Sometimes people talk about their “needs” when referring to what would be most enjoyable or least painful for them. The word “need” can have a certain connotation. Some would say that a “need” is a necessity for staying alive, like soil, water, and sunlight for most plants. However, in common usage the word “need” is used freely by some, sometimes just to emphasize “I really want this,” other times to say “This is fundamentally important to me.” Whether the word “need” is used or not, the expression of wants or needs by one person can be a source of pain and frustration for another. Where there’s pain, judgments often show up – and a common judgment in this situation is “You’re too needy.”
This particular expression is one I’ve heard mostly in America, along with the related judgment that someone is “high maintenance.” In other parts of the world I hear “selfish” or “self-obsessed” more often.
I’ll give an example that’s exaggerated to make the point. Let’s say that in the last week my partner has heard me say: “I need you to hold me,” “I need you to tell me how smart I am,” “I need reassurance,” “I need respect,” “I need you to always hold my hand in public, unless we’re within a few blocks of my office, then I need you to not touch me.” My partner has accused me of being too needy. I tried some other ways to express these needs/wants, like “I really enjoy it when you hold me, tell me how smart I am etc.” but my partner’s judgment remains.
So… What’s going on here? Here are a couple of thoughts…
#1: I’m asking for things, or saying that they’re “needs,” without really conveying to my partner the depth of what they mean to me. There might be a fundamental “need” (call it a motivation or value if those words land more easily). For example, I perhaps move through life feeling fearful and insecure – never quite believing than I’m accepted as I am, and never quite relaxed. “Security” is something that I would love to experience, but it rarely happens. Many of the things I ask of my partner are attempts to experience more security, but I don’t tell my partner this because it feels too vulnerable, especially if I imagine being met with more judgment. Nonetheless, this underlying insecurity is running the show most of the time.
A key question is “Do I accept the fact that I have a need for security” – it might be easier for some to ask “Would I like others to have a sense of security, and if so, am I willing to allow myself the same?” Accepting that this is a fundamental need or motivation for me, then I can convey the depth of feeling that comes up for me when I feel more secure or less secure. I can convey what a profound gift it is to me to increase my sense of security, and how much I value and appreciate the efforts of my partner to help me with this. I can also seek out other ways to meet this need which don’t rely solely on my partner’s words and actions.
For another person the word “security” will not fit – but nonetheless there will be something under what they’re asking for – love, respect, self-esteem, confidence, feeling comfortable in their own skin and many other possibilities. If you convey the true underlying motivation for why you want something, you may actually touch something in the other person. Have you noticed that most people actually love to give, if they really understand that what they’re giving is a gift, and is being received as a gift.
#2: I believe that my partner has the same fundamental requirements as me for a life lived joyfully – the universal “needs” that enhance life for everyone – food, shelter, yes, but also love, empathy, creativity, security etc. But my partner says “You’re too needy. I don’t have needs like you. I want only one thing, and that’s for you to stop being so needy.” They might also say: “I’m happy with life as it is” or “I don’t expect to be any happier than I am. You have unreasonable expectations. You have a sense of entitlement” and so on. Judgments roll out easily sometimes. I remain convinced though that anyone who judges you “negatively” is really trying to express their own pain, fear, and anger. But what is my partner trying to express here?
On the surface what my partner is saying seems relatively brief and simple. It certainly sounds like they’re asking little of me, and that I’m asking a lot of them. Let’s double check that though… It seems that my partner is also saying: “I want you to be different,” “I want you to be more like me,” “I want you to stop asking things of me.” A little more investigation and other things show up for my partner like: “I want to get a sense that I actually please you sometimes, that something I do is enough. I want you to be happy with me. I want to trust that you’re going to stick around. I want to know that your life is enriched by me being in it.”
Further honesty might lead to: “I don’t want to do things just because you’re asking for them. I want my preferences and choices to be respected. And I’d like to just chill out sometimes and not be doing anything for anyone else.”
And while we’re on the subject of what would make life more enjoyable or less painful…. “Oh, and a back-rub would be nice, and I’d like it if you’d talk to my parents more, and I wish you’d make a decision about whether you want to move in with me.”
In other words, there are doubtlessly things that would make life more enjoyable, or less painful, for my partner too.
So, why not give others the opportunity to give to you, and why not take the opportunity to give to others? There are always reasons why not…I’ll leave you to guess at them. Let’s name a major one though… if I judge you as “too needy” I’m positioning myself to have to pretend that there’s nothing much that I want, or need, or would enjoy. If I judge you as “needy” I must prove that I’m not “needy,” so I won’t tell you how you can contribute to making my life more wonderful.
Finally, to me it’s not important whether you use the expression “need,” “want,” “value,” “motivation” or “things that make my life more enjoyable or less painful.” What I’m interested in is “How can we give to each other so as to increase joy and decrease pain?” What works for you might be very different than what works for me. After an argument you might want to be hugged, and I want to be alone for a while. Each of us has an opportunity to give a huge gift to the other at this moment, and each of us has the chance to notice this gift and express gratitude for it. Get the gifts and the gratitude rolling and you might find that the idea of “needy” ceases to have any relevance for you.