I’ve never dealt with a client in psychotherapy who didn’t have trouble tolerating neediness in one way or another. In graduate school, the readings on this subject were fairly dry and theoretical, with talk about “feeding relationships,” or “good breasts” and “bad breasts” and how early frustration leads to particular defensive structures; but the bottom line is that the way we navigate that early experience of need often forms the basis for some enduring character traits throughout life. We humans tend to generalize from one kind of need to another, so that those early encounters with deprivation might affect, for example, our love relationships in later life.
Here’s an example from my practice, and one that will likely remind you of other people you’ve known. One of my clients came from a fairly chaotic background; the details aren’t as important as the fear of abandonment he grew up with. As an adult, he found it impossible to sustain a relationship with a woman of any length. He preferred Internet pornography and masturbation, forms of desire where he didn’t have to depend upon another person to satisfy him. His attitude toward women was largely remote and contemptuous. Nobody was good enough; women only wanted to use him him to get what they wanted from him.
Self-sufficiency and the devaluation of others is only one of the many detours from need we might take. Individuals commonly described as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder will seek to provoke desire in others rather than feeling it themselves. In addition to warding off shame, narcissistic behavior traits often reflect an inability to bear feeling needy or small. People with emotional dependency issues respond to need by becoming clingy and controlling; in unconscious fantasy, they seek to take possession of the object of their need. Jealousy and possessiveness may come to the fore, as with another client who secretly installed video surveillance equipment in his home to monitor his wife.
What about your friend the serial dater who’s constantly dating different people, but never long enough for intimacy to develop? These are but a few of the ways people avoid acknowledging their own neediness and desire.
Finding your one way:
What about your own needs? Who do you need and in what ways do you find it hard to bear? Take an inventory of your past and present relationships and ask yourself these questions: (1) who needs or needed the other person more in that relationship? (2) how do I avoid admitting how needy I am? (3) how do I respond when my own needs are frustrated? (4) how do I feel when other people appear (too) needy?
Ask somebody a favor — a big one — and see how you feel about it. To make it even more of a challenge, ask it of someone who doesn’t like to do favors and may very possibly say ‘no’. Pay close attention to your reactions and see what it feels like to be in need and unable to obtain what it is you desire.
Each of us has a level of expressed neediness we will tolerate, in ourselves and in others. If you can understand what you can tolerate, or what you cannot tolerate, it may help you understand how your own psychological makeup limits your personal fulfillment.