How getting clear about our needs and expressing them can change our relationships for the better.
Surviving or thriving
Human beings can survive in very different, adverse conditions by cunningly adapting to our environment. We can survive starved of good nutrition or starved of love. However, in order to thrive rather than just survive, we will need more optimal nourishment. Like everything in nature, the better nourished we are the better we thrive, inside and out!
When we were little we were completely dependent on our parents or primary caregivers. This was the time when we learnt, amongst many other things, about having our needs met. If all or most of our early needs for food, shelter, protection, affection etc. were promptly met, we become more likely to learn that we have the ability to get what we need in life.
If certain needs were hardly met, we are likely to learn that, we cannot get what we need and it is not worth trying. For young babies that are left to ‘cry it out’, the activation of the freeze response eventually stops their crying. It could be potentially dangerous to keep crying and attracting predator attention, so this is an instinctual survival instinct. When this is repeated regularly the baby is conditioned to think that no matter how much they cry, nobody will come and/or their needs will not be met – so they give up trying. This is called learnt helplessness and it pre-disposes us to a variety of mental health issues later on in life.
If, as children, we had to work hard to get our needs met, we developed different methods to get what we want and need. Along with these we also learn some coping mechanisms for when we didn’t. Perhaps we learnt that we get Mum’s love and attention by being sick or helpless, or by throwing a tantrum, or bossing her around. Thus we understood that there are conditions to being loved. Whether conscious or unconscious, we learned to equate having our needs met to being loved.
We also learnt to completely deny and block off unmet needs as a defence mechanism. This is how our defences are born.
Getting clear on our needs
Step 1. Identifying our needs
If our needs as children were frequently not met and we learnt to shut off the unmet needs altogether in order to get by and to numb out the associated pain, it may take a lot of digging to actually identify our needs and get clear about what they are in the first place.
Good indications for unmet needs are repeated situations where you feel less than fulfilled. Are you settling for less, or going for everything you want in life?
Do you stay in an unfulfilling relationship, job, and/or situation because you’re afraid it’s the best you can get? Do you think it’s wrong or useless to want for something more or to ask for what you want and need?
A personal example
Both my parents worked long hours from very early on in my life. Even though they were very loving when they were around, I missed out on some parental nurturing and emotional support. In order to cope I learnt to take care of myself from young age. I always got myself up, dressed, and fed before school, even walked myself to kindergarten at age five. In a lot of ways this served me, but it also held me back. Alone I was a functional adult, but in relationships I felt depleted and alone. I was often the one supporting the other, but since I didn’t trust anyone to be there for me I never allowed myself to be supported, emotionally or otherwise. This was until I got clear about the needs that I had shut off. Then I began to meet them myself and communicate them to my partner and other important people in my life.
Helpful questions to identify our needs:
You may find it helpful to ask yourself:
What are the things missing in my intimate relationship(s)?
What am I always left wanting more of?
What do I feel like I am missing out on in my relationship, job, and/or life?
Step 2. Meeting our own needs
It is important to remember that now that we are grown-ups, we have the ability to meet our own needs . We are not dependent on others to fill them all, like when we were little. So if we didn’t get enough love and nurturing in our childhood (or enough encouragement, acceptance, protection etc.) it is up to us to start giving them to ourselves first. It helps to be really honest about where we are not giving ourselves what we need, sacrificing or belittling our needs, even making them wrong.
Once you have identified the need, you can ask yourself what having it met would actually look like. Be aware that your adult mind might try to rationalise the need away, so speak directly to your heart, the vulnerable part of you. The answers may surprise you!
Making a plan
If it is protection or safety you need, it could look like standing up for yourself more, or taking better care of your finances. If you need more love and intimacy, it could look like making more time for friends and loved ones in your life, or doing more things that you love alone; a personal yoga practice or taking time to meditate or be intimate with yourself. If you need nurturing and caring, it could look like making sure you eat well, rest well, and generally improve your level of self-care. Remember that the answers will be individual.
In close relationships we often look for whatever we haven’t learnt to give ourselves. If we always end up feeling like we are not loved for who we are, then chances are we are not loving ourselves as who we are. If we feel unsupported by our partner or friends, the likelihood is there is a part of us that isn’t supporting ourselves, hence we look for it in others. Or if we are overly critical of ourselves, we will also be overly sensitive to criticism from others, and easily interpret other remarks as criticism. Once we learn to meet our own needs and love ourselves as we need to be loved, we stop having to look for it outside of ourselves.
Step 3. Expressing our needs
Are you sometimes aware that you want or need something, but don’t voice it?
Do you often feel like you don’t have the ‘right’ to ask for your needs to be met?
Do you put the needs of others before your own and end up feeling depleted and eventually resentful?
Do you sometimes not voice your needs because you don’t want to ‘bother’ anyone or don’t expect them to be interested?
Do you think you deserve more and keep waiting for others to notice?
A good rule of thumb in all relationships is that we have the right to ask but no right to demand. Asking includes no obligation, and it actually requires vulnerability. This is why it can be hard, but also incredibly rewarding.
Even the Bible says, “Ask, and it is given”. This specifically indicates that we do need to ask for and voice our needs. When we voice our needs and desires we add energy into them. When we have trouble expressing our needs we are more likely to resort to manipulation.
It may be tempting to assume that ‘if they really loved us they would know what we need or want’. However, since we are all different, we also have different needs (apart from the basic ones we all share). To feel loved, supported, accepted, etc. we need it to be shown in different ways.
When we clearly voice our needs, without expectation, we let others in, allowing them to meet our need. This can be an opportunity for a new level of connection – a beautiful gift both ways!
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