My wife is sweet, and one of her superpowers is empathy—she is very kind and a great listener. This means she’s a magnet for needy, broken people. I’m not sure what this says about me—now I’m sad and doubting myself. Thanks a lot. Why’d you have to bring that up?
One day she was on the phone listening to a friend talk about how lonely she was—how her friend didn’t have any close friends—it was a real pity party. She complained about how nobody called to talk to her, or invited her to do anything fun. Kim offered some comforting words to her and then hung up the phone. Then she looked at me and said, “Ugh! If you want a friend, be a friend!”
Even super-empathy-girl has her limits. She was right, though—if you want a friend, you have to be a friend.
Do you know anyone like that? People who are so needy they drive people away, then wonder why they are alone? Someone who hijacks every conversation with his or her troubles? Someone who might as well begin everything they say with “that reminds me of another thing about me!”
These people have never learned the paradox of conversation—that listening to others is a gift, but talking about our problems or opinions is taking from them.
If you don’t know someone like that, maybe all of your friends, family and coworkers do—Mirror, mirror, on the wall…
To help self-diagnose, here is my helpful checklist for needy people:
- Do you ever tell people detailed stories about people they don’t know? (Medical problems of a relative, romantic drama of a friend, etc.) People might be afraid to make eye contact with you, lest you start telling them about something they don’t care about.
- Do you ask questions about what people say to you in conversation? Try to ask at least one or two questions about anything a person says before you jump into “that reminds me about me…” This is a pretty simple concept, but it’s really hard to do for some of us (either because we are too self focused, or related to the previous point—what if my question triggers a long story from them?) Sometimes I play a little game when I meet people called “How many questions can I ask them before they ask a question about me”—my record is twenty-seven.
- Do you spend so much time alone that when you finally get around people you can’t stop talking? Try to become aware of this, or you will increasingly spend more and more time alone—because people will avoid you. Talking is taking.
- Do you ever say to yourself, “We never do anything unless I set it up—I am always the one who has to call—they never call me.” Then you declare that you are going to wait for them to call you next time—but they never do, and you become disappointed with your friends. This could be because people are avoiding you, but it could simply be the role you play in your relationships—you might be the social coordinator. If that’s the role you play, then embrace it—if people decline your invitations and don’t include you, then you might want to look at some of the other points in this list.
If we spend our energy obsessing over the things we want, worrying about what we don’t have, making every conversation about our self, going from person to person throwing a pity party— we will not only drive people away, but we will blind ourselves to what other people need from us.