Stories for Lent: #15 The advice I never give myself

Dear Agony Aunt,
My question to you today is fairly short and sweet: how do I get less needy? Or, alternatively, how do I stop feeling so bad about being needy?

People seem to think that I am a tough person, and I have to say, I like that a lot…. until they start coming to me with all their problems. It’s like they seem to think that, because I’m tough, I can handle it when they break down in front of me and carry them until they’re okay to walk on their own again. It’s a lot of pressure. I’m starting to feel like I’m surrounded by people who need, need, need, and take, take, take. I find myself thinking how unfair this is, how it’s never my turn to be needy, how I’m the person they turn to in a crisis, but never just have over for coffee, or do fun things together. I feel like they never appreciate my company for its own sake, but rather, the way I always lend a sympathetic ear and keep their confidences after they vomit whatever shameful secrets were plaguing them onto me.

I know I’m a horrible over-thinker. I can’t shut my brain down. I also have horrible, grandiose expectations of myself. I never cut myself enough slack, because I feel like there is no space for me to cut myself some slack. And lately, I’ve really been struggling with my feelings. Finding myself unmoored after a big move, with an unsympathetic GP and fighting for access to therapy, I feel like I’m floundering.

And I’m scared of opening up to my friends. I know we must all make ourselves vulnerable to receive the help me need, the help we deserve, but every time I’ve tried to do so in the past (from kindergarten to this day) I’ve been rejected and made to feel like my neediness is a bad thing. That it scares people. It all just feels like such a bullshit Catch 22 – I need to be tough because my neediness scares people, but I can’t be tough all the time, and the strain of it is destroying me. What do I do? How do I change my mindset?

Needy Nelly

Dear Nelly,

Your situation feels like a Catch 22 because it is a Catch 22. Unfortunately, it’s a trap that you walked yourself into, and a problem which you – over-thinker and emotional rock extraordinaire – believe that you brought onto yourself. How dare you not always be pulled together and tough? How dare you lend a sympathetic ear to other people? Don’t you know that they will use you like a dirty dish rag until you are ripped to shreds? Don’t you know that they will not respect you? Why did you market yourself as tough when you really are not? You MUST carry on, or else they will demand their money back.

This is the feeling I’m getting from your letter – this loveable and oh-so-familiar mixture of frustration and guilt that drives sales of self-help books (and the readership of this site) higher and higher each day. You think that your personality is a fixed constant that should never change. You think that emotional resilience is an unending resource. You also think that anyone but you is a needy, despot child that will not accept “no” for an answer and must be carried through hell and high water because you, and only you, are the only competent adult on the planet.

By the way, I’m not trying to beat you further into the ground, Nelly. You are the victim of the exact same DIY, fix-yourself-because-nobody-else-can mentality that everyone else is suffering these days, regardless of their gender or social standing. But before you can extract yourself from this trap, you need to let go of this idea that you’re the ONLY PERSON, EVER, to have this problem. It is not helping you, and it will certainly not help your friends understand you if you act like your problems are beyond their scope of understanding, or coping ability.

Okay, I’m done with the shading. I promise. Pinky swear.

You’re asking me how you can become less needy, or, alternatively, how to be okay with being needy. That tells me that you’re aware, at least on some level, that neediness is a natural human emotion and one that isn’t inherently bad. Hell, you nurse people through their neediest moments, and you still call them friends, so clearly this isn’t just a quality you find intolerable or beneath your notice. So here’s the short answer – you cannot become less needy because neediness is not an objectively measurable state of being. We all have it, to one extent or another, and it is valid regardless of the degree to which you find it in every person. Yes, some people need others more. Yes, sometimes the strain of taking care of those people makes it hard for us to be there for them all the time. Yes, the caretaker-to-caregiver ratio in the world is wildly skewed and it’s not fair that certain people who seemingly have it together cannot be bothered to lift one dainty finger to help someone in need while you and your fellow bleeding-heart liberals run yourself ragged saving the world.

I’m saying this in the most affectionate way possible, Nelly – the fact that the world seems unfair and you think yourself on the side of good doesn’t automatically entitle you to any superpowers, or preferential treatment. You are not exempt from being needy, and you have to be okay with being needy.

So how does that work? For starters, drop any ideas about needy people being somehow less-than whatever it is you hold so important being. (Tough? Put together? Whatever it is, it’s not more important than your health.) We already covered that. The next step is to forget any lingering notions you might have about being both caretaker and caregiver. Empathy IS a finite resource, and your stores are pretty depleted. Use them for the worthiest cause there is right now – yourself – because if you keep giving and giving and giving to others, you will burn out, and nobody will thank you for that sacrifice. It’s suicide by helping. You would have driven yourself into the ground for nothing.

Tell the needy people in your life ‘no’, and trust that they are adult enough to find alternative help. You’re not the only one who can keep going to her jerky GP to try and get a referral to a therapist. You’re not the only one who can write to an online advice column. “Eat, Pray, Love” and any derivative thereof is sold in supermarkets and local bookstores across the country, and if those cheap bastards can’t fork up the full price, Amazon sells used copies. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, and that can’t happen while you’re offering yourself up as a free therapist to them.

Is it going to be easy? Probably not. There will most likely be some pushback, especially if people are used to depending on you. Face it, see it for what it is, and let it go. That’s not your concern. You’re doing the right thing by protecting your own heart and your own health.

I want you to sit down and imagine something with me. I know it’s hard and you can’t think beyond holding off until the next day, and then the next, and then the next, but I want you to imagine yourself in a few weeks from now. The dust has settled. You are in therapy. Your “friends” are not ringing you for therapy because they know you won’t answer them. You will have gained enough perspective to see things clearly. You will have started to accept yourself as a human being that needs help sometimes, not an infallible iron goddess.

Yeah, I know. Not exactly badass. But imagine this, too – people inviting you out to just hang out, no strings attached. People enjoying your company for its own sake. People appreciating your advice because they know you don’t offer it freely anymore. People listening to your needs.

This is what healthy boundaries look like. And it’s glorious as hell.

Will it shake off a few people? Quite possibly. But is it really worth holding onto friendships that are entirely self-serving (on their part) and soul-destroying (on yours)?

Protect your heart, Nelly, and see how much more people will appreciate it.

Agony Aunt


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