Illustration: Sean McCabe
"Talk to someone." "Say what you need." "Find a support group." Experts tell us constantly that women don't reach out enough for help, and in large part that's true. But there's a flip side, and you may know her—the clingy, desperate friend who asks 139 times if she looks all right before you go to dinner and can't make the smallest decision without practically taking a poll. Her nonstop call for reassurance is draining.
In the extreme, the need for affirmation and advice can indicate a condition psychologists call dependent personality disorder (DPD). Symptoms include giving more importance to others' opinions than to one's own, difficulty disagreeing with people due to fear of losing their approval (often avoiding confrontation at all costs), feeling helpless and uncomfortable when alone, and a panicked urgency after a breakup to find a new relationship. At the core, people with DPD live in dread of assuming any kind of responsibility and of being left to care for themselves.
Why the disorder develops isn't clear. Overprotective parents may teach a child she can't do anything on her own; conversely, erratic or unresponsive parents can create a fearful or insecure attachment that results in neediness. In either case, dependent, submissive behavior may mask hostility originally directed against the mother or father—an unconscious way to avoid showing, or even acknowledging, anger.
For anyone who suspects she's on the needy side and wants to be more self-sufficient, a good first step is to ask friends and family if her dependency affects them, and how, says David Gardner, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. And when looking for advice, her goal should be to first come up with her own opinions, then ask only a couple of friends, adds New York psychologist Olga Cheselka, PhD. Working one-on-one with a psychotherapist—or even in group therapy—can definitely be helpful.
Overcoming excessive neediness, paradoxically, will bring you closer to those you care about, says Gardner. "Many people assume that becoming less dependent means being alone, but the reality is, relationships and personal connections are usually improved."