The Very Real Problem With Calling People ‘Needy’

Photographed by Flora Maclean.
Every time Jade*, 31, was called ‘needy’ by her ex-boyfriend Sam* she felt a burning sensation in her stomach.
“For the first few months it felt like a ‘bit’ I was in on. Like, You’re quite needy but it’s cute. I would laugh at myself, despite feeling that burn,” she says, putting her hand on her diaphragm. “However, it became a running theme. If I asked why he hadn’t called when he said he would, I was ‘needy’; if I asked for a kiss at the ‘wrong’ time, I was ‘needy’; if he seemed distant and I verbalised it, I was ‘needy’,” she explains. “In time, I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I felt awful so I tried to end it.” 
Sam begged her not to, declaring his love. They tried again. But the pattern of Jade stating her needs (“quite basic stuff, I thought”) and Sam calling her needy continued. After nine months Jade ended the relationship. “It crushed me. It was not a long relationship but I absorbed the idea that I was ‘too much’ very deeply,” she says, her voice catching. “With anyone I tried to date afterwards, I was nervous about asking for anything. I stopped dating entirely, for almost a year. I felt pretty damaged.” 
The word ‘needy’ throbs with negative power. In an age where we are, on the surface, more emotionally literate than ever, we still casually throw around words that have strong implications for how we define one another. The impulse to label people is understandable. Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the information we receive. In any relationship that holds strong emotions, precise-sounding words can help us create a compelling script that ‘explains’ how someone makes us feel. But these scripts can have detrimental effects.
In an episode of Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin? Esther speaks to a man who was described as ‘codependent’ by his ex-partner. He is concerned that he can’t express his needs to his new partner without feeling weak, especially as she doesn’t give much away in response. “I don’t want to be perceived as needy. I want to give my partner something that’s inspiring, not something to take care of,” he says. Perel’s response is clear: “When you tell your needs, that doesn’t make you needy … You actually can come across as rather confident, self-aware, knowing and willing to communicate about it with someone.” “That’s reassuring,” he replies, as if he may not have heard the sentiment before. 
How much does the word ‘needy’ really help the giver or the receiver? It is often used by nonprofit organisations to describe people in poverty, pulling on potential donors’ heartstrings. However, research has found that using the word (classed as demeaning language) can actually undermine an agency's goal to help people. In 2020, Stanford University psychologists published evidence from an experiment conducted in Kenya, where they found that language conveying dignity and empowerment motivated recipients and reduced their sense of shame. Words that implied neediness had the opposite effect. They often do. 

In any relationship that holds strong emotions, precise-sounding words can help us create a compelling script that 'explains' how someone makes us feel. But these scripts can have detrimental effects.

Back in the realm of personal relationships, Sam may have temporarily resolved some internal conflict about clear communication and vulnerability by calling Jade ‘needy’. But where was his sense of responsibility? Perhaps he has gone on to explore this. If so, good for him. If he hasn’t, a familiar thread may run through his relationships. 
What we are ‘triggered’ by in others is wildly subjective. Without knowing a person’s life history, it’s unfair to make assumptions about how their childhood experiences are informing their adult relationships. If we follow attachment theory, people who were emotionally neglected or mistreated as children may have a more anxious style of attachment and be hypervigilant for signs of rejection. If a child had a caregiver who was emotionally unavailable or was actively discouraged from expressing emotion, they may be more avoidant in their attachment style. These different styles can manifest in push-pull dynamics: one person more actively ‘steps in’ to have their emotional needs met, while the other pulls away. Both styles speak to a difficulty in developing trust. 
Identifying our own attachment style with a therapist may be helpful in examining why we feel like we do in relationships, if we learn helpful ways of communicating our needs. However, bluntly labelling a partner can absolve us of self-awareness. Social media is not our friend here. When complex emotional themes are reduced to neat, shareable lists or memes, ideas of what ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ healthy filter into public consciousness like articles of faith. Critical thinking easily dissolves. So you have a label at your disposal; how do you grow from there? 
We often receive the message that ‘needy’ people will do the thing they fear most: push their partner or friend away. This may be true. But the person being pushed has work to do, too. If someone’s needs are overwhelming me, I am just as responsible if I don’t make empathetic boundaries. If I want to run away from someone’s vulnerability, is it not fair to both them and myself to be curious about why? 
In my work as a trainee psychotherapist, I have examined my emotions and impulses in more depth than I ever thought possible. Quite right, too; as therapists, we should know who we are before we sit opposite someone asking us to help them make sense of their distress. In romantic relationships, I have both given and received the ‘needy’ label. Reflecting on this with my supervisors in workshops, I now believe that so-called ‘neediness’ does not speak to one person’s inherent issues but rather to a deeper communication clash between the people involved. This is far from insurmountable if both commit to trying to be self-aware. 
I would argue that the powerful medical model of mental health has much to answer for. There are diagnoses for most variations of human behaviour and these ideas filter into everyday language. In reality, most relationship dynamics are co-created. But sadly, when emotional difficulties arise between people, it is often easier to blame and label than it is to accept the concept of shared responsibility. Even sadder is how damaging words like ‘needy’ can be.
Amir*, 28, is seeing someone for the first time in many years and is noticing what he describes as a “neediness re-emerging”. I ask him to go back, before we talk about the new relationship. A previous long-term partner repeatedly labelled him ‘needy’. “It was shameful to be so apparently naked in the want to be liked, loved and cared for by someone I felt strongly about,” he says. “It wasn’t sexy, or the role I ‘should’ have been playing in that relationship.” 
With the new person, Amir wants “regular affirmation that she enjoys my company and looks forward to being together in the future”. This shows up in a few ways: “Constantly trying to make her laugh and always seeking the next moment of (minor) physical intimacy. I want to be messaging all the time and worry when the conversation feels flat compared to being together. Or when it feels like I’m grappling for something to say just to see ‘X is typing…’ on the screen.” 
Amir knows it’s his responsibility to “manage” this anxiety but also to express his needs so that his new partner is not in the dark — and because he deserves to. In his experience we might see the pitfalls of modern technology facilitating constant communication. Those who identify with an anxious attachment style may see a version of themselves. I heard a person working hard to reflect, honestly, on how his past experiences are showing up in a new relationship. Hopefully, in time, he will realise that the old script might not be relevant. When he does express his needs, how his new partner responds will be useful information, whatever the outcome. 

Along with a difficulty in making boundaries, our problem with so-called 'needy' people may speak to a difficulty in accepting the more vulnerable parts of ourselves.

Within abusive or coercive relationships, where one person erodes the other’s self-worth in order to feel worthy themselves, labels are often weaponised to discredit a person who has expressed their needs; who has finally spoken up. In the legal system, this most often happens to women. In the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial, a psychologist named Dr Shannon Curry, employed by Depp, ‘diagnosed’ Heard with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD). The power of this diagnosis in making traumatised women feel invalidated cannot be overstated. 
As psychologist and founder of Victim Focus, Dr Jessica Taylor, says: “There are several reasons why these snap diagnoses should be immediately discounted, not just for Amber but for thousands of other women currently going through the same process.” 
It is vital, Jessica argues, that these diagnoses are not understood as proven medical conditions. “They are often introduced into family law, private law, and even criminal law cases where a woman is reporting domestic or sexual abuse … Diagnosing a woman with BPD or HPD is the go-to tactic of a legal team intent on discrediting a woman. I see it every single day. Thousands of women are going through the same thing as Amber as we speak.”
Women have been historically conditioned to keep pain and emotional needs contained because there is a risk of being met with invalidating language when we open our mouths. Many psychological professionals believe that ‘personality disorder’ is a modern-day version of ‘hysteria’ — not least because there is a 3:1 gender ratio in BPD diagnoses. These ‘disorders’ are constructed with a profound fear of abandonment and a pattern of ‘unstable’ relationships at their core. Self-harm is common in people who have been given the diagnosis but when seeking treatment — including for drug overdoses — they have been shown in research to be viewed as ‘difficult’. 
I have heard the terms ‘needy’, ‘difficult’ and ‘attention-seeking’ used by clinicians in relation to women with a BPD diagnosis. However, many reject the label because of its poor evidence base and inherent misogyny. (A wonderful psychologist I worked with once intimated in a team meeting that if someone is ‘attention-seeking’ they probably need a different kind of attention.) That 80% of people diagnosed with BPD have a history of trauma begs the question: if a person repeatedly seeks validation for their pain, what needs haven’t been met, either by those close to them or by the state? What have they been afraid to ask for?
These concepts matter outside of clinics and courtrooms because we all, to varying degrees, construct our sense of self through how people describe us. Language has incredible power to affirm but also to magnify negative relationships we might have with ourselves. Along with a difficulty in making boundaries, our problem with so-called ‘needy’ people may speak to a difficulty in accepting the more vulnerable parts of ourselves. We all want validation and love. But if we aren’t convinced that we are worthy of love, when it starts being reflected back at us alarm bells might ring. The solution is rarely to try and change someone by asking them to stop needing so much. They probably aren’t asking for too much at all. 
Calmer relationships can exist if we’re brave enough to ask ourselves whether someone is actually ‘needy’ or if their needs are just different from our own.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Eleanor Morgan is an assistant psychologist and author of Hormonal: A Conversation About Women's Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard

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