People I speak to in my office will occasionally describe a significant person in their life (or even themselves) as clingy, or needy, in the emotional sense. Indeed, there are times when a partner or potential partner can cross that line between committed and just plain needy.
The biggest reason for this is fear. Specifically, the fear of not being liked. To the clingy person, this feels like a catastrophe. Their motivation to get closer has the opposite effect of annoying or turning off reasonable people who naturally back away. This actually reinforces the fear, causing him or her to become even needier. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that worsens over time.
Some mental health professionals try to explain the needy personality in terms of childhood influences. “She clings because her father never gave her love.” Or, “He’s needy because his mother never gave him attention.” But these excuses won’t help solve the problem in the here and now. Neediness is an emotional-behavioral cycle brought on 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 is the belief that it’s devastating for anyone not to like you. But with some quiet self-reflection, the needy person can retrain him- or herself to respond differently to situations that spark these anxieties.
Years ago I spoke to a woman who had successfully worked out the problem of her own neediness toward her boyfriend. She told herself, “He sometimes wants to be alone. It’s not a rejection of me. I know he cares for me, and if I let him be himself, he’ll always come back and we’ll spend time together. Maybe I can use this to enjoy some time with a friend, or even spend some quality time by myself.” She understood 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’ll at least know (and will need to face the fact) that he isn’t all that interested in her. Denial will do nothing for her emotional well-being. In fact, though this revelation might be painful, she has saved herself years of hurt and resentment by giving him the space to demonstrate his true feelings. She has, in fact, granted herself the freedom to move on.
Neediness comes in many forms. For example, a normally 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. He reacts by withdrawing from people and activities he could otherwise have learned to enjoy. Problems such as these sometimes resolve themselves over time. More often, however, the person has to engage in rational introspection; facing the fear head-on with fresh thoughts on how to adapt.
Interestingly enough, this whole thing can be a double-edged sword. A person who fears closeness and commitment might unfairly accuse another of being emotionally needy. For example, a boyfriend, for no apparent reason, suddenly starts treating his girlfriend poorly. 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. He avoids facing his own fear of commitment by distancing himself from her. If he were more psychologically healthy, he would own up to this fact.
Psychological health requires a willingness to know what you feel and to take responsibility for confronting those feelings. Yes, it’s work, and pills won’t do it. Sometimes, just talking with a skilled cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist can help you launch a pre-emptive strike against mistaken assumptions before they become frustrating problems.
So step up to the plate and challenge your faulty emotions. The resulting self-confidence will be liberating and enormously gratifying.
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