About Neediness

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.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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20 Responses to About Neediness

  1. philip says:

    there seems to be some very strong people in the world who seem to be very happy on their own, are they the lucky ones or are they avoiding something ?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      There are people in the world who had better upbringings, or came into the world with better genes, or who for some reason just seem to navigate life’s difficulties better than other people. They’re fortunate in a very real sense, and they probably feel a greater sense of contentment and satisfaction with their life; but that doesn’t mean they’ve escaped from pain and regret in life. Nobody can do that … it’s a part of being human.

      • Cain says:

        So true. I’ve noticed that many of those people feel contempt for the people who come from broken homes, have bad genes, and can’t navigate life’s difficulties.

    • Amy says:

      or are they…sometimes some of those strong people NEED control, which can also suck the life out of you!

  2. Biteck blog says:

    I think in a way we all have a need for social interaction of some kind, or even a thirsty need for something that we know much or little about. Nonetheless I’m pretty sure we all have a neediness about us in our own little way.

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for the insight on how to blog correctly.

  3. Jay says:

    Hi, great post, having been sexually assaulted as a child, as well as abandoned, I have found great benefit in learning about how we become programmed with other peoples, sometimes limiting, beliefs and how we create our own limiting beliefs.
    I affirm that the more I give, the more I receive in return. however, there are times when I still find myself in situations where I am forced, usually by the hand of society’s rules, to fend off people who seemingly have not identified those things.
    I think that a greater awareness can only make the world better place. i will read more of your posts, thanks :-)

  4. Catherine says:

    Thanks again for identifying a mindset I struggle with; needing people and fearing their rejection or refusal to do what I want. I’m middle aged now and have only recently realized how childishly I’ve behaved for most of my life. Having children was the catalyst to discovering how needy I really was and how my parents were not willing or able to give me what I needed. They did the best that they knew how. I knew never to ask or want for anything. They provided me with a life’s essentials but I did not feel loved. There are many instances I remember when I asked for help or stuff and was refused or giving something else. I took from that that my wants or needs did not matter and were secondary to them. I was sexually abused as a very young child by people my parents knew. I had to cope with this by myself. As a mother of girls I used to marvel at how I (the abused chil) coped without any adult help to protect or defend me. I then realized that the way I interacted as an adult was never to ever rely on people to help me. This became especially hard when I was a young mother and needed help. I struggled with anger that I suppressed not very successfully. I needed and wanted help but could or would not ask for help. I was vulnerable and feared rejection of my needs. I am fiercely independent and to outsiders would appear eminently capable but deep down I know and feel needy and want others help. In recent years I have begun to ask a little of others and sit with those uncomfortable feelings of whether they will comply or not and be okay with whatever the outcome. Mr Burgo I am indebted to your observations and clarity. Many thanks

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      You’re welcome, Catherine. I think there will be many mothers out there who will identify with your feelings and relate to your story.

  5. Mark says:

    Hi, Joseph.

    I wonder what your take is on what degree or kind of neediness and dependency is considered normal or healthy. What’s the relation between being self-reliant (to what degree is it really a desirable quality?) and between needing others and being dependent on them? Where lies the healthy middle ground?

    I have great difficulties with being needy. I guess it might stem from not being able to accept myself the way I am and seeking to find acceptance outside. I haven’t probably developed secure attachment as a child. Despite the fact that I usually tend to be on the needy side, I hide and mask it completely. My usual response to being more needy than another person is to distance myself or to behave in a passive-aggressive ways toward him/her if I don’t get the amount of attention I need from them.

    But isn’t it true that the preferable way is to build relationships on the foundation of want, not need? That is, the less the need is the greater the chances of a fulfilling relationship are. Isn’t it true? I learned we are to become a whole person and not seek completion anywhere outside ourselves, certainly not in our partners. But then, aren’t true intimacy and neediness also about being able to let the other person go if he/she wishes so? This is all rather confusing, I admit.
    The more I sit with it, the more I think that healthy neediness and vulnerability are all about needing and being vulnerable about things that our partner can give as opposed to things that he/she cannot. The problem, as I see it, is that many of us look for things that others can’t really give us—security, certainty, internal validation, and so on. So, in a way there is healthy neediness—the need to have our healthy emotional needs fulfilled, and unhealthy neediness—the need for something which cannot really be obtained from another person.

    What do you think?

    Thanks!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Mark, I agree with what you said, that “healthy neediness and vulnerability are all about needing and being vulnerable about things that our partner can give as opposed to things that he/she cannot.” I don’t know about your distinction between need and want — I think there is healthy and inevitable need in all relationships, and there’s nothing unhealthy about it. Maybe the distinction is between wanting to have one’s needs fulfilled versus wanting to be looked after or taken care of, in ways that can be kind of infantile.

      Having read a lot of your thoughtful comments now, I agree that conflict about neediness is one of your central issues. In particular, I think you need to turn to someone (a therapist) for help and understanding, but at the same time, you want very much to work it all out for yourself instead, so that you won’t have to depend upon someone else for what you need. I think that it would be a step forward if you could actually turn to someone else, to acknowledge your need and allow that person to give you the benefit of his or her professional experience.

      • J says:

        I identify strongly with you Mark in the way you want to be self-sufficient but need to have your ideas validated constantly (“Isn’t it true?” “What do you think?” Etc). I have all sorts of great ideas and theories but I need to have them validated; otherwise I cant relieve the anxiety that they might be completely wrong and I’ll be humiliated and laughed at.

  6. Hermes says:

    This is absolutely correct.
    “Maybe the distinction is between wanting to have one’s needs fulfilled versus wanting to be looked after or taken care of, in ways that can be kind of infantile.”Andyou also say, Joseph:

    “There are people in the world who had better upbringings, or came into the world with better genes, or who for some reason just seem to navigate life’s difficulties better than other people.”

    As you say, everyone gets a bit of the “universal thump” now and then. Just some of us deal better than others. Is it just the luck of the draw, then?
    I sometimes ponder if the journey down the road of evolution still has a long way to go…..

    Hermes

  7. Anders says:

    I have no problem admitting that I am very needy. I can even say it to a girl that I date: I am needy. But this hasn’t made me any less needy. I am still repelling women due to my neediness, and due to being to clingy to early on the dating process. How do you explain that?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Ordinary human needs are one thing; to be needy in that sense is normal. When we talk about being “clingy”, however, that’s a different matter. It usually has to do with wanting to get close to what you want too quickly and to take possession of her. It’s about an inability to tolerate separateness, and to wait for what you want from the other person.

    • J says:

      I have this too. I either get too clingy and repel her or if she sticks with me nonetheless I will find reasons to get defensive and angry with her until the relationship becomes unbearable.

  8. John says:

    I have been married for 20 years and my wife has start to travel more for work. She will be gone a week to two weeks at a time. After been gone for two weeks ealier in the year she came back said she will be gone for four weeks. No decision and why so long. She just other people that she talked to in the training go away for up to two months and their spouse don’t care. It made me up set but I didn’t release how I would react to her being gone that long. We have two kids and I tell I would not want to be a single father. I have not been a needy person in our relationship until she was gone on this four week work trip. I started to question everything and not trusting her. I became a needy person at this point not releasing that I was. We are going to counseling and I really don’t like the how I was and still working through it. It has put extra stress on our relationship and would tell people that all it does is push the people you love away from you.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      There’s a difference between being needy and being clingy or possessive. It sounds as if her prolonged absences are stirring up some kind of anxiety that were invisible prior to the time she began to travel, and this anxiety is causing you to feel insecure and clingy. That’s not the same as needing someone and missing her during her absence.

  9. Kekona says:

    Was wondering about abandonment. Seems that abandonment is at the core of why people tolerate NPDs and many other dysfunctional personalities. Can you write more about abandonment issues and how to resolve them as adults?

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