I was at a get-together a few years back when an acquaintance, whom I call Bert, sat next to me. Bert is a nice, intelligent person. He has some talents. He possesses a certain wit and is widely praised for his gourmet cooking. And yet I did not want to be alone with him. Or as I saw it, I did not want to be “stuck” with him. There is something about his posture and body language that makes him appear as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Part of this heavy quality is surely the result of his unhappy marriage, which is widely known among my social circle. Part of it is his bad financial choices, which have left him somewhat strapped for cash as of late. Another part of it is his overweight condition, which has resulted in a barrage of health ailments. But the problem goes deeper than that. There is something fundamentally needy about Bert so that when I or anyone is around him we feel our energy being drained. Or worse, we feel we are getting sucked into a black hole.
Making up a lie so that I could get away from Bert at the social gathering, I remember feeling relieved, like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I realized that Bert, nice guy that he is, is a needy person.
I think we can all agree that to be tagged a “needy person,” by others and ourselves, is equivalent to a curse. For what this means is that there is something fundamentally lonely about our character that makes us repellent to other people. If we are deemed needy, we will not enjoy the normal comfort that results from a sense of belonging and acceptance. This condition of knowing we are unwanted and feeling abandoned is a curse. What gives this curse its biggest bite is that when we become self-conscious of our needy status, we are overcome with self-pity, which makes us even more repellent than before.
Self-pity is seductive breast milk that comforts us, but it’s a milk tinged with a poison that arrests our emotional growth. People who have spent their whole lives suckling on the teat of self-pity are languid, well-fed, but stagnant to the point of death.
The challenge, then, of the needy person is finding a way to wean himself from the curdled breast milk of self-pity. If he fails to meet this challenge, he will languish in a life of loneliness and self-destruction or, worse, he will go insane.
It’s apparent that our world is full of people like Bert who, whether they have articulated their condition or not, live in the fear of being needy and are in desperate need of a guide. While I do not claim to offer a definitive cure, I do know there are signposts that point to a way out of the needy person’s vicious cycle.
I do not want to explore these signposts, or the alleged “cures” for neediness, because I am a nice guy or because I fancy myself an expert on mental hygiene, but because I need the signposts myself. I find myself being needy, more often than I’d like. What comforts me is that I don’t necessarily see the condition of being needy—or of not being needy—as an absolute. The proclivity for making absolute categories in fact stems from neediness—a deep-seated fear that compels us to make sense of a chaotic world with comforting albeit delusional absolutes.
Preoccupied with needy people over the last several years, I want to write a book about these people and the psychological mechanisms they might share. However, I don’t want to see their condition as being absolute, but as one of varying shades of gray. I want to look at neediness in terms of its contradictions, its causes, its extremes, and its misconceptions. And of course I want to know if neediness is a life-long curse or a beatable contagion, something that with hard work can be conquered.