We all have wants and needs, but most of us don’t think of ourselves as needy. That may be true, but in many cases we’re more needy than we think.
For many people these days, and especially high-achievers, neediness shows up as excessive attachment to recognition, praise, or success–or to saving others–for self-acceptance. It comes with an excessive desire for reassurance or affirmation from others. This is easy to miss because we’re probably reluctant to admit it when we feel it.
Such achievement-based approval is baked into Western culture and our society’s views about what’s expected in life—and what comprises a good life. At work here is the mistaken assumption that success and prestige in the eyes of others will bring us happiness and fulfillment. (They won’t.)
Neediness can hit us hard when we encounter hard times in our career, such as a layoff, and when we go through big transitions in life, such as graduation, career change, or retirement.
It has pros and cons. On the one hand, neediness can motivate us to work hard, achieve at high levels, and contribute to others. On the other hand, it can detract from our quality of life and harm our relationships.
In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine describes the profile of what we calls a “hyper-achiever:” someone who is “dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation.” (This is one of ten “saboteurs”—automatic and habitual mind patterns—he’s identified that work against us and our work teams.)
“Some people become insecure overachievers. They seek to win by accomplishing the love,
admiration, and attachment they can’t get any other way,
but of course no amount of achievement ever gives them the love they crave.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain
White Knight Syndrome
One version of neediness comes in the form of what psychologists call “white knight syndrome” (or “hero syndrome”). It’s a need to rescue or save people via helping, such as with advising or coaching them or sharing ideas with them, as a way to boost our sense of self-importance.
Often, it leads us to give unsolicited advice often, in all sorts of settings, with the justification that we’re just trying to help. It can also come with feelings of anxiety or aimlessness when we’re not helping others and annoyance or hurt when people don’t come to us for advice or follow the advice we gave—and sometimes with fishing for praise after we give advice to get acknowledgement about how much we helped.
Drs. Mary Lamia and Marilyn Krieger, clinical psychologists and authors of The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others, defines it as “a compulsive need to be the rescuer” and notes several signs that we may have it:
- We base our self-worth on our ability to “fix” people, and it’s a core part of our identity in relationships or work as we’re overly keen on offering help and advice
- We have a strong need to be viewed as important
- We have a tendency to engage in controlling behavior under the guise of helping people
- We’re quite self-critical
- We gravitate toward those who are needy
- We fear emotional distance and seek to entangle people back into a position of needing our help when that fear arises
According to Dr. Lamia and other psychologists, it can come from many sources, including: a lack of healthy and affectionate bonds during childhood, authoritarian parents, being deeply affected by the suffering of a caregiver, a history of neglect or unhealed abandonment wounds, or having to take on a parent role due to a parent with addiction or health issues.
Though there’s a desire to help that’s part of this, there are also selfish and controlling dynamics at work. People can sense that, so they may begin to resent the help and pull away. Many people can feel put down when others step in with unsolicited advice or unrequested help.
They may also sense that the advice that comes from another, while valid in its original context, often misses the mark in the new context with different people, personalities, and dynamics at work. It can take a high toll on both parties and lead to misunderstanding and mutual resentment, as well as codependency and the undermining of the recipient’s ability to address their own issues.
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Signs of Neediness
There are degrees of neediness. We’re probably all needy to some degree in certain areas, while some people are very needy in several areas of their life and work.
With neediness, we tend to do at least a few of the following fairly often:
- have a frequent urge to be noticed
- go out of our way to impress others
- feel attacked when receiving criticism—or obsess over it
- be hyper-competitive
- have a strong desire to be the one who comes up with the answer or solves the problem
- play status or power games or want to control the people or things around us
- be prone to adapting our personality to impress others
- pay people excessive compliments as a way to earn their favor
- experience discomfort with self-disclosure, emotional vulnerability, or intimacy
- pull away when close relationships are beginning to form
- be skilled at hiding insecurities
- only feel good when we’re successful and held in high esteem
- have a hard time feeling lasting peace and contentment due to a recurring itch for the next win
- be image- and status-conscious and spend a lot of time on social media (e.g., tracking follower counts and likes)
(Note, also, that many of these can be blind spots for us. We can go long periods without being aware that we’re doing some of these things, then get surprised with forthright feedback from a trusted friend or mentor.)
“When everybody loves me, I’m gonna be just about as happy as I can be.”
-The Counting Crows in their song, “Mr. Jones”
Where Neediness Comes From
Psychologists note that neediness often comes from not having our needs adequately met as children (e.g., feeling neglected, dismissed, invalidated, or rejected). When we’re children, even minor incidents involving these feelings tend to get blown up.
Many children learn early on that they can gain acceptance, praise, affection, or love by proving themselves with obedience or achievement, setting up a conditional view of self-regard that can become problematic later on if not balanced with a healthy sense of self-worth.
Even with well-intentioned, caring parents, we can get the sense that we’re only worthy and loved when we do things as our parents expect—i.e., that we’re only worthy of conditional love.
Neediness can also come from mistaken beliefs about ourselves (e.g., we’re not worthy or good enough) that we’ve never examined critically, as well as from insecurity, trauma, or abuse.
Part of the challenge here is that we’re battling our own neural wiring. Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards, via neuro-transmitting hormones, of achievement leading to praise (and the avoidance of mistakes leading to disapproval). It’s a stimulus-response feedback loop that begins early in life and becomes etched deep into the neural pathways of our brains.
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The Problem with Neediness
Though neediness can come with certain benefits, such as intense effort that can lead to achievement, it also has many drawbacks. For example, neediness can:
- make us overly intense, controlling, or demanding
- make us dependent on or excessively vulnerable to other’s judgments and opinions
- make us feel bad, ashamed, or distraught when others don’t like what we did
- make us feel as if we’re never enough
- lead to dysfunctional behaviors, such as people-pleasing
- bring anxiety, stress, burnout, disappointment, or loneliness into our lives
- be a heavy burden to bear—always carrying the pressure of living up to imagined and exaggerated demands and expectations
- lead to compulsive overwork or workaholism, creating an obsessive relationship with work in which we can’t switch it off and in which we feel guilty when not working
- lead to underinvestment in other priorities like our health and close relationships
- lock us into the wrong career path or a job that’s no longer a good fit for us because we’re so focused on what others think about us
- cause us to give our power away
- make us vulnerable to manipulation and control by others since we’re so focused on their approval
- cause us to compromise our integrity and make poor decisions as we downplay our personal values to continue a positive appearance among others whose moral fiber may be compromised
- make it hard for us to make decisions without input from the ones we seek approval from
- further the illusion that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our circumstances (e.g., where we live, what we drive), as opposed to deeper and more lasting things (e.g., our character and contributions)
- further the mistaken belief that climbing the ladder of success is the point of life
- take us away from ourselves (from who we really are and what we value), as we seek to remain the good graces of others with different values and priorities
- induce us to play the comparison game as we obsess over our standing among others
- cause us to obsess over what we don’t have
- inhibit the level of authenticity, connection, vulnerability, and intimacy in our relationships
- push our partner, friends, or colleagues away because it’s not an attractive quality and can feel clingy and smothering
- make us waste a lot of time seeking feedback and assurances from others instead of doing what’s needed to get things done
- make us reluctant to accept help from others
- cause us to become addicted to approval and external validation
- lead to selfishness or being perceived as self-centered and overly image-conscious
- haunt us throughout our lives with fears of disapproval, rejection, or abandonment
- inhibit our spiritual life or development as our need for external validation crowds out ultimate matters
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How to Overcome Neediness
It’s clear that neediness has many drawbacks. So, what to do about it?
There are many things we can do to address neediness, including:
Develop more awareness and understanding of this behavior pattern. Ask ourselves these questions: When does it show up? Where does it come from? How does it affect me?
Cultivate self-acceptance and self-compassion—and shut down our inner critic.
Celebrate our successes (even when others don’t).
Spend more time alone, in the process building our comfort level with solitude and working to overcome the cultural bias against it. As we do this, we see more and more that we can fulfill many of our own needs with the right disposition and mindset.
Change our focus from working for approval to working for some other higher aspiration. Examples: contributing to others, supporting our family, expressing our true nature, just doing the work for its own sake, or feeling satisfied when we’ve worked hard and done our best.
Focus on being an equal partner to those we’re with, not a savior, and on letting them figure out their own path, perhaps guided by gentle questions or things for them to think about instead of advice
Ensure we have clarity about what success means to us, instead of letting conventional views about money, status, or fame dictate our choices.
Stop equating ourselves with our results or our titles.
Reflect on whether our goals are mostly concerned with how others view us or with our deeper intrinsic motivations (such as earning a degree or certification because it interests us).
Avoid overthinking and ruminating—as well as jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking and why.
Recall that true self-worth comes from inside ourselves and not others.
Don’t assume that someone’s feeling or opinion about us makes it accurate. They may be missing important aspects of the story or have some other confounding influence or bias.
View criticism as information to consider and potentially helpful feedback, not as disapproval or a personal attack. Also, note that many people struggle with both giving and receiving feedback well.
Maintain perspective: even if someone disapproves of something we did, how much does it really matter? How much will it matter a few months from now?
Focus less on ourselves and more on others—and serving them. Oddly enough, the more we focus on ourselves, the more miserable we tend to be.
Realize that relying on the opinion of others for happiness, love, or peace is bound to disappoint. Consider looking instead to something more transcendent and lasting such as fidelity to a community or worthy cause, creative inspiration, reverence for nature, religious worship, or spiritual liberation.
If we struggle with neediness, it’s worth addressing because on the other side of it lies real power, freedom, and contentment. Without such neediness, we can experience more ease, appreciation, and joy. We can let go of things that won’t hold up over time so we can dive into and savor the things that will.
- To what extent are you attached to recognition, praise, success, or saving others for self-acceptance?
- How is it impacting your quality and your relationships with others and with work?
- What will you do about it, starting today?
Related Articles and Books
- “The Powerful Pull of the Prestige Magnet”
- “Are You Trapped by Success?”
- “The Perils of ‘Climbing Mode’ in Our Career”
- “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”
- “The Trap of Caring Too Much About What Other People Think”
- “The Comparison Trap”
- “The Conformity Trap”
- “Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap”
- Ron Carucci, “How to Overcome Your Obsession with Helping Others,” Harvard Business Review, February 18, 2020
- Drs. Mary Lamia and Marilyn Krieger, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others (Echo Point Books & Media, 2015)
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Quality of Life Assessment to help you discover your strongest areas and the areas that need work and then act accordingly
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
Appendix: Notes on Neediness and Fame
One facet of neediness for some can be a strong desire for fame. According to social psychologist Orville G. Brim, about 30 percent of survey participants in Beijing and Germany and over half in the U.S. report daydreaming about fame. Recent studies have shown that the biggest goal in life for U.S. children aged 10 to 12 is fame. A survey of British children found that the most coveted career choice was “YouTuber.”
Mathematician Samuel Arbesman devised a crude but clever method for estimating the percent of the population that is famous, taking Wikipedia’s “Living People” category and dividing it by the world’s population. The result? About .0086% of the world’s population is famous, using that method. A tiny number indeed.
Meanwhile, how many of those people are pleased with the baggage that comes with fame and how it changes their experience of life? With all its appeal, fame can be one of the trickiest human experiences to manage. A problem of privilege, no doubt, but still a tough problem for many.
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and everything
they ever dreamed of so they can see that that’s not the answer.”
Postscript: Inspirations on Neediness
- “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” -Martha Beck, writer
- “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” -Dalai Lama
- “As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
- “The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what people think.” -C. Joybell C., writer
- “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” -Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
- “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy.” -Alex Dias Ribeiro, former Formula One race-car driver
- “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important… They do not mean to do harm…. They are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” -T.S. Eliot, “The Cocktail Party”
- “We are not devastated by failing to obtain a goal. We’re only devastated when our sense of self-esteem and self-worth are dependent upon achievement of that goal.” -William James
- “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world….” -Frederic Laloux
- “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
- “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” -Albert Einstein
- “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” -Norman Vincent Peale
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!