Why being 'needy' isn't such a bad thing

April 13, 2016

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A brief primer on the psychological origins of needs.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Neediness is something we have an instant aversion to. It connotes something pathetic, something to be avoided. Which is a shame, because neediness is a thing we're all subject to under the right conditions.

Let's start simple

To see what I mean we'll start with a very basic example--thirst. We can think of thirst as a drive to address a need. In this case, a deficiency in water. When we're low on water in the system, our brain recognises this as a threat and drives us to fix it. Our motivations very often come from things like this, automatic responses to something our body has identified as a danger. The issue with this automatic kind of triage service is that it isn't always very accurate.

Assessing needs is complicated

How does the brain assess a need? Well, in the case of thirst, it looks at the cells. Checking out our intracellular (inside the cell) and extracellular (outside the cell) water content. When the levels are low, we feel thirsty. Begs the question though, why will imagining a nice cold glass of water give you a little twinge of thirst? Well, the brain is also looking out for external signals that might matter. In many cases, our brain treats imaginings no different from realities. In this case, the brain perceives water as present, and since water now is better than the possibility of water later, it's sending a signal to stock up. These external signals play a role in other ways too. Dry air or dry food might be perceived as signals of water scarcity, and so the brain might send thirst signals in response.

The brain's role, you see, is to integrate information and prepare the signals to respond. The thing that motivates this whole process are needs. Meeting our needs now, but also meeting our needs for the future.

The problem with predicting needs

We can think of three broad categories of needs, in relation to the danger they might pose:

  • threat of damage to the body gives rise to physiological needs (like thirst)
  • threat of damage to our concept of self gives rise to psychological needs (like a need for praise or encouragement)
  • threat of damage to our relationships gives rise to relationship needs (like greater intimacy, for example)

But as we mentioned, our brain doesn't just think about the real level of the threat (like the water content in our cells), but tries to predict the future (by noticing dry food and assuming water is scarce). In a relationship, this could mean that, for example, rather than considering how much intimacy you're actually receiving, you realise your partner doesn't really talk to their mother much anymore and extrapolate that to mean they aren't going to pay as much attention to you over time. These kinds of processes might be useful, or they might lead to baseless stress for yourself and those around you.

What to do?

Well, first we must understand where the need comes from. What are the drivers that fuel these needs? For example, in relationships our needs often come from three sources; control, intimacy and affection. With greater clarity on the nature of these needs, comes greater clarity around when they are in danger of being unmet. For every need, there is a little cognitive mechanism that controls it. Perhaps it's time you took your brain off autopilot.

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