Are you "needy"?

I'm on my soap box today and the topic is having needs. I'm not exactly sure how words like "need" and "attention" became negative words in our vernacular,  but this needs to be discussed. So I'm calling all parents, children, teachers, friends, spouses, and everyone in any relationship: let's settle this. 

this is the deal...

Every human being has needs and one of those needs is attention. When we are infants, we need food, warmth, and complete care. When we are children we need to be kept safe by our loved ones but we also need room to explore. Teens need love and support but also need peer interaction to be able to begin to formulate independent ideas about the world and create identities separate from loved ones. As adults we need attention from our families, our friends, our significant others, teachers, and a host of other people around us in order to feel loved, connected and accepted. It's part of our hard-wiring to tune in with those around us. We must have these needs met from the time that we are born (or we suffer dire consequences) and we continue to have needs throughout our lives. This is the normal, natural, and healthy template that our brains and bodies follow. The well-researched and documented scientific research of attachment and neurobiology is clear cut on this issue. (But for curious minds, please read: John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Alan Schore, Daniel Siegel, Bonnie Badenock, Arlene Montgomery, and many other talented minds in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and attachment.)

Our specific needs change as we develop over time, but it is normal and healthy to have needs. It is normal and healthy to want and have the attention of the people around you, especially those who are closest to you. I think that the negativity toward "neediness" occurs when someone appears to need more than another can give or more than he or she should developmentally require. For example, developmentally speaking an adult who has been given love, consistency, and affection throughout his life should not require constant affirmation and admiration to maintain healthy self-esteem and relationships. His antithesis, an adult who was not given love, boundaries, and affection would have experienced what Freud called "narcissistic injury," or what contemporary researchers might call hurt, abandonment, and a rupture in attachment, and could become some version of a person who we would call selfish, needy, or even narcissistic. 

No wonder the word "needy" gets a bad rep. We associate it with an extreme sense of selfishness or even pathologize having needs because there are some people who, because of intense pain and other injury, have unmet needs that cannot be met on a conscious level. Their wounds are so deep that we cannot heal them with singular interactions. We now use the word "needy" to describe the experience of being with a person who has no room for our own needs

We would be better served by separating the experience of not having our own needs met rather than focusing on labeling someone as "needy" or "attention-seeking". 

why it's important...

When we label people as "needy" and denigrate the idea of having needs, we allow ourselves to diminish the importance of honoring our very real and legitimate needs. In separating ourselves from that which we do not want to emulate, we detach ourselves from a basic human function. To need becomes shameful instead of normal. 

In my work with teens and adults it is abundantly clear that being taught that we should not express (or even have) many needs has negative impacts on self-esteem, self-worth, and the ability to maintain healthy relationships. The inability to express and have needs leads to abuse in relationships, low expectations, regret, resentment, and most conflicts between children and parents are born in the tug of war between unmet needs and expectations. Our denial of need is powerful, silencing, and  grows exponentially from adolescence into adulthood (e.g. chronic care-givers, co-dependent behavior, enabling, "doormat syndrome" etc.) 

The denial of needs creates shame, distance, and thwarts attempts at closeness and success in relationships. It creates scenarios in which people are labeled "attention-seeking" because they have grown desperate for healthy, loving attention and compassion but may have no idea what defines healthy. When our basic human needs go unrecognized and unacknowledged it can even create heartbreak that is so overwhelming that people hurt themselves to feel as though some kind of need is being met. They may cut their skin, or throw up their food, or control and restrict so that they feel like there is a semblance of boundaries and safety in the world around them. I am not suggesting that these are healthy ways of meeting one's needs, but that cutting, eating disorders, and many other outward shows of self-harm are a desperate attempt at being heard, seen, acknowledged, and cared for.

If there is one other thing that treating teenagers has taught me, it is that Google searches are very informative - not necessarily the content, but the prediction of the search. If you are not in contact with teens, I'll spell it out. When young people feel or think something, they often turn to Google as a way to validate or clarify these thoughts and feelings. As an illustration, I started by typing, "need" and this is what I got...

Google search prediction: need

That's not great. Someone typing the word "need" is likely to be typing the word "needy". Then I tried "why am I needy". Here are the results...

Google search results - why am I needy

The results don't instill much confidence that having needs is normal. The message seems clear that you should "stop" being "needy" and "clingy" whether "in relationships" or "with friends". And "needy people"...

Google search results - needy people

We find some articles on assertiveness and narcissism, but the evidence of the socially constructed pathology of needs is clear. 

My point is not to discount any of the above articles or resources, but to highlight the disparity between the plethora of help for those who are allegedly "too needy" and help for those who have needs and want to know that it's okay to have them. Many people who self-report as "needy" fall into the category of having healthy, normal, and appropriate needs. 

so what do you need?

While I can't say exactly what you may need, I can say that most people who have been called "too needy" by their partners, parents, and friends are actually seeking healthy relationships. I can also estimate that the most pervasively unmet need among all people is that they do not feel valued, understood, heard, or seen by important others. In short, we need to feel loved and there is nothing wrong with that. Whatever your needs and wants may be, it is helpful to think and talk about them. Getting your needs met is a life-long process, ever-changing and not always easy, but definitely worth the time and effort.

7 quick tips about needs

  1. The fact that someone cannot give you what you need is not evidence that you should not need it.
  2. No one, as in not one person, can provide everything that you need all the time. It is important to build a support network for this very reason. 
  3. Other people will have feelings about your needs, especially when they are in contrast with his or her competing needs. That doesn't mean that either or both people's needs are illegitimate.
  4. We may go about getting our needs met in unhelpful or unhealthy ways (e.g. passive aggression, withdrawal, or aggression) if they are unmet for long enough, but that doesn't mean that one should not have love, support, respect, attention, and care in relationships. It is never too late to directly ask for what you need.
  5. If you don't know what you need, it is unlikely that others will know what you need. There is an all too common, unfair expectation, especially in romantic relationships, that people should anticipate the needs of others without knowing what they are. Be as open as possible about what you need when you need it.
  6. You will face disappointment when someone inevitably does not meet your needs after working so hard to assert them. It's okay; we are all imperfect and need second and third chances. Try again and again. If you express your feelings about your experience and you are still not being respected, don't be afraid to set a boundary then go to someone who will respect and hear you.
  7. Trust yourself. Your life begins and ends with you, so trust that you know what's best for you.

Therapy Demystified: It's All in the Relationship

In the presence of darkness, we break, we wound, and we crumble inside; in the presence of kindness, openness, and love we heal with one another. When asked what my "style" of therapy is, I spout an eclectic mixture of therapies like "psychodynamic, supportive, and relational psychotherapy," but I truly believe that the most important element that can lead to healing in a therapeutic relationship is the connection between the therapist and client.  This is not a typical connection, because it is not reciprocal; it is only intended to serve the client's interest. But it can be even more powerful in healing broken hearts and wounded souls because of the commitment of the therapist to the client.

Many esteemed researchers have come to the same conclusion through different avenues.  Scholars like John Bowlby, Alan Schore, Daniel Siegel, and Robert Karen would liken this connection in therapy to healing wounds from lost or ruptured attachments in childhood and adulthood.  There is neurological research proving that being in connection with another person can actually create new neurocircuitry, or pathways, in the brain in order to form new attachments to others (Schore, 2003). The authors of Relational-Cultural theory discuss connection as a "growth fostering relationship" leading to a fuller, happier life, as opposed to disconnection as "empathic failures" and missed opportunities (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Jordan, 1997; Miller & Stiver, 1997).  The arrival at this conclusion, that people heal in relationship with one another, is empirically undeniable.

But what does this look like in the therapy room?  Many will experience it as discomfort at first because it feels unusual to have someone in front of you who needs nothing from you and is there to openly explore your psyche.  I hope to alleviate some of that discomfort for those of you who are reading because therapists are humans too and we are both engaged in the process of relationship building the moment you walk in the door.

The experience "in the chair" can be enlightening for some in that it brings up feelings that are universal throughout the person's life.  For example, a person comes to therapy with severe social anxiety.  He tells the therapist this piece of information and the therapist responds by saying, "what a brave move you have made coming here since you are so scared to leave the house."  The client may feel discomfort, vulnerability, and like he is being seen and heard, feelings he is uncomfortable with in the outside world and in the therapy room.  The question is, what do you do with those feelings?  Is the therapy room safe enough to explore those feelings of discomfort?

It is the therapist's job to make sure there is as much safety as possible for the client.  In order for there to be safety, the client must understand that the therapist will be non-judgmental and genuinely caring.  She must also know that the things she says are confidential and will be kept safe with the therapist.  The client must also know that the therapist is taking care of herself and will continue to do so throughout the relationship.  For example, the client must know that his therapist will show up on time, will hold to their agreements, will have taken care of her own needs so that she is present, follows her code of ethics in order to maintain a practice, and is working in the best interest of the client.

This is not to suggest that the skills therapists learn from other empirical research is useless.  There is skill involved in exploration and presence while witnessing such important work.  However, we heal through one another and it should be known that if you are experiencing emotions like discomfort, tension, frustration, resentment, happiness, or any other feeling, especially toward the therapist, they should be welcomed in the therapy room.  They are incredibly helpful keys to unlocking closed doors in our minds and discovering how we behave in the outside world.  They can also lead to healing old wounds and finding new ways to open one's heart to others.