When Did “Needy” Become a Dirty Word?

Neediness man repeller harling ross


hen I used to visualize the word “need,” I saw an irritated cuticle. A whiney note on a violin. A piece of kale in my teeth. When I said the word “need” out loud, I thought of all the times I prided myself in having so few. I thought of conversations with friends where they confessed the mess of their desires like secrets, stacking them in the air between us as I nodded sympathetically, reassured by my comparative emotional tidiness. I thought of how I made a habit of biting down on my needs before they could crystallize into sound, holding them on the tip of my tongue until they were quiet enough to swallow and ignore.

To me, being needy has historically seemed on par with some kind of shortcoming — an inability to figure it out on my own, or to be the kind of person who didn’t ask for too much. I was wary of seeming excessive, emoting unrequitedly, wanting more at the cost of reason. I was worried about needing something from someone else that they might not want to give me — or worse, that they might not think I deserved. It felt safer to not need anything at all.

Safer, maybe; but not necessarily practicable. Recently, I found my old tricks were growing less effective. I couldn’t bite down. Each need felt too big, too loud, too impossible to avoid. Unwilling to even entertain the possibility of expressing them, I tried writing them down in long-winded digital diary entry on my phone instead. I was surprised when I struggled to even privately define them. I guess I’d never learned how.

I launched into numerous tentative (and often emotional) discussions to this effect, some with my boyfriend, some with my mom and sister, some with my friends — confessing the mess of my desires like secrets, stacking them in the air between us as I stared at a point on the floor, wondering if they felt reassured by their comparative emotional tidiness. After one such episode, I impulsively sent my phone diary to my boyfriend over text message. At that point it spanned almost 1200 words, the culmination of months of unedited spirals I never intended to share with anyone else.

A gradual prying of fingers off the misconception that I had to earn the right to have needs

I was acutely aware that doing so was a classic plot point in the cultural narrative that envelops female neediness in particular — an unleashing of one-sided desperation that might come off as unhinged (and not in the charming manic pixie dream girl kind of way). I expected an aftermath equally dramatic in nature, one I could wave in the air as proof that vulnerability comes at a cost. But what came next unfolded gently, indetectable unless you were looking: a ripple of overdue conversations, ones I had argued against having in my own head for months. A gradual prying of fingers off the misconception that I had to earn the right to have needs, that I had to be or look a certain way to have them met. A sense of resignation that this was only the beginning, coupled with relief that whatever came next would be okay.

In an “Ask Polly” column from a few years ago, Heather Havrilesky answered a letter from a reader overwhelmed by her neediness and the prospect of communicating it. Havrilesky’s whole response is worth a read, but this part stuck with me in particular:

“There’s something really amazing and important about being the kind of animal who’s incredibly invested in what comes next, so invested that you just can’t hide it. There’s something so unparalleled, so electric, so absolutely irreplaceable about caring more than you really want to care. To have a heart that breaks over and over again! It’s painful, sure, but a person who can wear that kind of energy on her sleeve, without apology, has a special kind of power.”

I still have days when I wish I could peel away my needs like the skin of an apple, unspooling them slowly until my life is crisp and clean. But when framed as an investment in the future instead of an indication of lack in the present, neediness feels significantly less messy. The flip is almost entirely mental, but worthwhile in that it gives context for the reason needs exist: To spark the special variety of electricity that propels us forward. To break our hearts so we can re-acquaint ourselves with all the reasons they’re worth mending. To confront us with the weightiness of what it means to be human. Because at the end of the day, what are needs if not a symptom of being alive? A crumb to pick up so you know which direction you’re headed in next?

Illustration by Meredith Jensen.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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