We hear the word “needy” thrown around in conversation all the time. Usually it’s brought up with contempt. Ughhh, she’s so needy. She calls all the time, and wants to know where I am. It’s ridiculous. His neediness is just too much. He wants to spend every single moment together.
The details of the conversations might be different. But that doesn’t matter. The message is the same: Needy is not something we want to be. Needy is one of the worst things we can be in a relationship. In our society, neediness is seen as an undesirable trait, a character flaw.
But it’s none of these things.
What Neediness Really Is
Neediness is actually a range of behaviors, according to Julia Nowland, a couples therapist, trainer and speaker. She shared these examples: Your partner is going out with their friends. You text them throughout the night. When they stop texting back, you write, “Hello? Have you found someone better to talk to? Lol.”
Other behaviors include constantly questioning your partner’s commitment; and going through their phone, email and social media, she said.
What underlies all these actions is the belief: “I am unable to see my worth, and I need you to make me feel better about myself and my world.”
Another sign of needy behavior is not knowing what to do when you have a need. That is, everyone has needs. Some people, however, believe they don’t have the right to ask for their needs to be met, Nowland said. That might be because they were previously rejected or reprimanded for asking, she said. Sometimes, people aren’t even aware of their needs—or don’t know how to express them. “When a need arises in a relationship, they might start to feel anxious.”
So they use tactics that have worked in the past—which are not at all helpful. They might include “dropping hints, using the silent treatment to ‘punish’ or ‘scare’ their partner or pushing the issue harder until they get an answer that soothes their anxiety,” Nowland said.
(Nowland stressed the importance of understanding that other people might not be able to meet our needs. They also aren’t responsible for meeting them. When this happens, she suggested asking yourself: “How can I meet my needs instead?”)
Sometimes, people attract partners who mirror their deepest fears. “Almost as if there is a subconscious drive to get the unavailable partner to desire you, then everything will be OK and you will be OK.”
When It’s Not Neediness
Sometimes, what’s happening doesn’t have anything to do with needy behavior. Rather, it’s the dynamic in the relationship. Nowland shared these examples: You want to make plans with your partner. They tell you, however, that they prefer to be spontaneous. Which leaves you feeling uneasy. Your partner prefers to keep others at a distance. When you try to get closer, they get uncomfortable, shut down and tell you that you’re needy.
According to Nowland, the relationship dynamic might also be the cause when a person has a secure sense of self. Because if you’re suddenly feeling insecure (and you’re typically anything but), then it might be your relationship. What does a secure sense of self look like? It’s when you know who you are and what works for you in relationships. It is a deep belief “that you are worthy of having your needs met (even if it means you must meet them yourself).”
Again, neediness is not some flaw or defect. It’s a pattern of behaviors we tend to act out when we have a shaky sense of self and sinking self-worth—both things that you can remedy. The key is to work on knowing who you are and knowing that you’re worthy, Nowland said. “Once you feel strong in your sense of self, you will quickly determine the relationship dynamics that fit for you.”
One way to build a solid sense of self is by identifying what you like and dislike, along with what you want and don’t want in all areas of your life, Nowland said. Then express these preferences to others: “That movie sounds violent, I’m not really into movies like that. Can we pick another one?” “I’m someone who likes to make plans. Can we look at a day that suits us both?” Also, remember that you don’t have to justify your preferences to anyone.
Lastly, pay attention to the words you use, Nowland said. When you say, “I am needy,” you internalize it as part of who you are, she said. This makes it feel permanent and fixed. However, when you say, “Sometimes, I act needy,” you become free to choose other behaviors. “Reflect over past relationships, and look for common situations which sparked this behavior.” You might start to notice patterns or themes (e.g., being left alone in social situations; not having texts returned), she said. Then brainstorm new ways you can respond in such situations.
And keep reminding yourself that you are indeed worthy. You absolutely are.