I like to challenge my clients to question their deﬁnitions of words that we all may use very casually, but actually have strong implications for how we deﬁne ourselves. Strong. Resilient. Powerful. It can be helpful to clarify our ideas by not only looking at what our deﬁnitions include, but what they exclude as well. So, the other day when I asked a mother of multiple small children what it meant to her to be "strong," she told me that it meant not to be "needy." Neediness, therefore, has become a synonym for weakness.
Consider how this will inﬂuence her choices on a daily basis. In order to view herself as a strong woman she must therefore limit how needy she appears. These questions always take me back to grad school when my professors would demand that every question be "operationalized." In other words, we can't study something if we don't all agree we are looking at the same thing. Concrete and speciﬁc examples are what counts. I started thinking about how to operationalize neediness. What behaviors would be considered needy?
Is it needy to ask for help? What forms of help would be okay and which too needy? How is neediness conveyed? In order for someone to label me as needy, must I, by deﬁnition, be asking for something? And if needy is a bad word, then is it possible someone might use that word against me to make me feel bad for asking? What happens when I use it against myself?
Nadine Kaslow has conducted many studies looking at resilience and coping in women in abusive relationships. A study that I had the honor of working on asked one key question: what protected women in abusive relationships from negative outcomes like depression or, at the most extreme, suicide? We asked each woman if there were people in her life who could help her out, lend 5$ or a car for a few hours, give her clothes or a place to stay. Many women said, yes! Absolutely, they would have someone they could ask to meet those needs. However, when questioned whether or not she would ask for what she needed, many said no. No. She knew what she needed, there were people out there who might be able to help, but she wouldn't ask. The results were clear, the women who didn't ask had signiﬁcantly worse emotional outcomes.
A hallmark feature of an abusive relationship is the isolation many women feel from their support network and the repetitive nature of their needs. Maybe she would have asked the ﬁrst or fourth time, but after the tenth or twentieth time maybe that felt too needy.
NEEDY AS A NEGATIVE WORD NO MORE !
How many other situations exist where women feel isolated and struggle with recurrent needs The post-partum mother who faces hours on end caring for a baby when she feels weak and incompetent. The woman who has unexplained infertility and mourns each month for a pregnancy that didn't happen. The mother of one child with medical issues that require constant vigilance and another healthy child seeking her attention. Each of these examples, and there are so many more, make me wonder at what point does she stop asking for help because she doesn't want to be considered too needy?
I've decided we must reclaim the word needy. There is no shame in identifying what you need and asking for help in getting it. Even if it means asking again and again. The ability to keep asking is the indicator of your strength, not the marker of your weakness. If you need help, either in the form of an extra hand, a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on but you ﬁnd that you've stopped asking, remember this truth: the only way to guarantee you don't get what you need is by not asking for it.
NEEDY AS A NEGATIVE WORD NO MORE !