We sometimes get to a place where we need help. Depending on how we grew up, we can react to this place in several different ways. Those who had a secure, trusting attachment to a parental figure are more likely to feel safe asking for help as adults. If you developed a more avoidant attachment style, you might see needing help as being selfish or weak. If you grew up anxiously attached, needing help could invoke fear and uncertainty. This was me. Asking anyone for help triggered anxiety, self-loathing, and a deep sense of shame. When I began to heal, I would seek out comfort in my roommate, every single day, to save myself from drowning in trauma-related emotions. She was (and is) my friend, and the only person I felt safe with. After crying onto her shoulder for the umpteenth day in a row, I would retreat to my room to punish myself for my impulsivity. I told myself that I was “too much” for her, and that she would leave me if I continued needing so much help. This behaviour went on for two years, despite all my efforts to change. If you find yourself in a similar situation, give yourself a big hug. You’ve been through things no child should ever have to go through. Your reactions are normal responses to trauma and emotional neglect.
We know, internally, that we “should” be more independent. We may have been punishing ourselves, internally or externally, for a very long time. The answer to the neediness and shame may be a little counter-intuitive. We don’t need to punish ourselves, work harder, or be more vigilant. We need to learn to love ourselves.
There are a lot of self-help experts and gurus out there who preach this message. It can be frustrating to hear, especially when no one has taught us what self-love looks like. When self-love shatters after a trauma or stressful event, it can take years to re-learn. While we’re in the middle of the struggle, we may not always see the growth. But just as tree roots can push through concrete, given time and nutrients, so can self-love.
How will loving ourselves help with neediness? Because neediness is a form of crying out for the love that never came. It’s a desire to find a safe place to rest. Before we can give that to ourselves, we may need others to show us how. That is perfectly normal. We may have been shamed as a child for having needs. As infants, we may have been left to cry until we fell asleep from exhaustion. No child deserves to have this happen to them. And the hurt child, the crying infant, doesn’t go away. We carry them within ourselves. The hardest part of meeting the needs of our inner children is that we are the only ones who can soothe them. We impulsively run to others to escape the pain, but the pain stays.
Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Love without trust is not yet love.” In what ways do you struggle to trust others? How do you struggle to trust yourself?
Some people find it helpful to spend time alone. I admit that this was important for me, but it came with a lot of difficulty. There were times when being alone in my room would expose me to all of the horrible thoughts and emotions I had been pushing away throughout the day. Just hearing my roommate close the door to her room would give me panic attacks. If I surrendered to the urge to run to her for comfort, I would later be flooded with shame. Neediness is insidious that way.
Please know that it does get better. If you can’t bear the thoughts and emotions when you are alone, there is a way to dip into it slowly. If you live with someone, try to do an activity alone-but-together. Read books together in silence, basking in each other’s company. Create an “alone space” for yourself somewhere in the house where you feel safe and secure. When I’m having a bad anxiety day, I sometimes sit in my room with the door open. That way, I’m still spending time alone, but my roommate can pop in whenever she wants to.
Healing from neediness, from the absence of love and safety, takes time. As you become accustomed to your own company, you will be able to examine your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours without being overwhelmed by them. You can nourish your inner child by daydreaming, drawing, playing, or doing anything that used to bring you joy. What activities did you get absorbed in as a child? What was so interesting to you that time seemed to stop?
Sometimes self-love can start with the body. This is the path I chose. Instead of trying to force my brain to believe something that it didn’t, I focused on taking care of my body the way I would take care of a beloved pet. That meant feeding it good food, taking it for walks, keeping it clean, and stopping to remind it that I loved it and was very proud of it. It does seem a little strange, in hindsight. For me, it was easier to love my body first, before allowing that love to slowly spread to the rest of me. Now I see my body as an intelligent partner. I stop to thank it every once in a while for protecting me and staying with me.
If you struggle with neediness because of an attachment disorder, like me, it’s worth it to get help. A mental health therapist can show you what a safe, trusting relationship is meant to look like. You are not your neediness. It does not define you. It will take a lot of work to overcome, but you are always, always worth it.
The Attachment Theory: How Childhood Affects Life
How to Love by Thich Nhat Hahn
The Attachment Theory Workbook by Annie Chen LMFT
The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmin Lee Cori