Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The OTHER n-word: on women and neediness

So, about a week ago I came across this great article (written by a man—which I found pleasantly surprising)here about how women are made to feel like expressing a need is a major imposition. In fact, “needy” might as well join the ranks of ‘the c-word’ and ‘the b-word’ in terms of gendered power. True, it doesn’t carry the same shock value, but its power to insult and demean women comes from a similar dark place in sexual politics. It was a great moment for me, a prime example of something that we psych folks call ‘generalization.’ So what does that mean—for me and for womenfolk at large? I’ll start by speaking for myself. 

All my life, I’ve held the secret but ironclad conviction that I and I alone am a needy, depraved morass of desperation and longing. Granted, I virtually never display this to anyone; I overcompensate and tend to carry myself like a Teutonic Ice Queen. In the past, and today, I’ve needed to be loved, or held, or comforted, or heard, or celebrated. I ‘ve needed space, time, healing, understanding. However, the idea of looking someone in the eye and saying, “I need you to hold me,” or perhaps less intimately, “I need you to listen,” has always seemed as brazen and insane as leaping at someone shrieking, “Oh God, PLEASE LOVE ME!” I was—still am—terrified that asking someone to fulfill, or even just respect, a need is gauche; overly demanding; in poor taste. That’s the ‘fear of being labeled crazy’ end of the spectrum that’s most associated with the word ‘needy.’ However, there’s also the fear of being labeled bitchy that comes with demanding that boundaries be respected, or with calling others out on bad behavior. 

During my second year of medical school, during the psychiatry course, one of the lecturers had a PowerPoint slide that featured a comic about bulimia. It wasn’t ultra-aware, meta, culture-jamming humor. It wasn’t laughing WITH eating disorder patients, it was laughing AT them. And having spent quite a bit of time in treatment, and knowing women who have died of eating disorders, I didn’t find it funny at all. I felt furious. I felt belittled. I couldn’t believe a psychiatrist, of all people, would mock sufferers of the most deadly psychiatric disease there is. So why didn’t I stand up in the middle of the lecture and say something? Or, failing that, why didn’t I go up to the lecturer after class and state my objection, or even just write an email saying I felt it was in poor taste? Why didn’t it feel OK to say, “I NEED the lecture hall to be a place where no one is demeaned, particularly on account of an illness they can’t control”? You got it—fear of being labeled a bitch (or derided for being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘not getting the joke’—a form of victim-blaming jujitsu which is a topic for a whole different post). 

So what? Well, it’s not just me. Women are conditioned from childhood to place the wants and the needs of others before their own.  Asking for time, attention or affection (“I need to see you more often”) is painted as something selfish and, well, needy, while defending boundaries (“I need for you not to resort to insults when we argue”) is seen as bitchy, entitled behavior. Meanwhile, men by and large ask for their needs and wants without fear of being saddled with negative labels. 

In the end, recognizing this as a societal problem (and not a personality flaw or psychiatric disorder) means not having to carry around the paralyzing fear of monstrous, hidden neediness that I’ve schlepped for the past quarter century. The women who pioneered ‘consciousness-raising’ circles during the 60s and 70s were on to something. The personal is political, and vice versa; sharing our individual struggles will sometimes reveal them to be problems with societal mores and not “ours” at all.

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