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.

Holiday Survival Guide

The holidays are marketed as a happy time of year, and they may be for some people, but for many the holidays are a very difficult time.   The holidays are full of nostalgia and visions of a perfect family which can bring up feelings of loss and sadness for those who did not have idyllic childhoods and happy homes.  The version of a holiday that we see in the media juxtaposed with our actual memories of holidays past or visions of holidays current can be troubling.  The stressors of visiting our families, financial constraints, travel, and other complications of the holidays can leave any person in need of extra support. Some ideas on taking care of yourself this holiday season.  These may not apply to everyone, but they are common complaints about the holidays:

1. You are dreading visiting your family - This may sound simple, but make your stay as short as possible, a day trip if at all possible.  Many people try to squeeze in so much family time around the holiday that it becomes overwhelming.  If your family makes you feel bad, take them in small doses.

2. You are strapped for cash for presents - Tell your friends and family that you are not exchanging presents this year, that you don't need anything from them.  For those who are special to you, write them a nice card expressing your appreciation for them.

3. You are lonely - We are told that the holidays are a time of happiness, togetherness, and cheer, but the reality is that many people lack support around the holidays.  If you are lonely, reach out to others who are lonely.  Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a blanket drive, join a local support group, have a "friend holiday" with a buddy or two, and look around for other types of support.  Remember, you are not the only one who is lonely around the holidays so seek out others who understand.

4. You're feeling depressed - Be kind to yourself.  You're not the only person who feels this way at this time of year.  The weather, the overwhelming holiday cheer, and feelings from the past can creep up on anyone and turn happy into blah.  Know that it is normal, you are allowed to be sad, and it will end on January 2nd.

10 Therapy Hacks

1. Say no. No is a good word, not a bad one. When you say 'no' you are simply acknowledging that you have met a limit or capacity. We have a capacity for giving, being awake, running, eating, and everything else that we do. When you say 'yes' and mean 'no', you may feel resentful, angry, numb, overworked, and used, among other painful emotions.

2. Know the difference between acting out and being assertive. Try to avoid acting out, but if you do, reflect on the choice and note the consequences. Be assertive.

3. Connect with other people. We were built to connect and wired to be with one another. Like a car without an engine, we do not work if we do not share ourselves with others.

4. Chose wisely when sharing yourself with others. Trust yourself when you are with another person. The voice that says, “dislike” or “run” is there for a reason. If you find yourself running from everyone, return to number 3.

5. You will never be one thing, so accept that you will be many things. Behaviors do not define us but are temporary. It is incredibly difficult to be a feeling, intelligent, complex human being because contradictory feelings co-exist with one another within all of us (e.g. love & anger, resentment & longing, desire & fear, fatigue & happiness). You are not how you feel or what you are doing. You are you. As complicated as it is to be you, it is far more rewarding than being chained to any label that has been thrust upon you. And since you are you, you do not have to think, feel, or act like anyone else.

6. Be kind to yourself and then be kind to others when you can. Say nice things to yourself in your head. Take it easy on yourself. Only good things come from this. You will not get more done if you are mean to yourself or others. It does not make you a “bad” or “selfish” person to show kindness to yourself. Ultimately, you cannot offer more kindness to others than you extend to yourself so you must practice on yourself first.

7. Be honest with yourself. Honesty is not universally the “best policy” with others, but it is necessary to know your own truth to live a conscious, connected life. Never use honesty to hurt or belittle someone. Rather than hiding behind honesty and moral platitudes, use honesty first and foremost as a gauge for yourself. How do you honestly feel, even if it is confusing? What defense mechanisms may be in place that keep you from accessing honest feelings or truths about yourself?

8. Accept that anger is a normal, acceptable and useful emotion. Anger gets a bad reputation because we associate it with scary, violent, or unhealthy expressions of anger. Expressing healthy anger should not frighten or intimidate. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about feeling angry, but it might set you free from anger.

Example of expressing anger in a healthy way: "I felt angry when you said I was slow because I am self-conscious about my speed. It makes me feel like you don't know me (or: misunderstood, unimportant, invisible) when you say things that I'm sensitive about in such an insensitive way." You may tack on, "it makes it hard for me to trust our friendship when you are insensitive toward my feelings." And if it is true, "I'm telling you this because I want us to be friends and I want to be able to trust each other. Next time this comes up, can you treat me with sensitivity by being supportive?"

9. All feelings and thoughts are acceptable. It is only ACTION that can hurt you and/or other people. Actions like yelling at someone or punching someone in the face hurt others and you. The hurt is fairly obvious to the recipient of acting out in anger, but the angry person can face a range of consequences as well. The person who acts out in anger may feel deep shame after yelling at someone and have no relief from anger, he or she might break a hand, or there may be legal consequences for physically harming someone. In this scenario, we have a perfect example of how acting out can end up harming the person who was initially hurt and angry instead of the intended target or aggressor.

10. What to do with the feelings and thoughts if not act them out? Process them with someone you trust. I'll continue to use anger as an example but any feeling can be inserted in it's place. Be clear that you have no intention of harming anyone but your feelings of anger and thoughts of punching someone in the face are bothersome. What caused the anger? What feelings did you experience as a result of the incident(s) that made you angry? Going forward, how can you talk about your feelings that lead to anger instead of bottling them up? Expressing these feelings allows you to place them where they belong and prevents them from hurting you. The feelings of hurt and anger can become powerful motivators to assertively set boundaries when faced with the choice of acting out or speaking up in the future. Connecting the dots between how our interactions and behaviors influence our relationships is a crucial part of growth and connection.

Final words: do all of these steps imperfectly and seek help along the way. Practice is the only way we learn to change habits and form better relationships. You will not get it right every time, but you can apologize when you have regrets and behave differently and consciously next time.

 

Find Your Happiness

Who has it?  What is it?  How do we get it? Happiness is subjective for everyone, but happiness must be defined by every person in order to be tangible.  How does one achieve a goal without measurable tasks?  It seems impossible to seek happiness but not know what must be done daily to have it.

So what is happiness?  I ask clients to pretend as though they have a magic wand which they will use to make their life happy overnight.  Then I ask, 'what has changed?'  I often hear crickets to this question because it is difficult to envision what needs to change in our lives in order to achieve happiness if we do not examine the elements that make up our own personal happiness.  Many psychotherapists, psychologists, and others in helping professionals claim to be happiness experts, but in reality, everyone who comes to therapy is the master and expert of his or her own happiness.  It takes applied self-exploration to know what comprises happiness for you. 

What does happiness mean to you?  Is it feeling fulfilled by your job and family?  Is it obtaining a goal, like a college degree or promotion?  Or is it living in the moment and taking in the beauty of your surroundings? Is happiness comprised of other emotions, such as relaxation, excitement, energy, concentration, sadness, despair, or contentment? These are great questions to ask, but the deeper question left unanswered is, what measurable/attainable tasks must I accomplish each day in order to achieve my goal of happiness?

other considerations

Instead of thinking that happiness is something that happens to you, a passive state, try to conceptualize happiness as something that you cultivate and nurture daily.  If your goal is to feel happiness and fulfillment for most of your day every day, the tasks of meeting this goal must be concrete and based on knowledge of yourself to inform your choices (e.g. eating ten cupcakes might make someone feel happy in the moment but may cause lethargy, anxiety, or depression in the coming hours or days. The net outcome is not happiness.) 

Maintaining a mostly happy life involves hard work and dedication to your cause at times. For example, I know that 30 minutes to an hour of exercise every day makes me happier, calmer, and feel better. I still struggle to do this because it does not bring immediate satisfaction to me personally. It is hard work to put in the time to maintain happiness through exercise but I KNOW that if I broke down the net outcome hour by hour the net outcome would be happiness. It would look something like this:

exercisedoodle.jpg

Being happy and fulfilled can be exhausting, taxing, and overwhelming, especially if you struggle with depression, anxiety, or other life stressors. If this is the case, start small! Create a goal of feeling happy (or whatever positive feeling it is that you wish to feel) for 5 minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour every day. Don't focus on big, overwhelming goals, but rather look for small things that bring you happiness like drawing or painting, listening to music, dancing in your house, smiling, playing with an animal, or anything else that brings on feelings of happiness without detracting from your overall well-being.

What does a state of happiness look like to you?  And what do you have to do daily to feel happy?

How to Have an Emotionally Supportive Argument

Do you ever have an argument or discussion with your partner and think, 'I have no idea what to say right now' or 'I'm so mad that I can't even hear you'?  This post is meant to help guide you through a difficult conversation and manage feelings between you and your loved ones.  I will use the word "partner" because communication between couples can be particularly difficult, but it could apply to a family member, a colleague, or a friend. Step 1: Put yourself on hold, temporarily

When you're in the heat of the moment or don't understand your partner or loved one, it can be difficult to step outside yourself and hear your partner's needs.  It is particularly difficult to hear those needs if you feel criticized, blamed, or inadequate because of the language they are using (which we will discuss at length later).  In short, many people talk about their needs and desires by criticizing what the other is doing rather than asking for what they would like for their partner to do.  This can be an easy way to trigger feelings of inadequacy and lead to the other partner shutting down.

I would encourage you to momentarily try to put your feelings aside next time your partner complains or criticizes in order to find the need behind the complaint.  This shift alone can defuse relationship bombs instantly and can lead to fuller understanding of one another.

Step 2: Inquire about the problem or need of your partner.

After taking a breath, here are some suggestions that can help clarify and deescalate the conversation:

a) "I can see that you are [insert adjective - angry, sad, etc.].  Can you tell me more about what you need from me?"

b) Ask your partner how he or she is feeling.  After an "I feel..." statement.  "Tell me more about how you feel."  Explore what it is like for your partner and trade places in your mind.  Focus on his or her experience of the problem.

c) Repeat feelings back to your partner.  "So you felt lonely when I left and went to the party without you."  Be open to correction or elaboration.

d) Have an attitude of curiosity and openness.  "I want to understand how you're feeling."

e) Avoid talking about how you feel or perceive the situation until your partner is finished explaining his or her side.  Avoid at all cost becoming defensive - "you do the same thing," "I only did that because you told me to," etc.  Just listen and take it in, not as a criticism of you, but as an unmet need of your partner.

Step 3: Address the need

By this point, hopefully your partner has been able to articulate what need is driving his or her feelings.  Address the need in the relationship head on by talking about how he or she can have that need met in the future.

Your partner may say "I need for you to be here more often," but get more specific.  "I'm hearing that you want to spend more time together.  What would you like to do during that time?  When would you like to spend that time together?"

Underlying most complaints is the need for companionship, love, or support.  Try to get to the underlying need, not just the complaint. Vague complaints like, "I want you to care more," or "I want you to want to be with me," leave no room for specific adjustment.  Ask for a concrete solution to the problem like going to a movie together, snuggling on the couch, hugging, touching, or spending time with family.  Ask how often your partner needs those things.

Step 4: Make an agreement

Agree to meet the needs of your partner in a way that feels good to both of you.  Again, make the agreement specific and realistic.

Step 5: Taking care of your needs

Through this process of communicating about your partner's needs, you may find that you have unmet needs as well.  After you have resolved your partner's issue, approach your needs in a way that models healthy communication to your partner.

"When we disagree, I often feel badly about myself when I hear statements like 'you do this all the time' or 'you never do this.'  I would appreciate it in the future if you could just tell me what you are needing from me in the moment rather than telling me that I do things wrong all the time.  It just makes me feel [insert feeling]."

Or...

"I'm happy to give you the time that you are asking for and agree that we should spend quality time together.  I also think that we need time apart and with our friends.  Can we have an agreement that on Mondays that I go out with the guys/girls and we do our own thing?"

Relationships are not easy and communicating is a learned skill.  Be patient with yourself and your partner.

Depression's Best Friend Anxiety

Depression and anxiety go hand in hand. At times they are confusing bedfellows, but it is nearly impossible to have one without the other. For example, a woman says, "I feel depressed and can't get out of bed. Then my husband comes home and I just want to bite his head off. I'm such an awful person." This person isn't awful, she's suffering from a complex combination of anxiety and depression. Her anxiety may be manifesting as lashing out (or acting out behaviors) and one of depression's lesser known side effects is irritability, which can lead to such thoughts and behaviors.

SPOTTING DEPRESSION

The obvious definition of depression is "a depressed mood for most of the day and a diminished interest or pleasure in activities" in the words of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV-TR (DSM). Another tricky depression antic is that it can be symptomatic in the form of low self-esteem or low self-image. You may hear someone saying things like "there's no excuse for the way I've messed up my life," or "it's my fault that I didn't go to work because I'm lazy." The DSM also points out "excessive and inappropriate guilt" as a symptom. This might manifest in an "I can't get over it" attitude or an "I'm totally unworthy of anything fun or good" campaign.

Other signs may be excessive crying, severe change in appetite, sleeping all the time or not sleeping at all, feelings of worthlessness, indecisiveness, lack of concentration, recurring thoughts or images of death, and at it's worst, ideas of suicide.

SPOTTING ANXIETY

Anxiety can take on many forms like panic attacks, fears about being in public or socializing, and reactions to traumatic events, but in terms of depression, general anxiety can also be the perfect compliment to its counterpart, depression. Anxiety often produces excess chemicals in the brain that leave us feeling on edge, in hyper drive, overwhelmed, fatigued, unable to concentrate, irritable, tense, and not sleeping like we should.

TREATMENT

It is important to understand the interaction of depression and anxiety on the mind and body to understand how to treat it. When a person is in a state of arousal (anxiety), the body and the brain work hard to calm the system, but over time those biological functions become overworked and no longer soothe our anxiety. We have to learn how to "override the system" in order to control our anxiety - namely, taking long deep breaths (in the nose, from the belly, and out the mouth), and changing our thought patterns when we become anxious or depressed.

Next time you think, "I'm such an idiot," and you can feel yourself turning red, feeling keyed up, or your heart beating quickly, stop and take 5 deep breaths while telling yourself something realistic about the problem. "I'm only human, and humans make mistakes." "This won't matter in one week's time." "I'm very smart, I just rushed and made a mistake that I can fix." Or, try to externalize the anxiety: "Anxiety is attempting to intrude on my mind and body right now, but it will not overtake me. I know how to breathe through this."

If you are feeling depressed, my best advice to you is to be kind to yourself and seek help. If you can lie in bed for an extra hour, and you feel like you need to, then do it. If you want to comfort yourself in some way to not feel so badly and it won't hurt you in the long run, I encourage it. We are taught to be so hard on ourselves and it is very important to fight the urge to push yourself to your limit all the time. Loved ones are the best antidote to depression, even though it may seem scary or impossible to share what you are going through. If you sincerely and repeatedly reach out to loved ones and still feel alone, seek help online, find a local support group, or get in touch with an organization who helps people in your situation. It is important that you feel understood and connected when experiencing depression and anxiety.

If your depression is to the point of suicidal thoughts or urges or thoughts of harming anyone, you should immediately seek help from a professional! Better yet, seek help from a professional before your symptoms are life-interfering. You do not have to wait until you are incapacitated to ask for help. 

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.