When we use the word “needy,” we are often describing someone who is feeling alone or vulnerable and putting their needs on the table. In our culture, “neediness” is a bad word that suggests you are childlike and incapable of self-care. However, despite our distaste for vulnerability, loneliness, and dependency, it is these very feelings that make attaching to others possible. Feeling lonely or needy motivates us to seek out, long for, cling to, and cherish others. Also, where would our partners, friends, parents, siblings, and pets be without us? Unlike an old song suggests, you are not a rock or an island!
Having been in the therapy field for over 24 years, I can honestly say I was taught that being vulnerable or “needy” was a sign of weakness. As therapists, we were encouraged to pathologize those who complained of these darker feelings. After all, psychologically healthy people were autonomous, independent, and self-reliant. NOT! We labeled those who craved others as “codependent” and “sick” instead of understanding that their dependency on their partner was something to be grateful for and envied. We told people to get a thicker skin and count on themselves. As a result, many people felt inadequate and emotionally damaged. Many had grown up with disconnected parents and siblings, and now we were telling them to go and do that again. Talk about feeling ashamed, completely alone, and hopeless.
Marriage counseling wasn’t any better. It was all about helping each partner become more self-reliant to take the pressure off of their partner. So, we had a lot of spouses extolling badges of incredible independence while feeling really lonely inside. If they were lucky, women would find other women to connect to and support them through their lonely marriages, while men busied themselves at work to compensate for what was missing in their marriage.
We are all hard-wired to attach to others, to search for caring eyes and a strong shoulder. We all want to feel close and cared about. Attachment experiments reveal that when a mother is told to gaze at her child without emotion or interest, her child either tantrums for attention or withdraws in despair.
Adults are no different than children in this way. We want someone to tune in, listen, and connect with us. When we don’t have connection, opportunities for growth are severely limited, and taking care of yourself by yourself is isolating and sad. As Bishop Tutu reminds us, “You can’t be human all by yourself.”
Feeling connected and attached is necessary for our survival. It is our birthright and should be celebrated, not shamed. Even the literature on the elderly acknowledges that one of the best predictors of longtime health is having a lot of connection to family, friends, colleagues, and pets. People need people to thrive. I have noticed in all of the groups I have led that once one person becomes vulnerable, it is an invitation for all the others to be real. One by one, people open up their regret, self-hatred, emptiness, or depression, and suddenly no one feels alone and everyone feels better. We are all desperately seeking others to see us, accept us, and know us.
Let’s revel in our loneliness, our emptiness, and our brokenness. Let’s acknowledge how deeply alone and cut off we feel. Let’s not be scared of our human need to share our stories and ourselves. Because it is our neediness that gets us out of the house, going on an awkward first date, or talking to a stranger. And that, dear friends, is why neediness rocks!
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