Bipolar & Relationships: How Needy Are You?
To avoid burning out friendships, think hard about who to ask for help.
Those of us who have bipolar disorder can be complicated people with equally complicated emotions. We are often “over the top” and because of this our needs can seem larger than life. As a result, we may rush into things blindly and ask the people in our lives for help without thinking of the consequences to the relationship as a whole. We may say, “I’m sick, please help me!” but say it to the wrong person and may say it too many times. This can lead to many relationship problems and in some cases, it can signal the end of a relationship.
I ruined quite a few friendships in this manner, at the point when my need for help turned into neediness. I made the mistake of reacting from neediness before I thought about what I could first do for myself, or how my actions might affect the other person. Naturally, I turned to the people I felt closest to. Unfortunately, I turned to them a bit too much. Perhaps you have had the same experience!
This all changed, however, when I created what I call my “hierarchy of needs” list. This is a list of people (and sometimes activities) that you can turn to when the going gets tough. The list entails a specific order of people to contact— like a chain of command. It guarantees you the help you need, while respecting the boundaries of others. The first step is to see what you are currently doing that might be perceived by others as neediness.
Common needy mistakes
- Constantly calling a partner at work
- Expecting a best friend to be your therapist
- Telling too much to people you don’t know well, especially in a romantic situation
- Missing the signals others are sending you
- Telling a coworker all about your bipolar problems
- Putting the burden of your needs on family members
- Assuming that others want or should want to help you with your bipolar disorder
I did all of the above with disastrous results. Then I had an epiphany:
Just because someone is a friend, a family member, or a partner, it does not follow that he or she is the best person to turn to when you need help with mood swings.
No matter how much someone cares for you, if you constantly assault them with your needs, they will get overwhelmed. And sometimes, you may pick the 100 percent wrong person to ask for help and then get very embarrassed when they respond negatively. The secret is to determine who can help in certain situations and then place the individual in order of his or her ability and desire to help you. While this takes time, it can change forever your negative relationship patterns as they concern bipolar.
Following is my own hierarchy of needs list.
MYSELF: I use the treatment plans in my books, write in my journal, exercise, and really examine what is going on within me before I turn to others. This took many years to perfect. I have learned to live with a lot of bipolar pain on my own.
MY THERAPIST, DOCTORS, AND COAUTHOR JOHN PRESTON, PSYD: Trained professionals know how to hear your needs and to help you without getting overwhelmed themselves. I am respectful of their time and make sure that I ask for their help in an appropriate way. Still, they have received quite a few desperate phone calls from me.
FRIENDS WITH ABILITY TO HELP ME WITHOUT GETTING UPSET: I have many friends who will hold my hand when I cry. They can listen to all of my “problems” without getting upset. I know how to limit these conversations and always make sure we talk about how they are doing as well. These are the friends whom I know I can call at 3 a.m. and they will respond, “I’m here for you, Julie.”
MY MOTHER: I definitely turn to my mother, but I often do it in a physical way. I watch her garden, play with her puppy, and just exist. She always knows when I’m sick. What’s more, she now knows what to do and most important, what not to do. We’ve been a team for a long time. When I’m very ill, she is always there for me. Unlike in the past, however, I now consider her needs as much as my own.
SOCIAL FRIENDS WHO HELP ME GET BETTER THROUGH ACTIVITIES: I have dear friends who like to watch movies, play games, go to happy hour, and talk about the world. They are often my first choice when I need to be around people and I wish to change the focus from bipolar to simply enjoying their company. They are ready to talk about the illness when I need to discuss it. Yet I try to keep the conservation lighthearted so that we can have some fun even when I’m sick.
MY BROTHER: People help in so many ways that you may not recognize. My brother doesn’t talk much about my bipolar. In fact, I don’t think he knows what to say. But he does use the treatment plan for family members that I discuss in my books. He helps me around the house when I get depressed. He does my lawn, fixes my appliances, sees how I am, and does fun things with me. We never talk about bipolar unless I say, “I’m sick today and I need to get out and do something.” If I’m getting manic, he lets me know! This list changes and grows—but I’m always at the top.
This list can also include a support group, meditation, a walk with a dog, or a visit to the sea coast—it’s up to you. Indeed, it’s important that not only one person—such as a partner or a friend—appear on the list. That’s too much of a burden to place on one individual.
Create your own list
Once you have given it some thought, you can make your own list. If you had not read this article, who would have been at the top of your list? Have you overwhelmed some person or persons in your life? Whom would you put in that category now? People can be helpers and listeners; others are doers. Still others love you, but want absolutely nothing to do with your illness. They may not even talk about it, refusing to believe that it’s real. It’s up to you to recognize their qualities instead of trying to make them fit your needs.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by making this list, or if there are not enough people in your life to help, please remember that it took me years to get to where I am today. If you are not sure how to ask for help, start with a support group that focuses on stability or a therapist who can help with behavior changes. You can then add more personal relationships to your list.
You are ready for stable relationships!
As a result of creating and using my hierarchy of needs list, my relationships are now longer-term and more stable. Sure, some of my friendships have ended and that’s very hard, but the loss of the relationship is not because of bipolar disorder neediness. Now that I have the list, I’m reminded that there is help out there. I’m amazed at how learning about what I need, then recognizing who can really help, has changed me. It’s about understanding how bipolar disorder affects my life and my needs, while also respecting the needs of others.
Your list may surprise you. Sometimes it’s the people you least expect who can help the most!
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Questions to ask the Close People In Your Life:
- How do you feel when I talk with you about bipolar?
- What role would you like to play in my management plan?
- Is there someone else you feel I should talk to?
- What do you want our relationship to look like in terms of bipolar disorder?
This exercise may be hard as you may receive some super-honest answers. But candor like this is what leads to true and lasting relationships.
Questions to ask Yourself Before you Ask for Help
- Has this person said that I can call anytime?
- Have I done all I can to help myself?
- Is this something that needs the attention of a health-care professional?
- Does the person I want to lean on have too much going on in his or her life?
- Is there someone better to turn to?
- Am I there for them in the same way I need them to be there for me?
Printed as “How Needy Are You“, Fall 2009