As the busy summer season winds down, people who live in resort areas will often experience increased interaction among friends, family and spouses. In spite of all the positive aspects, though, some of this time together might not be so constructive. Occasionally, a client in this situation will describe a significant person in their life—or even themselves—as ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’ in the emotional sense. According to the dictionary, ‘cling’ means: ‘To hold fast or adhere to something, as by grasping’to remain emotionally attached.’ What gives rise to this behavior in some people, and how can it be controlled?
Simply put, the biggest reason is fear—specifically, the fear of not being liked. To the typical clingy or needy person, not being liked feels like a catastrophe. Though their motivation is to get closer, their behavior has the exact opposite effect by annoying or turning off otherwise reasonable people, who start to back away. The fear within the needy person is then reinforced, causing him or her to become even needier. It’s a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that gets worse and worse over time.
I have heard psychologists try to explain the needy personality in terms of childhood influences. ‘She clings to everyone because her father never gave her love.’ Or: ‘He’s needy because his mother never gave him attention,’ but these explanations and excuses don’t do anything to help solve the client’s problem in the here and now.
Neediness is an emotional-behavioral cycle caused primarily by invalid, emotional assumptions. Regardless of when they might have been formed, these assumptions are part of the present, not the past. One of the most common assumptions is that it’s devastating for anyone else to not like you. But, there’s hope! The needy person can retrain himself to respond differently to situations that give rise to these anxieties.
Here’s an example of how one woman successfully worked out the problem of her own neediness in relating to her boyfriend: ‘He sometimes wants to be by himself. It’s not a rejection of me. He just likes to be alone sometimes. I know he cares for me, and if I give him his time alone, he’ll come back and we’ll spend time together. Maybe I can use this as an opportunity to enjoy some time with a friend, or even spend time by myself and enjoy it.’ She understands that they are both individuals, and will—indeed, should—have some interests separate from one another.
In a normal, loving relationship, he will certainly seek out her company if she grants him the freedom to sometimes be without her. And, what if he doesn’t? Then she now knows, and needs to face the fact, that he isn’t all that interested in her any longer. Denial will do nothing for her emotional well-being. In fact, though this revelation might be painful in the short run, she has saved herself years of hurt, resentment and rejection by cleverly giving him the ‘room’ to demonstrate his true feelings. She has, in fact, granted herself the freedom to move on.
Neediness comes in many forms. Sometimes people don’t adapt well to a change in circumstances. For example, a popular, self-confident high school student might react to the first year away at college with fear and insecurity, spending lonely weekends in the dorm. Or, a retired person moves to a new location and responds to the change with disappointment and disillusionment. He reacts by withdrawing from people and activities he otherwise could have learned to enjoy. Problems such as these sometimes resolve themselves over time. More often, though, the person has to engage in self-reflection, and face the fear head-on with challenging thoughts on how to better adapt to change.
Interestingly enough, this whole thing can be a double-edged sword. Occasionally, a person who, in fact, fears closeness and commitment will unfairly accuse someone of being emotionally needy. For example, a boyfriend suddenly turns on his girlfriend and treats her poorly for no apparent reason. She responds with perfectly reasonable questions such as, ‘What’s wrong?’ or, ‘Is it something I said?’ He replies that she’s too needy and clingy when, in fact, he’s the one with the problem. By distancing himself from her, he avoids having to face his own fear of commitment. If he were more psychologically healthy, he would, at the very least, own up to this fact and be honest with her about it.
Psychological health requires a willingness to know what you feel, and to take responsibility for challenging—and changing—some of those feelings. Yes, it’s work, and will often take repeated effort. Pills and medications won’t do it. Sometimes, just talking with a skilled cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist can be valuable. A qualified, impartial observer can help you make a pre-emptive strike against mistaken or irrational assumptions, before they become frustrating psychological problems. Stand up and challenge your faulty emotions! The resulting self-awareness will be liberating and enormously gratifying.