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Are You Too Low-Maintenance?

It may be time to speak up for yourself.

 Francesca Zama
Source: Pexels: Francesca Zama

We wear the term "low-maintenance" as a badge of honor, something to aspire to in our relationships. But there are deep misconceptions about what it means to be low-maintenance and whether we should aspire to it.

Being low-maintenance can be a neutral or positive description. Some, for example, wear a simple style that lends itself to getting ready and out the door quickly. Some enjoy a wide culinary palette and feel content to go to dinner wherever others prefer. Some adapt flexibly to changes with little complaint. Some need little luggage to travel. Some live in a state of relative equanimity and require little emotional support. In these cases, “low-maintenance” describes their true nature.

When Low-Maintenance Comes From Fear

Let’s contrast that with the woman who does not request the affection or attention she needs in a romantic relationship for fear her partner will label her “needy.” She may earn the moniker “low-maintenance,” but the label comes from withholding her needs out of fear of rejection or abandonment. Or consider the 8-year-old child whose parents proudly proclaim that he never gets upset. While some children are naturally good-natured, in all likelihood, this child picked up the message that his parents would not handle his upset well. In these cases, the label “low-maintenance” comes not from being easy-going but from suppressing important emotions.

Indeed, many adults who pride themselves on being low-maintenance are more like that woman or the 8-year-old child who stay quiet despite their needs. So how do they learn to deny, downplay, or withhold parts of themselves? This process can happen in many different ways.

Children may learn to withhold or downplay their feelings and emotional needs if:

  • Parents downplayed their feelings: “It wasn’t that bad.”
  • Parents shut down their feelings: “Enough already!”
  • Parents frequently became emotionally overwhelmed by their children’s experiences.
  • Children were told to cater responses to a grownup’s mood: “Don’t upset your mother.”
  • Parents taught kids that their true reactions were displeasing and cause for rejection: “It’s just a joke! Jeez. We can’t play together if you can’t take a joke!”
  • Parents made fun of or shamed their children: “Wahhh, look at our crybaby!”
  • Parents shut down and left the room in response to their child’s emotions.
  • The child had a high-needs sibling (ill, poorly behaved, struggling academically) and the parents had little time or attention for their other child or children.
  • The parent suffered from addiction or another illness and needed others to care for them rather than caring for their child
  • The child grew up in a chaotic home where their emotional needs went unmet.
  • Parents praise the child for not crying, for being mature, or being “wise.”
  • The child grows up in an abusive home or home with an angry parent and learns to walk on eggshells and stay small and quiet.
  • The child served as a peacekeeper at home, leaving no room for their own frustration.
  • A friend, romantic partner, teacher, or coach labeled them “dramatic” or “sensitive.”
  • The child was often excluded in school and so learned to be an easy friend by having few needs.

The Low-Maintenance Adult

Children in these types of scenarios learn that their caregivers could not meet their emotional needs, may not reliably respond in nurturing ways, or would not tolerate feelings like anger or overwhelm. In response, they may learn to withhold, swallow, reject, or deny emotional needs like seeking reassurance, receiving support during difficult times, talking through challenges, or showing anger.

These kids may become adults who give and support but do not know how to receive. They become experts at reading a room and molding themselves to the needs of others. They may try to take up as little emotional space as possible and thrive on being selfless caretakers in their most important relationships. They swallow anger and sadness and believe they should be entirely self-contained. Unlike the traveler who packs light, this type of low-maintenance is a rejection of self rather than a reflection of self.

The Impact of Being Too Low-Maintenance

The too low-maintenance individual may convince themselves that they simply need to need less from others. But we're an interdependent species; it is normal to need support and acknowledgment. They may harbor insecurities about their emotional needs or even struggle to identify what it is they want.

The question for any person who identifies as "low-maintenance" to ask themselves is this: Is my low-maintenance nature a reflection of who I really am or is it rooted in fear?

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