Building on our exploration of vulnerability and messiness last week, one of our deepest true vulnerabilities as humans is our very real dependence on others. Many women are ashamed of their need for others and our culture seems to teach that we should be more independent. For instance, women yearning for a partner are often told: “Learn to be happy by yourself before you find someone.” I always tell my clients I think that advice denies the huge amount of life joy that can be found in partnership and, if you want them, children. Longing for relationships and/or partnerships is a healthy desire. Similarly, people tell my clients to “work on yourself first” and then seek partnership. That advice makes me laugh. Humans grow more easily through connection and with support from others. Why wait to have love until you have already done one of the major things love helps you with in life (and especially given personal growth is a life-long process). But this culture values independence to the point of shaming our human desire and need for connection and support from others.
Important in loving yourself is accepting your need for others and that it is okay and healthy. We all have dependency needs and there is no reason to be ashamed of that. A lot of women I work with use their sense of need for others to beat up on themselves. Acting overly needy can be a defense against intimacy and thereby push people away, just as denying your need for others can push people away. Let’s explore that because so many women who don’t defend against their dependency needs use them to push people away. I have come to see clearly over the years that people considered needy who get rejected because of their needs have one thing in common—they have trouble receiving. They ask a lot of others but appear insatiable and no matter how others try to help, it doesn’t get in. Unconsciously these women may not receive because they want the other to stay engaged and if they were soothed or satiated they fear the connection would stop. Or maybe they are just so wedded to their dis-regulated state and self-hatred that the level of care they are getting is not yet enough. Either way, the end effect is that the other person feels inadequate because their attempt to care isn’t working. People can’t stand to feel inadequate and will quickly distance themselves from situations in which they feel that way. I want to emphasize here that in my experience, the label “needy” comes when people can’t receive and connect well to help others feel effective and valued. It is not a reflection of that person having too many needs or asking for too much.
Am I saying that there is no level of need in itself that pushes people away? People have an immense capacity to give so if you are appreciative and people see their effectiveness they can do a lot to meet your needs. However, during times of trial, it is also important to practice diffused dependency. Diffused dependency means you spread your needs out among many trusted people instead of repetitively turning to the same person. For instance, if you are going through a break up, you may need to talk about your memories of this partner and your pain about it hundreds of times. Your best friend or mother might get tired of hearing the same stories and feelings on the fiftieth time, even if you are appreciative and are visibly helped and soothed by the contact. There is nothing wrong with your dependency needs and the desire to talk nonstop for months about the breakup and receive love from others. The key, however, is to have a group of people who share the load of caring for you in that crisis. An illness or other time of heightened need would be another example. If you don’t have a group of trusted others, focusing on building these connections and allowing closeness with them is a priority to protect you in from burning out the one or two you have now.
Perhaps one reason dependency has a bad rap is because many of you who don’t love yourself choose others to be close to who don’t treat you well or end up leaving you. That makes it hard to feel safe depending. The problem is not in the depending, it is in the not loving yourself and not choosing people who deserve closeness with you and will build your self-esteem over time. We can’t give up on allowing closeness. Many people I work with who are the most fragile underneath or who secretly or unconsciously long for connection the most, defend against that impulse by being so fiercely independent that they don’t let others influence them. They don’t want other’s input unless asked and they fight to establish a sense of not needing people. The problem is, we need each other to function optimally. When my clients are stuck and just can’t do something, we not only look at the underlying issues, we call for reinforcement! For instance, I sometimes need help going to bed on time. I can use all my internal resources—being mindful, being a good mother to myself, keeping a routine, etc, but sometimes I may end up mindlessly checking email and exhausting myself. I could look at the underlying issues associated with this temptation and masochism and try to heal it, but the easiest way to stop the pattern is to depend on someone else’s help. In this case, I have asked my husband to literally drag me to bed at a certain time if he has to. He will let me know it is getting late, then half an hour later tell me he thinks I will be tired tomorrow if I don’t head to bed. If I am still making excuses and continuing to work furiously, he will just close my laptop and take me to bed. Sometimes I resist in the moment because I want to finish what I’m doing, but I am always so thankful to be in bed once I get there.
While we are talking about dependency needs, I think it is important to mention codependency because many of the women I work with fear falling into that category and so they avoid or deny their own healthy needs from others. The technical definition has more to do with overreliance on others for approval and identity. From what I’ve seen with my clients, however, I have come to define codependency as having to feel or think what someone else does. We all need approval and acceptance by our partners, for instance, and it can wonderful to be extremely close to your partner—that’s not codependent. I see many couples, however, who are upset with the other person if the other person doesn’t feel everything he or she feels. So, if your partner is depressed, that is no reason for you to be depressed. You might feel sad to see him or her suffering, but internalizing it as though you are depressed or as though you have to solve their depression before you can be happy is codependent.
The latest research and direction in couples therapy is emphasizing that people’s nervous systems are most easily regulated by another person than alone. It argues that the way we are set up neurologically is pretty hard-wired and so difficult to change that in relationships we should focus more on not pathologizing the way we are set up, but instead learning how to treat, comfort and soothe the other person in a way that works for him or her, and visa versa. Nervous systems respond best to touch and tone, so in terms of natural and healthy dependency needs, I think we can count these as some deeply engrained ones. Many of you who did not get your needs met as a child, learned to soothe yourself. We call that self-regulation. Once you get in the habit of regulating yourself, even though we are social creatures and evolutionarily wired to be regulated by others instead, it becomes easier to regulate yourself and contact with others can even seem to throw off or upset your nervous system. In this case, you might notice yourself pulling away if your partner tried to seduce you or approaches you in some other way, whereas you handle it better if you are the one who approaches. That pulling away when approached can create a cat-mouse dynamic where they approach, you pull away, so they need you more and approach more, and you pull away more. If you know this reaction is wired into your nervous system, you can actively compensate by trying to be on the approach more so that you can feel in control and your partner and friends can get what they need from you without having to ask or approach you as much.
The preference for self-regulation often goes along with an attachment style called avoidant attachment. Attachment styles are set up in the first few years of life and play an enormous role in how we relate to others throughout life. If we were able to trust others to provide what we needed in a healthy way, we are likely to have a secure attachment style, which means we can tolerate closeness and separation from others. The avoidant style we were just exploring, often feels uncomfortable with too much closeness because it doesn’t feel safe, even though they long for it underneath (sometimes even unconsciously, as some of my more avoidant clients say they would rather be alone). On the other side of the spectrum, some people deal with not having what they needed growing up, or having it sometimes and not others, by clinging to others and being disregulated with too much separation. If you feel anxious if your partner leaves town or you don’t know where he or she is, or you didn’t like being dropped off at school in the morning and held onto your mother’s leg, or if you are the one wanting to text all day and stay in constant communication with your loved ones, you are likely to have this anxious/insecure attachment style. You may need to help others understand this about the way your nervous system is set up and give them tools to soothe you easily so they don’t feel burdened or annoyed by your anxiety around losing them. You can also learn to comfort yourself and remember that your reactivity and experience of threat with ruptures in relationships are in large part due to the past and not the present.
Ultimately, loving yourself involves caring for your own dependency needs and allowing yourself to have a healthy dependence on the right people who truly care. It is time to let go of the shame about having needs because we all have needs and deeply need each other. As you build your relationship with yourself, you will both allow yourself to ask for those needs to be met, and also meet many of your needs yourself with the loving way you hold yourself so that you don’t unconsciously push people away.