The word triggers cringes and wrinkled noses when used in the context of one’s intense desire to connect with others. This is often a topic in the world of dating, but also with friendships, relationships of parents with their adult children and other types of relationships.
In some cases, the word “needy” is used in place of the word “demanding.” This is a bit of a misnomer, as it mistakenly labels as “needy” someone who is pushy, entitled, or disrespectful of others’ cues and boundaries. That sort of behavior indicates more anti-social tendencies than true emotional “need.” When applicable, let’s be sure to make that distinction and call that “demanding” instead.
But that is rarely what people mean when they tell me they fear being needy.
In the past few months, I have worked with many individuals who were middle aged (35-55-ish) and single. As they navigated the emotional landmine that is “dating,” several expressed concerns of being perceived as needy and concerns of actually being needy.
Each of these individuals were employed, living independently, financially independent, engaged in personal interests and activities, and connected with a basic social network.
Short of disavowing their roles and relationships to expect another to meet their every need, how could they possibly be considered “needy”?
I considered this often, both in general terms and as it pertains to each client, because there is something that doesn’t sit well with me about the negative connotation of “needy.”
We are inherently needy, if “needy” means needing authentic intimate relationships with others. Human beings are wired for social connection, and not just the superficial “small talk” kind. We need to feel known and we need at least one relationship with a depth of connection that makes us feel connected and valued.
We don’t need vast “friends” through social media or networking connections. For some, those broader connections enhance their lives, and for others the idea of those sort of connections is completely unsavory.
But we all absolutely need true connectedness in our lives.
So why are we so afraid to be “needy”? And why is “needy” considered the black mark of social faux pas? Are we perceived as “needy” merely because we are attempting to deepen a relationship with someone? And if we are needy, does that mean that our unmet need is authentic connection? In which case needy also means “lonely”?
“Lonely” is the next most feared adjective. No one really wants to be lonely; but even worse in our culture is admitting one is lonely. Being “lonely” is equated with being weak in our hyper-individualistic Western culture. “Lonely” is said with trepidation and shame, because we believe we should be “okay” by ourselves.
We are not.
We are not okay by ourselves- even those of us (yours truly) who are introverted and love solitude and are capable of managing tasks solo. We may not need constant companionship or conversation, but we absolutely need to know we belong, are loved, and can trust someone with our hearts.
For very social and extroverted people who hate solitude but love gatherings and small talk and frequent interactions with others, the breadth of those connections fuels them. But even those social butterflies can feel lonely if they don’t have at least one meaningful and deep connection. These folks may be more apt to expand their social network even more when feeling the unease of loneliness, but in fact a deepening of one or two relationships would bring more connection and satisfaction.
Single adults often feel like they don’t have their “person.” There is no one to ask them how their doctor appointment went and no one to know that they were deeply depressed and curled up in bed for two full days. No one considers them first in their plans and no one yields to their needs. We know there are coupled people who also feel this way; they are in a relationship but not in a secure and authentic way. In that respect, some of the loneliest people we know are those in an unsatisfying relationship.
When clients express their reluctance to appear “needy,” we first examine whether their behaviors are in fact “demanding” in the way I reviewed above. Maintaining unreasonable expectations of others is one way of being “demanding.” We consider whether the client has a sense of self-worth and inherent dignity, or whether that sense is contingent on others’ acceptance of them. If, for instance, rejection throws them into a tailspin of self-loathing, we work on improving their understanding of their own value. But I don’t say, “You shouldn’t want to be in a relationship.” Because in my opinion, a secure and authentic relationship- whether it be romantic, platonic or familial- is really the only thing worth wanting.
With this sort of relationship, everything else in life feels manageable, hopeful and a little more clear. Without that sort of relationship, everything can feel precarious.
I don’t think that means we are “needy.” Or at least not in the negative way we often use that word. I don’t think “needing” others is a bad thing at all. In fact, I think it is an innate part of our humanity.
The converse of this, of course, is giving.
Are we really there for our friends and loved ones?
Can we tolerate their pain and allow them to bring it to us when they have that need?
Do we provide emotional support?
Do we provide practical help?
Are we able to connect with them in a raw way that can expose our own vulnerabilities?
And can we do all of the above without labeling them “needy”?
The “Loneliness Epidemic” is an alarming reality. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, loneliness and social isolation are as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! For those who are not isolated, 40% of Americans say their existing social connections are not meaningful.
This is a big systemic problem, not a character flaw in any one person.
What is the remedy?
There are some ways that individuals can mitigate their own loneliness and enhance authentic connections while simultaneously allowing others to do the same and taking the taboo out of loneliness.
- In general, communicate more through discussions (phone, video or in person) and less through text messages, emails, and social media comments.
- Consider someone in your life who could use a closer friend. Call them, make plans with them, check in more frequently and allow them to feel more connected to you by sharing your own experiences in a way that invites them to do the same.
- Take a break from social media. See who is left in your world. Spend your time and energy on them.
- Practice telling someone when you are feeling lonely. A therapist is an approachable starting point or tell a trusted person in your life. We can’t de-stigmatize loneliness if we don’t talk about loneliness.
- Get support in recognizing and appreciating your inherent worth. Loneliness is not a reflection of you, it is a symptom of a sadly disconnected culture that does not meet the needs of the human race.
The treatment of this Loneliness Pandemic goes far beyond the scope of my humble little blog, but it is important to me that people understand that needing people is not a weakness and that loneliness is an experience shared with thousands of others. Let’s start connecting more authentically to begin to remedy this public health crisis.