How to Deal with Needy People

I laugh to myself whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t like needy people.” As social animals, we all have needs. Our social needs fuel our drive to connect with others and succeed.

Red paper cutout dolls with chat bubble saying Me!

Yet some people spend too much of our time seeking attention and praise.

Your response might be, “No matter what I do for this person, it isn’t good enough. She takes up my time sending me notes and asking questions she already knows the answers to.” Or “He should be more confident. It’s so annoying when he says things in meetings just for recognition.”

You might cringe when people who need your attention ask to talk to you. You then answer with disdain, which makes them even more needy.

When you feel the tug of someone you think is overly needy, what do you do?

First, let’s look at what is driving their behavior to better understand what they need, then I’ll share four tips to help you reclaim your time and space.

When needs are not met

When we are children, we look to our parents to be recognized and appreciated. We don’t always get what we need. In some cultures, parents think it is good to only recognize when their children get top grades and win awards. Some children aren’t the best but they give their best effort. They never earn the acknowledgment they crave.

As grown-ups, few of us learned to appreciate ourselves. Even if we were acknowledged for our excellent work, no one praised our personal traits. So many adults compare themselves to others and only see what they have less of instead of being gratified with who they are.

Whether people feel inadequate or angry about what they don’t have, they look to others to address their needs.

Needs are positive drivers of success

On the positive side, needs drive success.  My need for attention helps me to succeed as a writer, teacher, and public speaker. My need for recognition drives my desire to do good work. My need for control helps me take charge of projects and run a successful business.

Your needs emerge when you discovered what would help you survive and thrive. You found what might help you be seen and recognized, or what will keep you from standing out if that feels unsafe. You learned what you could be good at that makes you feel worthwhile. You identified what limits you can push and what brings you joy. Typical needs include the desire to feel respected, recognized, valued, in control, being liked, and independent.

Therefore, you are needy. I am needy. Everyone you know is needy. We all want to be seen, understood, feel cared for, and feel valued for what we offer. Depending on the situation, our reactions to not getting our needs met range from slight disappointment to extreme anxiety. A healthy reaction to an unmet need is to find a positive way to get our needs met. Sometimes, we try too hard to get others to fulfill our needs.

How to deal with overly needy behaviors

Most people want to feel that what they do adds value, but they also want to feel their existence is validated. They sometimes need to be constantly praised. More likely, they need people to thank them for what they do.

When you feel the tug of someone needing your attention or praise, notice if you are irritated. Breathe out and release the tension in your face and body to let go of your reaction. Then try these techniques:

  1. Make the distinction between who they are and what they are doing. Focus on their good personal traits, such as how caring or helpful they might be. Look at their competencies—what they do well—to counteract your irritation with how they are pushing for your attention. People need to feel valuable for who they are as well as what they do.
  2. Listen with complete concentration so they feel you care about what they have to say. Bryant H. McGill said, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Most people want to end conversations that feel uncomfortable, but then you miss the opportunity to discover what they need. And it’s likely you will make the person feel worse if you mentally or physically disappear.
  3. If possible, give them what they need even if it is just saying, “Thank you.” A sincere“thank you” says I see you, I appreciate your good intent, and your effort is important. If they have more to say, see if you can discern what they feel they are not getting. Do they need to be included in a decision, acknowledged by their peers for their contribution, or have their ideas heard? Compassionately ask to talk about what they need.
  4. If you have no idea what they need, ask what outcome they would like to have instead of what they have now. If what they want is even somewhat achievable, ask if there is anything in their control to do to make this happen. End the conversation by asking how they want their story to end and what they will do to make this happen.

Remember not to run away physically or mentally when someone needs your attention or praise. Create a safe space by breathing calmly and caring about the human in front of you who is struggling with a situation. Release your irritation or disappointment. Don’t treat them as if they are broken and you need to fix or heal them.

You don’t need to know what to say; listening might be enough. As I wrote in my book, The Discomfort Zone, “They want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect.” 

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