I’ve had a friend recently characterize some people as “needy” or “clingy” and I had to wonder if those terms are used more often as a justification than as a fair description.
My question is the classic chicken-or-egg-came-first causality dilemma expressed in our socialization. Individuals create societies, but societies most definitely influence individuals and splitting up responsibility is not as easy as simply picking one or the other.
Causality: Words versus reality?
Descriptions do matter. Describing adjectives are subjective points of view rather than concrete realities and yet themselves do help to form reality. Two people evaluating the same behavior can come to vastly different conclusions. An alleged flirt could be described as friendly, being aggressive may be assertive, opinionated could be engaging, arrogant could be confident, pushy might be sincere and the list goes on.
Descriptions reflect our prejudices. A negative description influences how others may interpret a person’s behavior and could harm them. What we see as bad in another person’s behavior may actually say more about our own personality and weaknesses than theirs. We could very well be blinded by our own perceptions of reality and be blinding others with our less than flattering words.
Good judgment requires good context. If I were to say a person is “desperate for attention” there is a sort of pejorative sense assumed. But, if that phrase was used in the context of serious physical injury with a need for immediate professional medical help, does that change the inflection? For me, it changes my interpretation of the ‘desperate’ person’s character.
Humans have many needs, all are things necessary for a healthy life or perspective of reality, and some needs are more immediate or pressing than others. There’s a way the most reasonable or composed person can be made to become like a wild animal in less than a minute and all it takes is to cut off their air supply. A person chocking a chicken bone or drowning is likely desperate, they are definitely needy and they might even get a bit clingy too.
Giving a cold shoulder to a starving soul…
Picture another scenario, picture a banquet hall, many at the table enjoying the abundance, some proclaiming loudly how blessed and full they are. But, on all sides around those partaking are many others who are shut off from the food and drink. Those at the table chatter and smile oblivious to those behind them. Those outside are fully aware, they patiently wait their turn as the pangs of thirst and hunger build.
Finally, after this goes on for days, and those at the table take no notice, one of the outsiders taps one of the friendlier in appearance feasters on the shoulder asking just for a slice of bread and sip of water. Unfortunately, the person at the table, fat from gorging themselves, look back, they see the peaked looking figures behind them, they assume these outsiders must be sick with a deadly disease and, instead of offering sustenance, they are horrified.
What happens when a person has no access to food or drink? They starve, they thirst and, if it continues long enough, even the most confident person will become increasingly desperate in their search for answers and they eventually fall into doubt or fear. They will no longer enjoy the shouts of satisfaction of others and especially that of those who refuse to offer rescue, relief or help. It is understandable if they got a bit pushy and increasingly desperate, right?
It is our job as people of faith to turn those who are outsiders into insiders:
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)
So, what should we do to be more loving?
Going back to needy or clingy, used as an assessment of human behavior, let me apply the feast scenario above to human need of companionship. Like all people need air to breath and water to drink and food to eat, most people require a balanced diet of social interaction or inclusion to be happy and healthy. A person shut off from necessary social sustenance will likely become increasingly desirous of affection or affirmation and with that their behavior may shift towards more assertiveness.
What could be hidden in our characterization of a person as being needy or desperate is a justification to mistreat them. And, at very least, it is not helpful to tell a chocking person that “hey, you look desperate and needy.” Without help offered, commentary on the obvious could sound more like a taunt than a useful observation. At worse, it is stuffing a pejorative down their throat, giving them yet another reason to feel unvalued and isolated.
The needy and clingy characterization of someone is probably used unfairly in many cases and may be used as a cover for our own wrongful attitudes. If their appreciation of our companionship and if their affection towards us were valued, we would call them “appreciative and affectionate” instead. But, the reason we call them clingy or needy is that we (or those we are defending) are at some level wanting to excuse ourselves from responsibility for their human needs.
Needy and clingy are a negative spin on appreciative or affectionate. They could be used as a pejorative to describe a person who we don’t value and also are damaging words if used to help shape the opinions of others. Our insensitive use of language can have consequences. Labels affect how we see ourselves and also how we see others. If we were to tell someone who made mistakes they are “stupid” or “idiotic” we may actually impact their confidence negatively to the degree they respect or others respect our opinion.
Wisely using words that build rather than harm…
People need affirming words to make them grow more than they need their behavior characterized negatively. Even bad experiences can be redeemed if reframed as an opportunity to learn or grow. Likewise, a positive description can also be used to shape a person positively. It is likely far more beneficial for a person already down on themselves to hear their hopes or desires given legitimacy and respect instead of derision.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. […] Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29, 32)
Describing a person negatively to others is rarely helpful. To speak disparagingly about a person without giving them a chance to defend from the accusation is basically to murder their character.
However, when times demand we must be critical and there are ways to offer criticism that help and other ways that hurt. The first I recommend, rather than discuss them with other friends, is to go directly to them treating them as a friend. This is the idea Jesus taught for addressing ‘sin’ against us (Matthew 18:15) and provides a chance for the offending party to explain themselves. That is the way of love.
There are many wounded, broken and hurting people in the world who are well aware of their own need. These are people who need not be reminded again of their own deficiencies. We do not know what they have had to overcome. It is not our job to determine what another person does or does not deserve. True love is not the only kind or accepting of those most like us, but is self-sacrificial and gracious to the undeserving. That is the way of Jesus.
Do your words feed and nourish a better reality?