When The Desire To Be Needed Becomes Selfish

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

The following article/post represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

The desire to be needed is not abnormal. The strong desire to help others and contribute to society, I think, is arguably connected to our need for belongingness and positive self-esteem based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.

Belongingness is the need for acceptance in a group (i.e. family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else) and the need to play a vital role in something that is bigger than ourselves. [3] The achievability for belongingness can’t exist unless you are utilizing your skills to enhance the group program and get the job done.

What is a surefire way to gain recognition, attention, appreciation, respect, and reputable status from others? I think it would be to contribute to their lives in ways that merit their gratitude. Although there may be multiple avenues to reaching positive self-esteem, helping others must be a major one if it garners the benefits I mentioned above. [4]  

However, should the needs of others always overshadow yours? Always saying “yes” to people’s requests and demands might make you feel selfless. But if keeping an untarnished status and preventing social rejection are your primary and ulterior motives, how much does that decrease the possibility for your selflessness in the equation?

The possibility for your selflessness decreases even more if your uncompromising yes-es to all demands and requests ultimately enables another’s self-detrimental activities. Right?

What it feels like to try to meet everyone’s demands!

Our culture’s moral ethos that underlies our justification of many dysfunctional behaviors may manifest itself in beliefs such as these: “I will support you no matter what you do.” “Whatever you want is what I want.” “Be whoever you are, no matter who that is.”

Is it sensible to say that plenty of things in this world don’t deserve support? It’s obvious that we oppose genocide, racism, hatred, human-trafficking, wanton violence, property defacement, abuse, etc. because they violate human happiness and well-being. But what about outbursts of rage, overeating, wrist-cutting, suicide, and other self-harming activities? I imagine that sufferers of those symptoms don’t want them. So, why then would you say you will support someone no matter what they do?

“Be whoever you are, no matter who that is.” I don’t think people mean this literally. But whatever people mean behind that logic doesn’t translate well into helpful actions if we are likely to acquiesce to someone’s abusive actions and demands so we can forgo their rejection and keep the peace.

The origins of the term: Codependency

The term codependency might be familiar to you as it originated 40 years ago in reference to spouses of alcoholics. Melody Beattie had expounded on the concept in her 1987 book titled Codependent No More in such a way to apply it to those obsessed with getting their value of existence and veneration from someone else.

Codependency is not a term canonized in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) and it is controversial among professionals. It can’t be used as a real diagnosis, but professionals have expressed the observation that this tormentor tends to exist among those who come from a dysfunctional family or mentally ill parent. [5] There is no special treatment or remedy that has been proven to work for everyone encumbered by this condition, but it is manageable, and its underlying patterns can be undone.

The term seemingly has stuck with plenty of laypeople. It apparently has stuck with some professionals who have struggled to delineate the maladaptive behaviors and symptoms that manifest in chronic approval-seekers and fearers of rejection.

How many people are affected by codependency?

The statistics are rather sketchy, but still worthy of some attention. I quote The Recovery Village below:

“Some estimates guess that more than 90 percent of Americans display codependent behavior during their lifetimes. 96 percent of Americans struggle with some form of codependency, cited a 1990 article in The New York Times. Approximately 40 million Americans struggle with codependency, according to a 1998 study. Women face codependency more frequently than men.” [1]

In 1998, the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health reported that depression was found in 7 million American women and codependency was found in 40 million Americans, principally women, based on a study endeavoring to pinpoint the frequency of codependency in women getting depression treatment. [7]

Nonetheless, statistical research is still woefully lacking in this area, insofar as I know.

Codependency may hide itself in your desire to help others

I can imagine the many ways that codependency could exhibit itself. My description is based on The Recovery Village’s stated signs and symptoms of the condition. [1]

Your low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression stem from your tiresome efforts to be liked and the repeated disappointments that ensue from witnessing others dislike you. You have nightly and daily ruminations on your mistakes that ignite your stress and put you in an emotional fog.

You can’t clearly articulate what is bothering you. You don’t know why you are striving so hard to please others or a specific person that keeps rejecting you. But you don’t feel convinced you can have intrinsic worth just by virtue of existing and being a member of human race.

You think your family’s instability would subside if you could just force yourself to say “yes” to their demands more often and express more alacrity when you obey them. You can’t tolerate having to say “no,” because you hate anticipating what will result therefrom.

You can’t express honesty about what you are truly feeling. You sugarcoat things. You beat around the bush. You feel the urge to bemoan what you know is wrong, but you don’t want your loved ones to suffer the blow of your searing, scathing tongue that will collapse their hopes and dreams. You don’t want others to feel the pain and strife that you feel from always having your hopes and dreams challenged. So, you abstain from criticism.

You reason with yourself that sticks and stones may break your bones, and so do words, so you won’t enunciate the truth that others can’t handle. Your entreaties for intimacy are often rejected, and you are confused as to why, because you have gone to great lengths to upkeep your care taking skills. You figured that eliminating boundaries and eliminating “no” from your vocabulary would ensure the reciprocation of intimacy.

Maybe you don’t want to think about the possibility that your covert way of controlling your loved ones is masked by your approval-seeking, rejection-avoidance, and constant need to have your loved ones convinced that they need you for everything. You need to control them, you tell yourself. If you don’t control them, they will lose themselves. They will spiral out of control, starve, lose all their money, trash the house, or maybe die. You will do whatever it takes to wrest the reins from everyone else to ensure that life is always beautiful, perfect, and problem-free for everyone.

You always must remain in a relationship, because lonely feelings are nauseating. You can’t stand being alone in a room for just 15 minutes. You always have to be with someone. You tell yourself that is caused by the fact that you are an extrovert. If your lover, parent, sibling, or friend stays in another room for too long, they might be staying there because they are feeling tempted or inspired to cut off communication with you. They might think your annoying behaviors, mistakes, and irresponsibility are too much to bear. They would be better off without you!

Their godawful, disreputable behaviors deserve no critique or correction at any time, because that would be terrible, tyrannical judgmentalism, in your eyes. Correcting them would be an act of mercilessness, you feel. The world can’t witness you reprimanding anyone, because you have yourself convinced that your God-given mission is to rid the world of such tyranny, mercilessness, and abusive control. You want to defend and uphold everyone’s freedom of expression, and therefore, won’t dictate to anyone who they should be or do.

When they do something to hurt you or others, they deserve to hear you say, “That is okay. You are just going through a rough time. You really didn’t mean to call that person a dirty name. You didn’t mean to give that person a black eye. You didn’t mean to break the law, drive while being drunk, use heroin, etc. Just try harder to not do those things next time. Aww! I still love you, no matter what.”

What you aren’t realizing is that you are confusing love with pity. As you swear you will never abandon your loved one, you really are abandoning him/her in an emotional wilderness with their self-destructive vices and wickedness. That is hardly loving. Right?

Codependency may have its origins in a rough childhood with parents

A substantive tie with our primary caregiver(s) in the beginning stages of our life are crucial to our development. Secure attachment to that caregiver means we feel certain about exploring a volatile and intractable world. We always know that we have a home base and foundation with our primary caregiver that we can return to when things get too overwhelming in the world. But an unreliable bond with our caregiver makes us scared and reluctant to go out into the world, because we don’t know if we can come back to get what we need. [6]

Securely attached children are said to develop healthy, trustworthy connections with others later and have greater overall success in life than insecurely attached children. Children who live with insecure attachment are said to move on to experience difficulties trusting others, struggles in forming healthy relationships, and incompetent social skills. [6]

Listen to this YouTube video that explains how all children fit in one of four unique attachment categories: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.

Sharon Martin’s article from Psychcentral apparently agrees that the problem derives from occurrences in early childhood, the stage when the person was most vulnerable and amenable. Children can’t autonomously decipher right from wrong in situations. Children don’t know what is and isn’t healthy. They don’t know that their parents can make mistakes; are not omnipotent or omniscient; that parents can lie, cheat, deceive, and be unable to instill secure attachment in the child. [2]

The child doesn’t have the emotional capacities to navigate a uproarious, confusing, and erratic environment. They can’t muster up self-support in the absence of parental support. They have nowhere else to go when the household becomes scary and unsafe. They don’t know they are not to blame for the family’s dysfunction and the parent’s emotional and physical neglect, frequent bitter accusations, mendacious reasoning, outbursts, and bizarre secrets. The child is conditioned to always assume he/she is the problem. A child is made to feel unworthy and incapable of success when given tasks, instructions, and demands that exceed what his/her maturity level and brain development allows. [2]

Codependents, people-pleasers, and narcissists

The codependent perhaps can also be defined as a people-pleaser. It is not uncommon for people-pleasers to come from high-conflict households, as Jackson MacKenzie would have it in his book titled Whole Again, which is about recovering from toxic relationships and abuse. [8]

Bill Eddy who is Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center in San Diego and the Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, also in San Diego, defines high-conflict personalities as involving the propensity to express all-or-nothing thinking, to leave emotions unregulated, to express risky and menacing behaviors, and to accuse, intimidate, demean, disgrace, and pester others, with little to no effort of quashing such interpersonal conflicts, contrary to what most people would try to do. [9]

Someone else’s needs that always outshine yours, throughout a very long period in your formative years, even without substantial abuse, can perhaps still condition you for people-pleasing habits. Below, I record verbatim the various scenarios that mold someone into a people-pleaser as discussed by Jackson MacKenzie on pages 70-71 of his book:

  1. “A parent who always had to argue and be right, so the people-pleaser learns to sacrifice their own opinions in order to keep the peace.
  2. A parent with anger issues, so the people-pleaser learns to anticipate bad moods and calm them before it escalates to rage.
  3. A parent with addiction or alcoholism issues, so the people-pleaser learns to manage another person’s illness.
  4. A parent with borderline personality, so the people pleaser learns to soothe and comfort inappropriate dramatic crises and pity stories.
  5. A parent with control issues and rigid rules, so the people pleaser learns to just do what they want to avoid unpleasant reactions.
  6. A parent with depression or anxiety, so the people pleaser feels sorry for them and responsible for always being happy and cheering them up.  
  7. Parents who fight all the time, so the people pleaser learns to detect an argument brewing and rushes to quell things before a fight ensues.
  8. One final, and very common, trigger for people pleasing is a cluster-B relationship. When you enter a relationship where everything is all about the other person, your focus may remain stuck externally. ” [8]

As people-pleasers always feel compelled to focus on the needs of others to validate their worth, they learn to form ambivalent relationships with themselves because of the wild dynamics. Their internal monologues recycle the same self-punishing, self-doubting thoughts: “Am I good enough? What if I am evil without knowing it? Have I ruined our relationship completely? Is he/she thinking about leaving me? Am I intensifying their stress and anxiety too much? Am I the cause of all their pain? Is my perspective valid at all? Am I considering the other person’s perspective sufficiently?”

Due to this habitual inner vortex of negativity, it is difficult to unlearn the self-hateful inner monologue and learn inner quietude with thoughts such as this: “I am allowed to have my own choices, feelings, and judgments. I am worthy of love in spite of all my mistakes. I will improve whenever I can and don’t have to be perfect now.”

For the people-pleaser, winning half the battle would be to gain the sincere belief that he/she is worthy of unconditional love.

I can see how narcissists and people-pleasers would be magnetically drawn to each other. In that context, opposites truly do attract. Narcissists need the constant adulation from others whereas people-pleasers thrive on the recognition of their gentle, kind, protective, nurturing, and sympathetic actions and words.  [8]

The people-pleaser mistakes the narcissist for a likeminded individual because of the narcissist’s constant charm, validation-giving and approval-giving. But that perception is shattered when the narcissist switches gears. It is a match made in heaven until the people-pleaser finally witnesses the narcissist’s symptoms in most gruesome form (i.e. extreme tactlessness, thoughtlessness, greediness, and aggression).

The people-pleaser will experience a self-implosion centered on self-doubting and self-punishing thoughts, that result in further efforts to please his/her partner who is doing everything opposite of people-pleasing. The narcissist will say to the people-pleaser “you are entirely to blame for this” and “you are so selfish.” The people-pleaser will wholeheartedly accept this, hook-line-and-sinker. The people-pleaser will not want to accept any hint that this is deceptive projection. While the people-pleaser assumes that any self-defense could destabilize the whole foundation of the relationship, they never realize that his/her concerns about hurting the other is not a reciprocal concern.

I will now end this article with a quote from page 74 of Jackson MacKenzie’s book:

“People-pleasers often have no idea what they want, what their needs are, or what their boundaries look like. Everything is just about making sure others are happy. They can view any issue from another person’s perspective, making excuses for others while offering themselves none of the same flexibility. Cluster-B relationships are often the ultimate wake-up call that this does not work, making people-pleaser’s inner world so uncomfortable and painful that they are finally forced to pay attention to it.”

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.


[1] https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/codependency/

[2] https://blogs.psychcentral.com/imperfect/2016/04/what-causes-codependency/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belongingness

[4] http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm

[5] https://healthpsychology.org/do-you-always-want-to-help/

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjOowWxOXCg

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9868824

[8] MacKenzie, Jackson, Whole Again- Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse, pgs 70-72, TarcherPerigee (January 8, 2019), Print.

[9] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/5-types-people-who-can-ruin-your-life/201711/how-quickly-spot-high-conflict-people

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