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What Someone Really Means When They Say You're "Too Needy"

Unpacking the motivation behind a statement that's meant to sting.

Key points

  • To determine whether someone is trying to control you, sometimes you have to look at the behavior in context.
  • It's legitimate to want your needs and wants heard by a partner, but there are limits. They need space too.
  • Banish the words "you're too needy" from your vocabulary and find new ways of talking.
Khamkeo Vilaysing/Unsplah
Source: Khamkeo Vilaysing/Unsplah

The woman and man are in their 30s about two or so yards ahead of me, deep in conversation, and, in one of the strange lulls that happen when ambient noise quiets, I am suddenly listening to their conversation. She is telling him how she feels he’s not supporting her in the crisis she’s facing and she wishes he’d listen. His voice is loud when he answers her: “Dammit, why do you always have to be so needy? Can’t you ever manage anything on your own?” She stops so abruptly that I practically run into her and, as I pass them, I hear her start to apologize.

A part of me wants to turn around and talk to her but, of course, I don’t. And the truth is that she probably doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.

Decoding “Too Needy”

What I accidentally witnessed has happened to me over the course of my lifetime and the chances are good that you may have heard these words too. Sometimes, the words are code for “I really don’t want to help you in your crisis or even listen to you drone on about it but, rather than say that, I’m just going to make it your fault.” It’s verbally abusive on a number of levels because it involves blame-shifting (just like telling someone they’re upset because they’re “too sensitive” when you’ve said something mocking, disparaging, or hurtful) and also marginalizes the speaker’s needs in one fell swoop. On the other hand, if the guy were to say what he means—“Your wants and needs really don’t matter much to me”—the chances are good that she’d head for the hills.

But, sometimes, the “too needy” thing is just a frustrated and clumsy and inarticulate blurt. How to tell the difference?

I’ll be using “her” to describe the person being called needy and “he” for the person making the comment but only to avoid a pile-up of pronouns. Feel free to switch up.

Wait, Aren’t Some People “Too Needy”?

Let’s drop the phrase and say instead that some people, especially those with a fearful-avoidant or anxious-preoccupied style of attachment, may need a level of reassurance you aren’t prepared to give them. The truth is that this is about emotional regulation, and not about needs or even “neediness.”

Let’s do a quick review of adult attachment styles which are divided into “secure” and “insecure.” Securely attached individuals had their emotional needs met in childhood, are capable and able to have close relationships while maintaining independence, and have healthy models of what relationships look like. It’s thought that 50% to 60% of us are securely attached.

There are three types of insecure attachment: dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant, and fearful-preoccupied. The truth is that those with a dismissive-avoidant style are more likely to be mouthing the words “too needy” than not. While they do engage in relationships, it is on their terms; people high in narcissistic traits or need control fail into this category. They appear to be “in” relationships but always need to have the upper hand. These folks actually see emotional needs as a sign of weakness and, yes, they’re likely to call others “too needy.”

It’s the last two types of attachment styles we need to look at: fearful-avoidant and anxious-avoidant because people with these attachment styles are most likely to be labeled “needy” for reasons that are more real than not. The fearful-avoidant style is just what it sounds like; she really does want attention and connection but, at the same time, is always on the lookout for rejection and needs a great deal of reassurance and validation. It can be emotionally exhausting to be in a relationship with someone with this style and her inability to manage her emotions can create a wearing amount of drama.

Then there is the anxious-preoccupied style, which pits the person’s genuine desire for a relationship against her super-sensitivity to rejection and slights. These people not only worry about the relationship to the max but they are quick to take offense, striking back when they feel rejected. Over-reaction is the real problem, as well as an inability to manage boundaries. Beset by anxiety about being abandoned, they turn to the worst-case scenario when someone is late, doesn’t call when promised, or commits what would be a minor faux pas in someone else’s world.

What to Do if Your Partner Says “You’re Too Needy”

The first thing to do is to step back and think about what’s motivating him. Does he put you down or deflect when you try to engage him about sensitive subjects? Does he use mockery or disparagement whenever you try to talk about your feelings or when you ask for support? Those are all potential red flags and provide important context for the assertion that you’re “too needy.” But if your partner generally does make room for discussion and does listen, even if he can and does get exasperated or impatient sometimes, it’s important to take a close look at your own reactivity. (As expert John Gottman puts it, it’s not whether you argue or disagree but how you disagree that matters.)

How reactive or over-reactive are you? Do you fret about the relationship and are you preoccupied with worrying about whether it will work out? How sensitive are you to what you perceive to be slights or, alternatively, how much reassurance and validation do you require from your partner? Keep in mind that attachment styles can be changed—yes, there is “earned secure attachment”—and working with a gifted therapist can be a game-changer especially if you’ve had a history of relationships ending because your partner was emotionally exhausted. None of this is to say that the ability to express your needs and wants openly in a relationship isn’t crucial; it absolutely is. But, again, it all depends on how reactive that expression is.

What to Do if You’re Calling Them “Too Needy”

What’s your intention here precisely? If you are feeling frustrated by your partner’s responses, say so without blame-shifting or guilting her out. It’s perfectly OK to feel frustrated—we all do at times, even with people we love and care about—but make sure that you don’t devolve into criticizing her essential character. And, yes, calling someone “too needy” is exactly that. Find ways of opening up the dialogue so that you don’t max out your listening skills.

If you really feel your partner is asking too much of you, say so. If it’s a committed relationship, take it seriously and go into couple counseling so that you can work on healthy boundaries.

And to the guy in the street: My guess is you meant it.

The ideas in this post are drawn from my books, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering, and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Copyright© 2023 by Peg Streep.

Facebook image: Just Life/Shutterstock

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