Dear Dr. Debra,
Two years ago, my beloved mother was diagnosed with cancer.
The good news is that she was one of the survivors.
On Sunday, I was in a plant store looking at plants. I was
making small talk with a woman about different types of
flowers. I mentioned in passing that my mother’s journey
through cancer had turned me into a Catholic.
To my great surprise, this woman’s face turned red. She
looked at me angrily and she said, “Do you realize how
inappropriate what you just said to me was?”
I found great solace in a Catholic spirituality, so I was
quite taken aback. She went on to shout, “Look at you! You
are bubbling over with neediness!” She ended by shouting, “I
know about these things! I have a Ph.D. in psychology! I
work in the field of mental health! GET HELP!
I told her quietly, “I’m sorry if I offended you. Please
forgive me.” I stepped away to allow her to regroup.
I want to be non-defensive, and I want to learn more about
how I can not trigger this sort of thing again. Are there
things that make a person appear to be “needy?” “Needy” is
not something that I ever want to be.
Dear Ms. Needy,
I’m so sorry about your run-in with the crazy Ph.D. It’s
mental-health workers like her that give the profession a
bad name. Unfortunately, many people are drawn to the
helping professions because they, themselves, are wounded
and dysfunctional. While there’s nothing wrong with a
competent counselor who has worked hard to overcome his or
her issues, all too many don’t seek healing for themselves.
They might even be toxic (like this woman) and certainly
shouldn’t be counseling others.
I see nothing pathological or needy about your comment
regarding how your mother’s situation influenced your
spirituality. In times of trouble, people may use their
faith for comfort and strength. And during life’s darkest
moments, many people develop a deeper faith in God. This is
a normal human reaction. (The opposite is also true. Times
of crisis can cause people to lose their faith.)
Licensed therapists are not supposed to overtly judge people
based on their religious beliefs or lack of them. Some
counselors feel comfortable helping their clients explore
personal spiritual beliefs; others do not. However, this was
a social situation, not a professional one, and the woman
should have kept her judgmental opinions to herself.
If I had been in the same situation with you, I probably
would have joined in what to me is an interesting topic. I
might or might not have mentioned being a therapist. If I
had, it would have been in the context of what I do as a
crisis/grief counselor. Meaning I would have shared about
myself, not judged you. The rare times I make suggestions to
strangers about counseling, I do so with delicacy and loving
You don’t appear (in this situation) to be needy. Friendly,
yes. Needy, no. Your apology to the women was gracious
(perhaps overly so) and certainly not defensive. You were
unexpectedly attacked (a shameful situation), and
defensiveness is a normal response. I am concerned that you
would think you need to be more non-defensive when you
already were acting that way. If this is a common reaction
for you, I suggest you explore how hard you are on yourself.
Illness, dying, death, and spirituality are often
uncomfortable topics. Some people avoid discussing them —
perhaps they don’t even want to think of them. In the
future, you might want to build a bit more rapport with
someone before you bring up these topics.
As for neediness: Needy people tend to burn people out. They
have an inner emptiness that they try to fill through the
love and/or attention of others. They might have abandonment
issues because they’ve been left many times. This often
makes them more clingy and draining with friends or
partners. They often don’t have any idea that they are the
ones driving people away.
I suggest you look at the pattern of your relationships. Do
family, friends or boyfriends accuse you of being needy? Do
friends or boyfriends tend to leave?
Then, ask your friends and family for an honest evaluation
of any neediness on your part. This might be neediness they
feel from you and/or behaviors they’ve observed between you
If your research leads to a, “Yes, I’m needy,” answer, then
I suggest you seek therapy with a competent therapist. There
are two ways you’ll initially know you’ve found a good
therapist: you leave the beginning session feeling
understood, and you feel you’ve received good feedback.
Another antidote to neediness is to become involved in your
church and other community activities. Being busy and
productive through doing things you enjoy, especially if
they benefit others, will raise your self-esteem. You’ll
also make a lot of new friends who will keep you from
relying too much on a small circle of friends and family,
and thus you’ll avoid burning them out.
Feel free to
write me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist
who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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