Bipolar & Relationships: How Needy Are You?

Last Updated: 7 Aug 2019
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To avoid burning out friendships, think hard about who to ask for help.

Photo: Getty Images/Wavebreakmedia


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!

*   *   *   *   *

Questions to ask the Close People In Your Life:

  1. How do you feel when I talk with you about bipolar?
  2. What role would you like to play in my management plan?
  3. Is there someone else you feel I should talk to?
  4. 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

  1. Has this person said that I can call anytime?
  2. Have I done all I can to help myself?
  3. Is this something that needs the attention of a health-care professional?
  4. Does the person I want to lean on have too much going on in his or her life?
  5. Is there someone better to turn to?
  6. 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

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of "Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder," "Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder," "Get it Done When You’re Depressed" and "The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder." She is a columnist and blogger for BP Magazine and won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for the Dr.Oz and Oprah created site ShareCare. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists and general practitioners on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis and Depression." You can find more about her work at JulieFast.com and BipolarHappens.com.
9 Comments
  1. I do not see a recap of Maslow’s list of needs as a key or even literal display in this article. May we all try to be more positive in our observations. Severe manic depression is a huge burden, let us all work together and we will find what peace we can- which may be enough. Bless you all. I am glad we can do this together-and we will. John T.

  2. Great article. It, too, has taken me years of building my “network” of people I’m able to turn to. Being in Alcoholics Anonymous has helped build my support group as well. For many years & I do still catch myself doing it now but less often, I felt turning to others or asking for help was placing a burden on them unnecessarily. I have learned that we cannot do it alone & for me, it’s ok to ask for help but knowing & being determined to do the same in return for others. I’ve been able to assemble a good team & very much agree in the questions you mentioned asking before/in times of need. Thank you for writing/posting this.

  3. You are so so lucky to have people in your life period. Isolation is still a big part of my illness. I have no mother or brother or sister. Father is dead too. They all were very abusive anyways. And friends or a partner is totally foreign to me. I had to switch insurances so my steady therapy was dropped. I refuse to tell my grown son my problems like I selfishly used to overwhelm him with. I certainly don’t reach out to employers. So God and I handle it. But you seem to assume we all have friends and family. We don’t!!

    1. Dear Melanie.
      Isolation and loneliness makes bp so much harder. Have you tried a dbsa support group or other support for people struggling with mental health difficulties? I dont think i have any friends who don’t understand mental illness…best of luck J

  4. This is a great article. It’s so true for me. I just told my coworker I’m bipolar yesterday. There was no need for that. And I might have lost dating someone because the woman percieved me as needy (not that I wasn’t sensitive to her needs including scheduling dates around when she took her meds and got tired but thats neither here nor there)

  5. It’s Abraham Maslow, and I don’t see any ‘lifting’ at all.

    1. I agree that this very specific term existed somewhere else first, though it is used differently. I think simply recognizing that fact in a “room” full of people who have by necessity often been exposed to the ins and outs of Psychology might have made sense. That would have been professionally correct as a published author.

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