.

Appreciation is opening your heart to be enhanced by the qualities or behavior of someone or something. It is self-rewarding, and that must be the primary goal. But as a byproduct, most people relish being appreciated and tend to respond positively, in contrast to the negative reaction provoked by the demands of emotional neediness.

The surest way to be appreciated is to appreciate.

Build New Habits

The perception of neediness is mostly habit, running on autopilot. Only the formation of new habits will overcome undesired ones.

Practicing emotion regulation, self-compassion, self-validation, and self-empowerment will turn them into benign habits of the autopilot brain.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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