The Difference Between Having Needs & Being Needy

paul townsend

I am completely repulsed by needy behavior in relationships.

I’m the kind of person that needs a lot of space — and when I say “space”, I don’t mean once in a while we go out with friends, I mean a default setting of autonomy, with frequent and wonderful periods of togetherness.

That may sound easy, but if you look at our default setting for relationships, it’s anything but that.

In the world of attachment theory I’m referred to as someone with an “avoidant” attachment style. I’m the “keeps people at a distance” guy. I’m the guy people are afraid to speak their needs to, because they perceive that I will judge them for being needy.

I’m saying this to give some context to why you should listen to me. I’m going to articulate what I see as the difference between expressing your needs (a turn on) and being needy (a turn off), and if someone like me can say “here’s how your needs can turn me on” — that’s saying something.

Let’s start with what I mean by needs, so we’re on the same page.

In The Weeds About Needs

Often when people say what they need, it can also be interpreted as a desire, or a want — which is fair. For the sake of this essay I’m going to use “need” in a more general sense, but it’s important not to get carried away. For example, if I say “I have a need for a Tesla Model 3” I’m using the word “need” irresponsibility.

A good definition for the sake of this conversation is “something we can’t reasonably live without, assuming we want a healthy, fulfilling life”. This is of course, where it can get confusing.

We may all agree that it’s unreasonable for someone to say “I need to drive a Tesla to be happy” but we may disagree when someone says “I need to eat organic, non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free food to be happy”.

While we could certainly have an entire discussion about what people actually “need” for a healthy, fulfilling life, that’s actually irrelevant to this essay, because as you’ll see this is about how we see and communicate our needs, more than the needs themselves.

Needs Aren’t the Problem

We’re human, and humans have needs. It’s essential that we first accept that about ourselves.

Yes, it’s true that shitty people will try and talk you out of having needs, and if that happens just remember they are projecting their fear of being needy onto you. Let them have their childish moment and don’t waste energy defending yourself.

The reason it’s important to accept the fact that you have needs, is it’s your medicine to fight any shame you may encounter around having needs in the first place. Shame is what shuts you down and stops you from communicating them.

Shame around having needs is what makes you needy, not the actual needs.

What “Needy” Feels Like

As someone who often experiences people as needy, I’ll do my best to articulate what that means to me. On the surface we think of ourselves as needy when we have a need that isn’t met, but it’s how we go about getting those needs met that matters.

Let’s use a classic example. Mary is sitting next to Zach at a party. As they are talking, Zach notices he wants to touch Mary to feel closer to her. He is too nervous to ask, so he slides a little closer to her on the couch. A few minutes later he puts his hand on her thigh, and over time he edges closer and closer until Mary stops him.

“Yo dude, you’re being kinda needy.” She says.
“What do you mean?” He retorts. “You don’t like to cuddle?”
“I do like cuddling, but I’d prefer if you asked before touching me.” Mary responds.

The reason Zach occurs to Mary as needy isn’t because he wanted to cuddle, it’s because he didn’t communicate his desire, likely due to some kind of shame. Maybe he was afraid of being rejected, maybe he didn’t want to admit he wanted to cuddle, it could have been a number of things — but it’s all related to shame and fear.

Mary was repulsed, because instead of speaking up and asking “would you like to cuddle with me” he tried to get his need met in a sneaky way, which had Mary feel violated.

Let’s use another example, this time from a committed relationship.

Pat and Blake are married, and Pat wants more quality time with Blake. Instead of sitting down with Blake and saying “I have a need for more quality time with you, can we put some time aside soon”, Pat adds a touch of yearning to every interaction they have.

In the morning as Blake leaves for work Pat says longingly, “ohhh you’re leaving alreadyyyyy…. I’ll miss youuuuu”. When Blake gets back Pat says “I’m so glad you’re home, I’ve been thinking about you all dayyyyy”. When they do spend time together Pat is always commenting, “we should go on dates more often”, to which Blake responds “Pat we’re on a date right now, what if you just enjoyed this instead of being in the future?”

As you can imagine, Pat occurs to Blake as needy, and it’s not sexy. The reason it’s not sexy isn’t because Pat has a need, it’s because Pat can’t communicate that need directly, so instead Pat hopes and prays that Blake will get the message and initiate more quality time together (and also understand what quality time means to Pat).

This is what we do all the time in relationships, and often it just gets worse from here.

Someone like Pat may start to believe they shouldn’t have that need in the first place, or that Blake just isn’t “the one” for them. Or maybe Pat acts out by having an affair with that co-worker who is always wanting to go for drinks after work. “At least they will give me the attention I need.” Pat might think.

In all fairness (I can hear all you anxious attachment-style people want to blame Blake too), it’s not all Pat’s fault, Blake probably isn’t communicating her needs either. Blake might need more alone time. Maybe if she spoke up and took a few days off for a personal writing retreat she could come back and show up more fully for Pat.

Whatever the case, what’s clear here is that it’s not about the needs, it’s about the communication (or lack thereof).

The Opposite of Needy

We sometimes think the opposite of being needy is not having needs, but that’s not true. The opposite of needy is vulnerable.

It’s vulnerable to show someone you need them, and whether you’ve been married twenty years or just met someone at a party — speaking up and admitting you have a need can be scary. When we are needy it’s because we are hiding, and when we are vulnerable it’s because we are choosing to reveal ourselves instead.

When I’m feeling brave I’ll even lean in to that vulnerability. I might even say “I’m feeling needy right now”, which ironically is not a needy thing to do.

That’s the paradox of this whole thing — once we accept that we have needs and act from that place, we can no longer be controlled by the shame of thinking we should be anyone or anything but who we already are.

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