Today, I want to talk about being ‘needy’. As this term is growing in popularity in my therapeutic work with my clients, I want to better understand it. Cause, I am confused about what being ‘needy’ truly means. What I know so far is that the term ‘needy’ features in my social environment in expressions that feel dreadful and even a bit disgusted, e.g. ‘He is so needy’, ‘I can’t stand it when she gets all needy’, ‘I don’t want to appear needy’.
Feeling 'needy' is often a consequence of years of conditioning and feeling 'not good enough' nor worthy. In addition, we were probably told to be 'too much' and 'too clingy' on a regular basis instead of receiving empathic understanding so that we could have explored our needs and fears in the first place. Talking about the development of 'neediness' in people is highly interesting, yet, today, we'll take a different take on being 'needy'. We'll strip neediness all the way back to its bare bones to understand it in the context of human needs.
So, before we already concluding that being needy is an unpleasant thing to be or to experience - let’s start from scratch. No worries, we don’t go all the way back to its etymological heritage but start this exploration by having a peek into the Oxford Dictionary which defined ‘needy’ as the following:
1. Not having enough, money, food, clothes etc OR
2. not confident, and needing a lot of love and emotional support from other people
While the first one refers much more to people ‘in need’ in an existential, socio-economic context, the second one seems to refer to people with overly loud emotional needs.
I reckon, we can all agree that the first definition defines basic human needs for survival. Now, this first definition seems unrelated to the one we want to talk about – but hold your guns. Imagine the following: You are given a picture that shows a group of people in front of their building that was levelled by an earthquake. Without any additional context given you know by looking at their ragged clothes, hunched bodies, and helpless, despairing facial expressions that they’re experiencing an existential crisis. These people are desperate and needy for support. Classifying these people on the picture as ‘needy’ seems not only legitimate and appropriate but also important in order to trigger a response for support. “These people are in need. We need to act now.” Being ‘needy’ can have a powerful response for action as the word carries the message that intrinsic human needs are not being met and we need to act now to guarantee their survival.
If I asked you to list a few human needs right now, I am pretty confident that the list would start with the mentioning of the basic humans needs for water, food, sleep, shelter and safety. Maybe you’d even mention the need for social connection, love and learning. Maybe not.
When we look at the second definition of ‘being needy’, we can see that the need for love and social support is mentioned. Yet, the way it’s formulated is very different from the first definition. The described need for love and social support seems much less factual and urgent, but feels judgmental. In fact, the second definition potraits an incapable, pathetic person who cannot self-sooth. So, when we talk about an emotionally needy person our response isn’t immediate care and action like before, but the sheer opposite – we respond with annoyance, irritation and even repulsion.
I find that fascinating. It’s captivating how different human needs can trigger such opposing responses. This makes me think of Maslow’s in-depth work on human needs and I wonder if he can shine some clarity on this phenomenon?
Understanding ‘neediness’ from Maslow’s point of view
Maslow (1943), humanistic psychologist, was intrigued about humans and put great hopes in their ability to become the best version they can be. In his hierarchy of needs, Maslow intends to capture the universal human needs. When we look at the pyramid below, we can see that Maslow differentiates between basic and psychological needs. We could now argue a similarity between Maslow and the definition in the Oxford Dictionary and bluntly state: “You see, basic needs are at the base of life! That’s the needs we need to meet! That’s all that matters!”
You know what, I agree – to some degree. Yes, the basic needs are at the base of the hierarchy of needs and indeed need to be met before anything else to guarantee survival. Only then the other needs can stand a chance to even develop. (Well, saying that, there are various cases in which it becomes evident that even when basic needs are met, survival is not guaranteed when love, and in particular maternal contact, is not accessible [see Harlow’s – sad and disturbing – empirical work on monkeys in the 1950s and 60s]). However, even if we assumed for now that the basic needs are all we need to care about to guarantee survival, humans do not just want to survive (and that’s an interest we share with various non-human animals).
In fact, sheer survival is the last thing we want in our life. Facing survival is devastating. So, no, we don’t just want to survive. We want to cultivate all the qualities that we are meant to develope and enhance as human beings. To do so, we have to meet needs that go beyond our basic needs. Our needs for belonging, love, esteem and self-actualization are equally as important for us to move towards potentials and to live a meaningful life.
So, the way we have to understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is by appreciating all the human needs as crucial and necessary to live a life beyond survival – thus, a life in which we have choices, we learn, have relationships, grow and flourish. This means that when we talk about needy as in ‘needing a lot of love and emotional support from other people’ we need to understand that having a need for love and emotional support is a human need and to experience such qualities is crucial and necessary for our personal development as sentient beings.
So, the simple fact that we have needs, makes us – inevitably – needy beings. We are all naturally needy for love and support. So, I encourage you, own your need for love and support as much as you own your need for sleep, food, shelter and safety. Saying that, this statement is not a free card for you to go home and grab your partner, friend or sibling by their shoulders, screaming at them: “Love me! Support me! Always! Now! I have needs and YOU need to meet them!”. Although their love and support play an absolutely crucial part in your well-being and personal becoming, it’s you who has to feel love and appreciation for yourself in the first place. Only then you can invest the received love and support into your true potential and self-actualisation.
...AND WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE?
Do you know your own needs? And when do you own, hide or reject your own need?
Harlow's Experiment. (Disclaimer: Involves Animal Experimentation) https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html