It occurs to me that, for my entire life, I have been crippled by the fear of being needy. Or worse, seen as needy. Somehow the worst criticism I could imagine would be overhearing someone say, “Boy oh boy, that Steven Kalas is really needy.”
I much prefer the ego-image of suave, self-contained and confident. Debonair. I worked hard at that image, with some real success, if only measured by the frequency with which people experience me as especially confident. I’m not. I’m more reckless and impulsive than confident.
A colleague recommends the book “Attached,” by Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. In one sentence, the authors give me an alternative to my lifelong self-disdain: “People tend to be just about as needy as their unmet needs.”
This is one of those “well … duh” moments for me, followed by the liberation that often comes when I can find my way to be strictly objective about myself. (No easy task for my personality type!)
When it comes to neediness, it turns out there is nothing remarkable about me. Or, for that matter, about most people. We are about as needy as our unmet needs. And having human needs is what makes us human. It is not a flaw to need.
Human beings need stable, supportive relationships if they are to thrive and be happy. This is a biological fact.
Conversely, when you surround someone with a diet of ambiguity, ambivalence and inconstancy in close relationships, you can make otherwise mentally healthy people begin to behave as if they were losing their minds.
I have said before in this space that America has distorted the idea of “being an individual” to a place of twisted idolatry. A subset of this distortion happens regularly in the field of psychology, where, since the ‘60s, there has come a powerful message about the supremacy of becoming an individual. “You aren’t ready for a relationship until you can be happy by yourself,” is the oft-chanted mantra of more therapists than I can count.
My mantra is different: “You can’t ultimately complete the work of selfhood unless you throw yourself headlong into a committed relationship!”
“Attached” says we’ve got it all “bass-ackwards” in the equation of dependence versus independence. We’ve been culturally conditioned to measure individual competence by our ability not to need. To be autonomous and self-sufficient. Why else would the colloquialism “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” be held as sacred? We tell ourselves that, when we finish the work of becoming independent, self-sufficient and autonomous, then and only then will we be ready to participate in a committed love relationship.
“Attached” says biology and evolution disagree:
“Once we choose a partner, there is no question about whether dependency exists or not. It always does. An elegant coexistence that does not include uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability and fear of loss sounds good but is not our biology. Our partners powerfully affect our ability to thrive in the world. There is no way around that. Not only do they influence how we feel about ourselves but also the degree to which we believe in ourselves and whether we will attempt to achieve our hopes and dreams. Having a partner who fulfills our intrinsic attachment needs and feels comfortable acting as a secure base and safe haven can help us remain emotionally and physically healthier and live longer. Having a partner who is inconsistently available or supportive can be a truly demoralizing and debilitating experience that can literally stunt our growth and stymie health.”
“Attached” describes the Dependency Paradox:
“Does this mean that in order to be happy in a relationship we need to be joined with our partners at the hip or give up other aspects of our life such as our careers and our friends? Paradoxically, the opposite is true! It turns out that the ability to step into the world on our own often stems from the knowledge that there is someone beside us we can count on. If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, find the right person to depend on and travel down it with that person.”
The next time you’re down on yourself for “feeling needy,” you might look around, take an inventory of your unmet needs. Love relationships thrive when the participants mutually accept as their responsibility and sacred duty to care for and nurture their partners’ well-being.
When you say it out loud, it’s so obvious.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.