You probably know someone who is, or possibly you are yourself, a needy person, someone who uses other people as “rocks” particularly frequently.
This article is in two parts. The second part is geared up for practical advice on managing needy behaviour. I firmly believe that to get the most out of the advice, you need to understand the psychological factors behind it. This first part discusses:
- Why humans desire contact
- How is abnormal defined?
- What factors contribute to neediness?
- Recognising signs of excessive neediness.
Part two is perfectly readable as a standalone article. So skip this one if you get bored.
Everything is part of a spectrum, so the boundaries which define needy are quite blurred. There is no such thing as a “cause” for making someone clingy, anymore so than prawns are the sole ingredient of a fish pie (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Needy people would think, if confronted:
” Of course I’m not needy! What a weird thing to say”,
Exactly the problem.
Misunderstanding of personality
Everybody has particular idiosyncrasies which, are obvious to others but completely pass us by. Fundamentally, helping people on the “wrong side of normal” (abnormal being difficult to define) necessitates familiarising with the human trait of misunderstanding our own personalities.
A good way to understand this, is to imagine how you feel when you hear your voice recorded and played back to you. Or to see a video of yourself giving a presentation. You’ve probably not met anyone who likes those. We are completely unaware of how our voices sound like to other people, in much the same way, to other people you appear different to how you’d like to think of yourself.
Schizophrenics, manic depressants etc are not necessarily aware of being abnormal if they have experienced no consequences of being so. I make the assumption that needy people do not consider their personality to be abnormal. (Abnormal is a word used very loosely here as there is no definition of “normal”)
What misunderstanding of personalities means for you, is that confronting someone about their behaviour without understanding the psychology behind it is fruitless, as such a needy person would deny their behaviour, and make little attempt to change it. Furthermore, the stress or hurt this could cause might make the problem worse, as being needy will become a way of managing the emotions.
Why do we need other people?
Humans have a long history of living in social groups, where family ties are vital to survival. So mother evolution has weaned out people who don’t share food with their neighbours, and humans have been left with a strong community instinct. Love thy neighbour.*
Our primal urges force us to seek acceptance from others. We also want to be attractive to those who might protect us in the event of a hungry leopard attack. Once that protection is ours, mother evolution will do what she can so that we don’t lose it. This is one example of where a fear of loss of control could originate. If Greg the caveman with the big club gets upset, you might become a sabre tooth tiger’s next meal.
Stress, loneliness, perceived loss of control and vulnerability, can each strengthen their grip on a person, and they all cause a survival instinct – that of seeking out protectors.
Recognising signs of excessive neediness
People often don’t realise that they are needy because of both an ignorance of our personality, and because their “rocks” are afraid of hurting their feelings by reclaiming independence. “Rocks” here means: someone to lean on, a source of comfort. The pattern of needy behaviour is reinforced by well meaning friends. Because we all have a responsibility to them. Friends and relatives have a responsibility To their significant others, but not a responsibility FOR them.
If a friend or spouse becomes an outlet for expression of worries, then yes you could argue they are at least voicing their concerns. 12 steps programmes would cite this as a good thing, however the repetitive behaviour tells you that solutions to their problems are not being found. They need help with whatever it is that is causing them to run away to comforters.
Patterns of behaviour that might indicate needy tendencies:
- Very frequent asking for reassurance
- Asking permission to do reasonable things
- A need for acceptance, characterised by perfectionism, or trying to please/be there for everyone
Note that difficult episodes e.g. bereavement, loss of jobs are not considered. Periods of neediness are normal parts of the bereavement process.
In the case of point no.3, trying to do too much can reinforce feelings of stress and inadequacy. It’s not difficult to see how this can create a loop back style of increasingly stressful behaviour. This list is a suggestion of what it might feel like from such a person’s point of view:
- You try and be there for everyone (control)
- You fail to consider other peoples’ independence, they don’t need you to do everything (delusion)
- Fear of refection is the motivation to stay available, even though it’s stressful (fear of losing control)
- It’s impossible to achieve your goal (feelings of inadequacy)
- You try and be there for everyone next time to make up for the loss (Perceived gain of control)
This cycle is vicious because the affected person feels extreme guilt when they fail to achieve their (impossible) goal, then step one becomes an outlet for that guilt. Guilt may initiate this cycle in the first place if such a person has witnessed unfair preferential treatment to close family members. Being treated with higher regard than a brother or sister can contribute to this behaviour.
Needy people can often have a controlling nature. Not intentionally on other people, but a fear of losing control is what motivates many people.
Fear of losing control is demonstrated in people who stay in unhappy relationships because they fear they may never find someone if they lose their current “rock” Fear of losing control is something that affects older people more, especially women, as they worry they will either never meet anyone else for the rest of their life, or they will grow old and unattractive.
On the other side of the pond are those who are real users. The relationship turns purely into a sexual one and not loving at all. Without any love, sex is meaningless, so the turnover is high. Unless on the rebound, this behaviour can cause real esteem problems, and affect any chance of being in a relationship as opposed to an orgy. Needy people here can struggle to gain their independence if the problem has been going on for a while. Seeing others in relationships can be hard, and loneliness seriously gets to some people, especially if there is a lack of diversions in other areas of their lives.
In roundup, neediness is an umbrella term for lots of behaviours. Under confidence, fear, loneliness, and a desire for acceptance can all be interpreted as neediness, especially where those affected become especially attached to others, or “clingy”.
Having researched neediness form the point of view of an affected individual has given me a certain empathy, and in discussions I keep the ideas of control, stress, loneliness etc, all in mind. In the next post, you should find that you can identify with the tips in a way that’s better than if you had gone straight to them without reading this article. If dealing with needy people is about helping them then be responsible, and put in as much effort as you can to say the right things. Because one day, they could be Greg the caveman with the club, who saves you from the sabre toothed tiger.
*Some theorists go against the group theory of natural selection, saying that the genes controlling us are in it for themselves. But as Richard Dawkins mentions in his book “The Selfish Gene”, altruistic behaviour is always beneficial to the individual in some way, even though there is a negative upfront “payment”
It brings about a whole range of arguments on the nature of altruistic behaviour, the idea that all actions are for our own benefit, but that’s for another time, subjective reality is a complicated subject…