Is Emotional Neediness Destroying Our World?

EmotionalHealthThe Idea: Look at those who crave and hoard power, and who are indifferent to suffering and death and destruction, and you’ll probably find a psychopathic personality who has been tipped over the edge by lack of emotional connection. The lack of affection, and the neediness it breeds, may be the toxic seed that grows into the architects of the destruction of our world.

I confess I have struggled with Glenn Parton’s most recent pro-polyamory (free love) essays. It’s not the ideal that bothers me, it’s the amount of weight he puts on the idea: That if we all freely and unjealously found multiple sexual partners the basic problems of the world would be solved (I’m exaggerating, but not by much). This has bothered me especially because his earlier essays resonate so powerfully with me. So I’ve been giving it some thought and I think I see a reconciliation between his ideas and mine. I would argue that it is emotional neediness that underlies most of the antisocial, ecocidal behaviour that is destroying our world. I would acknowledge that a polyamory culture would be both a manifestation of a less emotionally needy world, and a means to reduce emotional neediness, though I doubt that it is either a necessary or sufficient condition to significantly reduce emotional neediness.

First, some definitions. Needs versus wants. A need is a want that will lead to pain, illness or suffering if it is not met. Needs and wants can be physical (food, material possessions, sex), emotional (space, peace, natural connection, security, reassurance, to be loved, to be needed), or intellectual (share ideas and information). Nutritional food is a physical need. Personal possessions are physical wants. Sharing ideas and information are intellectual wants. Emotionally healthy people have few emotional needs other than the need for connection. Emotionally ill people, I would argue, have substantial emotional needs, bordering on the addictive. This article will attempt to present a theory of why there is so much emotional neediness in our modern world, and how this neediness is causing us to destroy our planet.

I’m going to use myself as a case study, and I hope that this will help readers to understand the ‘frames’, the social worldview, underlying my argument. So I need to give you a brief history of my emotional life and health:

I presume that as an infant I was needy, but that in the Gift Social Economy that was my world at that time I managed to somehow return the gifts of attention that my parents bestowed on me. As a baby I was attractive enough to be featured on the front page of the city paper. Until I was 8 or so that Gift Social Economy continued: The neighbourhood kids with whom I played were generous with their time and attentions, as was I. Everyone knew I was partial to one girl in particular, but to my knowledge there was no jealousy, as my infatuation never caused me to decline social interaction with anyone else. But then the Gift Social Economy gave way to a Competitive Market Social Economy: The cute girls began to hang out exclusively with the tall guys. The teachers began to favour the more obedient and diligent students as I grew bored with the lessons. My body grew slowly and awkwardly. I lacked, and didn’t learn, social graces and coordination, so I couldn’t dance or swim, was lousy at sports, and my face was ravaged by acne. My communication skills, written and oral, failed to develop. By the age of sixteen I was a shy, introspective teenager with few friends, and an average student. I was a daydreamer, and (showing my shattered ego and desperate need for ‘popularity’) I aspired to move to Australia and become a politician. I had nightmares, and I was anxious and unreasonably frightened of people and social interaction.

And then at seventeen I discovered I loved poetry and literature and began to read, and then to write — unoriginal, banal stuff atrociously written at first, but it improved with practice and encouragement from a wonderful small group of peers. And my increasing reading breadth gave me more authors to mimic in style and vocabulary. After a year I had become an accomplished writer and I graduated from high school with several scholarships, a renewed sense of self-confidence, and utterly, hopelessly, intellectually in love. From that enormous and sudden emotional high the crash was precipitous. I loathed university — the idea of learning by sitting in a classroom and listening to someone talk seemed ridiculous to me. I was intellectually bored and emotionally numb. Then I went into the work-world and faced the humiliation of begging for crappy menial jobs. I sank into a serious depression (early 1970s — a lot of that going around then). Then I began to succeed in the work world, moving up quickly. My social life went quickly from non-existent to frenzied, exploiting the lingering remains of the ‘free love’ era for all it was worth. My ego recovered (over-recovered) and then, when I realized that there was no depth to any of these relationships, I crashed again. For a couple of years my few friends worried that I would commit suicide. And then I met Anita, and she pulled me up, told me to grow up, introduced me to her extraordinary, open, well-balanced children, and made me what I am today. I re-engaged with the world, worked hard and successfully, taught myself to be creative, and leveraged my ambition and skills into several promotions, until I once again hit the wall five years ago.

My depression returned. I found my newest job, which tore me away from customers and had me working for a guy whose leadership style and vision were the antithesis of mine, to be ill-suited to my talents as a writer, an idea cross-pollinator, and a skilled coach of entrepreneurs. We moved to our new neighbourhood in the country, which I love, but my intellectual restlessness continued. It was filled in part by a voracious increase in reading and then by this weblog. I quit the job, and with it left the depression behind. I’m still struggling with my ‘Second Career’ decision, and I’m nervous about where my life is going, but I’m confident and happy. Even my growing sense of despair about where our world is headed can’t get me down.

The three periods in my life when I lacked emotional connection — late childhood and adolescence, early twenties, late forties — led to emotional neediness, which in turn led to emotional illness (depression) and then to anti-social behaviour (withdrawal, anger etc.) That’s a bit of an oversimplification of my roller-coaster life, but it’s pretty accurate. I was lucky — three times I fell victim to emotional disconnection and three times I was rescued by those who cared, or to some extent rescued myself. I’ve always been blessed with great ‘support groups’. I’ve talked, especially in recent years, to dozens of people who recount this same downward spiral in themselves and/or many people they know — starting with being emotionally cut off, through exaggerated emotional neediness, emotional illness and anti-social, even pathological behaviour. It manifests itself in different ways but the pattern, illustrated in the top chart above, recurs with astonishing regularity.

I’ve known a number of very wealthy people, and in those environments emotional disconnection seems almost endemic. Parents are detached in showing affection (or any other emotion) to their children, they’re often physically absent, the kids go to private schools where they associate only with others of their ‘station’, they learn all the social graces but never seem very comfortable with other people, almost as if they’ve lived their lives in a bubble. They tend to either conform to a disturbing degree or all-out rebel at some point in their lives, and substance abuse and other addictions are common among them in adolescence and early adulthood (sound like any politicians you know?)

Then they fall into line and behave outwardly in an acceptable manner, but by then the damage is done. Most of them are psychopathic personalities:

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings and welfare of others,
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships,
  • A penchant for deceitfulness,
  • Inability to feel guilt,
  • Bravado about getting away with illegal activities.

When they got older and were handed power on a platter it further corrupted them, giving them employees and customers and voters and lackeys and sycophants and gold-diggers to abuse and cheat, land and natural resources to despoil, and the means to avoid responsibility for their actions and even avoid contact with those their corporate, political, economic and social damage hurt the most.

These are behaviours of the emotionally disconnected, playing themselves out in dangerous ways. The few people I knew who were physically abused as children manifested nearly identical behaviours.

All of these people hurt, in turn, orders of magnitude greater numbers of others. A disproportionate number end up in positions of power and influence, positions which seem to draw them, perhaps to serve as a salve for their emotional emptiness. “If you don’t want to connect with me emotionally”, they seem to be saying, “then I’ll get so powerful and so successful at manipulation and scheming you damned well won’t have any choice”. Rich or poor, power over someone is very important to them. Scratch a political tyrant, a corrupt business leader, a polluter, a pimp, a spouse or child or animal abuser, and nine times out of ten you’ll find that emotional hollowness, that vestige of disconnection. The vast majority of such people, for some reason, are male.

As Kurt Vonnegut has argued, I suspect it’s because they’re such expert liars, and so manipulative, insecure, ambitious, addicted to power and needy for attention, that they end up holding a wildly disproportionate sway over political, economic, social, educational, media and other activity in our world, and as such their psychopathy is playing itself out in massive ecological and human destruction. Only an emotionally damaged psychopath would fly back from his private ranch to sign a bill to force nurses to keep a brain-dead woman alive indefinitely, yet knowingly wouldn’t so much as lift a finger to help the half a million in Darfur who are suffering from relentless and savage brutality, deprivation and overt genocide.

How many unhappy couples do you know that are bound together in co-dependence rooted in emotional disaffection earlier in (or even throughout) their lives? He desperately needs to be loved, and if he’s not well placed enough or ruthless enough to build his fan base politically, economically, coercively, he will command it from the one he claims to love, and the children conceived with that love. He’s jealous, angry, yet somehow emotionally distant, insensitive. She, on the other hand, needs to be needed — and he’s the perfect antidote because he needs so badly. What possible hope is there for the children of such a dysfunctional relationship, with this horrific model the only one they know to follow when their emotional emptiness and need begins to manifest itself?

So that’s the theory — neglect or ignore or abuse a child and he’ll grow up to ruin the lives, livelihoods and environment of hundreds or thousands, and will have children who will perpetuate the cycle. The answer lies not so much in polyamory as in community— a connected community (not the transient neighbourhoods of coincidence and convenience most of us live in today) where affection and attention is gifted generously, and where everyone feels emotionally whole, fulfilled, healthy, and secure. This in turn creates a virtuous cycle, as that emotional warmth and connection breeds generous, self-confident behaviours, behaviours that heal heartache,discharge fear and loneliness, and in so doing heal our whole planet .

A planet where there is no need to destroy the world to fill the empty place inside.

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10 Responses to Is Emotional Neediness Destroying Our World?

  1. tuur says:

    hi Dave, thanks for your great blog, and thanks for this post in particular. You are talking about a matter that I’ve discussed many times with friends talking about other friends. Here is some more thoughts about the category of people you discribed in your post. Emotionally disconnected people. I think that a lot of it is due to a lack of self esteem with the parents, and a projection of that self-image on their children. Once the self esteem of the child is brought below a healthy average, it will go look for positive confirmation of its person in order to compensate. If the child doesn’t find enough of this confirmation (which is quite likely, since parents have such a huge influence on one’s Self), it will follow a new strategy: it will go look for any kind of confirmation, positive or negative. It will go look for a lot of new input, to create an new identity. Here is where the NEED comes in. I think the core of empathy-lacking is the fear of being disappointed again. The defence mechanism inside the child/person will – auto-pilotwise – start deforming/distorting the social input. Since the person is so sensitive, and its defence-mechanism works so well, a lot of socially valuable information is lost in the process. Often these people have strange ways of self-evaluation. The compensation-mechanism will either work, and the new identity will try very hard to evaluate the output in a positive way, or it won’t, and the negative Self will take over.

  2. Aleah says:

    It all seems so simple, and yet so difficult for us to overcome. I read a quote yesterday … something about how the greatest task in life is to turn down MORE when it is readily available to us. I think that concept also applies for a lot of the population. That, and the 70s brand of “I’m Ok, You’re ok” that explored and dare I say, exploited, individualism to the point of isolating the self from the needs and desires of the other.Thanks also for sharing your story and experiences.

  3. Raging Bee says:

    Emotional neediness? How about physical neediness? We need certain material goods in order to stay alive, and to improve the quality of our lives, such as, you know, food, shelter, raw materials to build the Internet with, that sort of thing; which is why we take so much from the Earth.I really don’t see how all this psychobabble about “emotional neediness” is going to change any of that.

  4. Mike says:

    Raging Bee, read this:”The willingness of many Republicans to simply show respect for the habits and interests of these mixed and moderate Americans has paid growing political dividends. The Republicans have understood that communicating respect is more important than offering programs or incentives. The Democrats have failed to realize that multiplying programs or policies designed to meet people

  5. kerry says:

    Yes – communities, and ultimately personally chosen ones! Here’s a start…

  6. Indigo says:

    I am also someone who has lived from different points across the “connected-alienated” spectrum during different phases of my life. I find that momentum carries me further in whatever directions I am heading until some outside force intervenes. I have been graced by amazingly generous boyfriends, spiritual teachers, and even strangers who have generously shared themselves with me when I had very little to offer in return. And I have gone on to make it my life’s focus to be a blessing to all I meet, wherever I go. I am still working on being able to receive a depth of emotional fulfillment from a wider and wider array of relationships (from friends to grocery clerks) and to really feel fed. There is a way in which I feel more comfortable with giving than receiving, which takes a much greater degree of emotional maturity actually. The receiving end of a “gift culture” is still somewhat abstract to me. But I know that resilience as a gifter relies upon being able to also receive within the deepest core of our being.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Tuur: Great psycho-analysis of a whole big chunk of the population — thanks.Aleah, Mike, Kerry: Thank you for your thoughts. We have a long way to go. Kerry, I appreciate the link, too.Indigo: I’m the same way — nothing like getting a gift with no strings attached to really psyche you out.

  8. Anna says:

    A couple of comments -First, for the naturally monogamous, a partner enamored with polyamory makes emotional neediness worse not better. Jealousy doesn’t do much for quality of life, and I don’t think there’s a little toggle switch by which to turn it off, yet.Second, a few years back I read an article on a female anthropologist or primatologist – maybe Goodall – where they observed that neglected young had lifelong lower emotional responsiveness to the plight of others – oxytocin related? – and they made the point that the less contact a child had with parents, the more this would? did? happen – which, given daycare and working parents, did not bode well for the fate of societies and planets.

  9. Zach says:

    “All you need is Love?”Don’t you think the solution that worked for you (and I’m glad for you) would work everyone?What action are you taking in order to connect with your community all around you, today in the real present?

  10. Mattt Koenig says:

    Dave,I am a conservative Republican, Catholic.Ok, having said that, here is something I bet you wouldn’t think I would type next: I couldn’t agree more.Outstanding insight. The lack of empathy in modern society, wil, I believe, and I think Christ implied, would be its downfall.BestMatt

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