What is "too needy"?

Relating to our own needs and neediness is one of the core adaptations any human animal makes to ward off getting left by unpredictable care givers.   The self reliant or desperate and clingy strategies are both tragic because the original hurt of abandonment  happens again when the self reliant abandons him or herself or the desperate gets dumped. -Traci Ruble

What is "too needy"?
by Traci Ruble, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Ever dated someone and thought “man they are too needy?”  or maybe you were the one called “needy”?  If I had a dollar for every time the topic of neediness comes up inside the therapy room I would be typing this blog on a much fancier computer.   “Oh I should have been able to figure this out without needing therapy”.   No one gets out of childhood unscathed and along the way small and large abandonments shape us in positive and negative ways . People who have experienced physical or emotional abandonment in severe or ongoing ways cope in sophisticated and highly adaptive ways to survive what is perceived as life threatening to their young self.  But child-like adaptations deployed in adult hood create more suffering than they protect us from. 

Relating to our own needs and neediness is one of the core adaptations any human animal makes to ward off getting left by unpredictable care givers.  One strategy a kid makes is to not need too much or expect too much from those we are dependent on if they are flakey. The other related  but opposite strategy is to become  so desperate and needy with hopes the caregiver will feel obligated to stay or respond.   Kids who never cry, fend for themselves or excel at everything can and often do grow into really strong self-reliant adults who over extend and take care of others, don’t take care of their emotional and physical needs  and can be prone to burnout in all its forms including depression.   

For the other more desperate type, they get into co dependent relationships relying heavily on others to take care of their inner kid and wear people out and often get dumped  - feeling abandoned all over again.  Either strategy is tragic because the original hurt of abandonment  happens again when the self reliant abandons him or herself or the desperate gets dumped.

For the self-reliant types, a small whiff of depending on someone, a therapist even, feels very out of character – so out of character it can feel shameful, scary or disgusting.    Self reliant folks often wind up in therapy already in the later stage grips of depression, unstoppable irritability or anxiety – burned out from their over doing.  They want to reassure me and themselves that they don’t really “need” therapy but thought it was a good idea.  Self-reliants come in as a last resort because even the culture praises them for being so “self-reliant” or “needless”.
High alert and desperate types experience their need as so great they can’t get enough from others to fill in the emptiness: not enough food, sex, substances, TV, shopping, attention, approval, reassurance, rescuing, eye contact, touch, caretaking…you name it they want it.  I will remind you, this strategy was extremely adaptive at the time it was learned.   In some ways their outward struggle is more honest, less covered over by self reliance but sadly more punished by the culture at large.  The desperate folks can feel to others as a bottomless pit of hunger, need for approval, need for care either very overtly or covertly as frequent illnesses or personal crises suck loved ones in to rescue them.   They frequently get re injured and abandoned as people avoid them or drop them.  They enter therapy either with more desperate need or really aware that they play a part.

This kind of “need wound” if you will is pervasive in our culture.  Most of us have a tinge of some of these adaptations.   It stems from a long history of a culture being ill equipped to attune to children for any number of reasons- skill, money, time, circumstances, a parent’s own wounding.  And yet, the culture is really crippled as to how to heal this pervasive wound that affects us all collectively.  A simple example, (and keep in mind, I am a mother and mothers aren’t perfect) a common cultural response to a child’s need for emotional support is to say something like  “Brush it Off”, “You are ok”,  “Stop Crying Already” – “Come on get over it”!  “You need to learn to be x, y and z.”  This is just a small way we communicate to our kids they should be self reliant and abandon their own emotional needs.    This one communication isn’t the cause of the wound just an example of how it has entered the collective parenting mindset.

Healing this “wound of need” takes time, focused and intentional effort and supportive relationships.  We have to not only be willing to own our adaptations, look them squarely in the face with self compassion but also learn new ways of meeting our own needs.  Identities get very wrapped up in self-reliance and desperation or a combo stance so shifting into a more whole identity can feel earth shattering.   Getting support from someone like a therapist to shift this dynamic is invaluable.

The “I need nothing” self reliant must learn to:
  1. Self compassionately admit they are fragile, embrace fragility and let go of judgment at human need and fragility.
  2. Understand its roots and grieve and rage about the past so it can be compassionately nurtured and then let go. 
  3. Need again - starting with a set self care routine until tuning in to one’s physical and emotional needs becomes more organic.  Examples include a sleep schedule, limits on over working, limits on over extending to friends/family, planned down time, tuning in to hunger, fatigue and illness, eat well, go to the doctor, exercise. 
  4. Practice developing an internal parent figure that can put their arms around the fragile but over achiever kid without criticism or judgment but with unconditional love.
  5. Need from others from an adult to adult place.  (Often needs can emerge in desperate child-like ways at first).  Therapy is almost always necessary for fine tuning this one.
  6. Pick relationships that honor more than just self-reliance but also vulnerability and need and avoid relationships that are co dependent or about giving without reciprocity.

The “desperate clingy” bottomless needer must learn to:
  1. Self compassionately see the kid part inside of them who is very angry at not being taken care of in the past and how the anger seeps out as a very entitled child who demands/ manipulates others to be their caretaker.  
  2. Understand the roots of where this all started and rage and grieve it with compassion and care so it can be nurtured and let go.
  3. Practice developing an internal parent figure that can put their arms around the desperate needy entitled kid without criticism or judgment with unconditional love.
  4. Learn how to turn to oneself for comfort and reach out to others from an adult to adult place of need rather than the entitled child.
  5. Be available to hear no from others without equating ‘no’ as abandonment.
Gosh lists make this look so simple.  It’s not.  Seriously, this is a journey and such a brave journey to fully nurture one’s fragility, inner child, dependency or any other name you want to give it.   This culture hates hates hates dependency and in that we make it worse all around.    Even if you don’t struggle with this core wound, I bet you know someone who does and how you can play your part is to practice self compassion and say no when you can’t support people and yes when you can but don’t withdraw, abandon, criticize or hide from desperate types or idealize or put down rigidly self-reliant types.

What I hope to impart to those who struggle is that growing into an adult relationship to our own needs is not just an inside job that you can do alone in your room.  Rather, it is a relational process requiring “right relationship” to available friends, a therapist and partner and also developing right relationship to oneself.  There is no fix.  Instead this work is an ongoing lifelong practice that requires commitment just like a good parent commits to raising their child.  My wish is for everyone to make a vow to practice self care and self compassion and parent this inner kid forever.    

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