We’re taught that it’s good to be vulnerable (file under Brené Brown,) but bad to be needy (file under “People – especially men – run screaming in the other direction.”) But it seems to me that it’s a fine edge I’m exploring in some of my relationships. So humor me while I try to figure this out.
The Vulnerability of Need
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been renegotiating sacred contracts with the people closest to me, and one of my requests in my relationships is that those I love share with me what they want and need so I don’t have to read their minds. I’ve spent too many years feeling like I’ve disappointed the people I love, but often, it’s because I didn’t even know what they wanted, so I failed to meet their desires.
I set out to change all that. My terms were these: Tell me honestly how you’d love to have me show up in our relationship, and as long as it doesn’t conflict with my own needs, I’ll do everything I can to meet that want or need. Seems straightforward, right?
Then I realized what I noticed in how many of my loved ones responded. Dead silence.
Why The Silence?
I was willing to share what I wanted and needed in my relationships – at least with superficial things, like how often I’d like to see a friend, what expectations I have if I call and leave a message, whether or not it’s important that they show up for holidays. So why were some of my people clamming up?
Finally I realized I was asking something very vulnerable of the people I loved. When we ask someone to share what they want and need from us, we’re asking them to get naked emotionally.
The Discomfort Of Honesty
For the sake of argument, let’s make it super sticky. Imagine you’re dating someone new, and you’re really into that person. Then the object of your affection asks you to share what you want and need in that relationship.
So you get brave and make yourself vulnerable. You tell the object of your affection that, although you understand the relationship is new, you’re enjoying that person’s company so much you’d be happy to get together… well, not every day (‘cause jeez, that might seem needy), but maybe every other day. And wow, it sure would be great if you could count on Saturday nights together. And really, you’d love it if neither of you were dating other people. And it would fill your cup if you could spend Valentine’s Day together. And just so you know, you like your coffee with sugar but no cream.
Then you finally look up from the floor and notice that the object of your affection looks totally freaked out. Said object then mutters, “Hmm… well, I’m busy this Saturday, but maybe the third Saturday of next month.”
And suddenly, as Brené Brown would say in her book Daring Greatly, you’ve just lost a lot of marbles from the trust jar.
Fear Of Rejection
I think we fail to express our wants and needs because we’re terrified of getting rejected or being judged or being perceived as needy. I had an experience like this recently.
I had gotten very close to a friend, and we had a lot of marbles in our jar. But then a point of conflict came up, and it left me feeling vulnerable and insecure and threatened, and I was craving reassurance, so I expressed a desire that we get together to talk about what had happened. Only my friend was feeling overwhelmed, not just because of our conflict, but because of other personal issues. My friend needed time alone, time to digest, and with great kindness, my friend rejected my request to process.
I felt devastated. Here I had made myself vulnerable, made my desire known, made it clear how insecure I felt, and my friend had chosen to prioritize a personal need for space above meeting my need for reassurance.
The more my friend pulled away, the more insecure and graspy I felt and behaved. Until I finally woke up from my self-absorbed state of neediness to realize that my friend had every right to prioritize a personal need for space over my need for reassurance. As much as we care for others and want to meet their needs, we all have the right to meet our own needs first (file under “I fill myself first”).
I apologized. My friend met my need two days later. I got the reassurance I needed. And our jar of marbles is safe and overflowing.
The Vulnerability of Need
The true vulnerability comes in being courageous enough to make your want or need known, knowing that the person you’re sharing with might choose not to meet your need because it comes into conflict with their own – and that’s okay. Can you sit with the excruciating vulnerability of having your need sitting out there – exposed and raw – knowing that the person you’ve made yourself vulnerable to has every right not to meet it?
I get queasy just writing this.
We All Have Needs
None of us want to come across as needy, and yet we all have needs, whether we like to admit it or not. Even the strongest and most independent among us have moments when our childhood wounds get triggered or we feel scared or we feel unloved. How often have you suppressed the desire to ask someone to just drop everything and give you a hug because you’re feeling lonely or insecure?
We live in a culture that values independence. We scorn those who appear clingy or dependent. It’s a John Wayne/Marlboro man culture, but the truth is, sometimes we just want to curl up on someone’s lap, have them run their fingers through our hair, and get rocked to sleep. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
How Needy Is Too Needy?
So it leaves me back with my original question. It’s good to be vulnerable. As Brené teaches in her TEDx talk The Power of Vulnerability, vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy. When we express a need and the person we’re vulnerable with chooses to meet that need (hopefully because it doesn’t conflict with their own needs, otherwise, they may be at risk of overgiving), we get marbles in the jar. Trust and intimacy grows, and we feel seen, heard, loved, nurtured.
But in order to gain the intimacy we desire, we need to risk having our needs not met, and we need to learn to soothe ourselves so we’re not making our happiness dependent upon someone else.
I asked this question on Facebook, and here are some answers I really resonated with.
Laura Moliter: I think it is all about being honest with others and with ourselves. If we put our vulnerabilities out there in order to get attention or pity or in hopes of gaining love from it, we will likely be disappointed. The right motive needs to come with it. Why am I sharing this? Am I doing it because I am humble enough to be honest and because I am even open to receiving love, without pride involved? Or am I revealing in order to get someone to do something for me, manipulate them, which really isn’t loving at all.
Daphne Petersen Brown Being vulnerable is about being open and honest with our needs and emotions, and remaining true to our essential selves. Being needy is being attached to the outcome of the situation and/or the other person’s response/behavior.
Linda Eaves If someone has a need then the bravery is in putting it out there no matter what the outcome. When we are attached to a certain outcome, then pile a value judgment on top of that, we invite stress and discord. When we share our needs simply and cleanly, stating what we want, then we can be open to the response, even if it’s the sound of crickets chirping. Direct communication and arriving at a mutual understanding isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
Attaching To Outcomes
I think that’s the ticket – being brave enough to be vulnerable and express our needs, but being self-assured enough not to make someone wrong if they can’t or choose not to meet the need. We all have the capacity to make our own sunshine. Our error comes when we mistakenly make someone else our sunshine, and then we feel dark and shadowy when our sunshine pulls away, not necessarily because they don’t love us, but because they have needs of their own. For some of us – especially introverts like myself – we may need a lot of space to brighten our own sunshine so we have more to shine on those we love, so we may pull back, not because we don’t love, but because we recharge alone.
It’s okay if your sunshine grows dim. It happens to all of us. And it’s okay to ask someone else to shine their light on you when you’re feeling dark. But if you do that all the time, the person you’re seeking support from may start to feel depleted. In a perfect world, I think we’d all take turns. When my sunshine is bright, I can shine it on you when you feel dark. And then when mine feels dim, I can ask you to lend me some sunshine. But it has to be reciprocal. If one person is always depleting the other’s life force, it becomes unbalanced, and that starts to feel like neediness.
I also think we become too needy when we don’t respect someone else’s right to meet their own needs first, not because they’re selfish, but because none of us can truly give when we deplete ourselves.
The Art of Discernment
So it’s a fine line. Be vulnerable. Make your wants and needs known with those you can trust. But be willing to sit in that place of excruciating vulnerability when your wants and needs can’t be met, at least not at that moment. Learn to soothe yourself in those moments. Go for a hike in nature. Pray or meditate and let the Uni-verse give you a hug. Do something you love – like dance or paint or read or take a hot bath. Let yourself just feel what you feel, and in time, you will find your own sunshine.
If someone perpetually chooses not to meet your wants and needs, you’ll lose marbles in the jar. I was fortunate with my friend because we had so much trust that one incident didn’t threaten the marbles in our jar. But I have another friend with whom I made myself vulnerable, and every time, my wants and needs were not met. This eroded the trust, and now, the friendship is only a superficial one.
What Do You Think?
I’m still figuring all this out in my mind. I feel like I’ve got a handle on some of it, but the question that remains is this. I don’t want to feel like I have to be strong all the time. I want to be allowed to fall apart, to freak out, to get scared, to feel insecure and need reassurance. And I don’t expect those I love to keep it together all the time either.
But I also want to have relationships where we can both be sunshine choosing to bump up against one another from time to time, while also letting it be okay that we sometimes grow dim.
How do you keep the balance? How do you stay vulnerable without being needy?
I’d love to hear your wisdom, guidance, and stories of how this applies to your own life.
Walking the line,
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Lissa Rankin, MD: Creator of the health and wellness communities LissaRankin.com and OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.