Recently, I was having a discussion with an old friend who has trouble asking for what they need from others, especially in relationships. This has always been a topic close to my heart because, for the vast majority of my life, I had this exact problem.
And it sucked.
In my own experience, it basically turned me into a "Nice Guy", which caused me to habitually hurt the very people I cared about the most. The gist of the behavior - I'd do shit for people in the hopes they would reciprocate in some way, thus meeting my unspoken needs. Unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of problems. I'd create a feedback loop where I'd feel a need, obsess on figuring out how I could get that need met without pissing anyone off, then would engage in passive, indirect behaviors that never worked, then get resentful and angry towards those people for not meeting my unspoken needs, which caused those initial needs to get even stronger. It royally sucked for me, and it royally sucked for those around me.
My own experiences with this issue stemmed from behavior patterns learned in childhood and accidentally reinforced into adulthood, and it took years to correct. Mostly because it took years to actually identify the problem. In my past writings on this topic, I largely helped people solve this issue by fixing the underlying problem, but the aforementioned conversation with my old friend led me to explicitly addressing the issue head-on.
So Why Does It Matter?
Without exception, EVERY person I've ever met who had trouble expressing their needs to those around them have had a "giving" personality. They genuinely enjoy helping others... even the men who, like I used to do, engage in "Nice Guy" behaviors. The problem, though, is our ability to help others is entirely dependent on our own health and well-being.
My all-time favorite analogy for are - oxygen masks.
If you've ever flown on a commercial airline and paid attention to the emergency procedures flight attendants go through when the plane's still on the tarmac, you know what I'm talking about. In the event of "cabin depressurization" (i.e. - the plane is falling apart), oxygen masks drop down from the overhead compartment. We're supposed to put OUR mask on before we help other people put THEIR mask on.
Well, if we pass out because of a lack of oxygen (which thanks to jiu jitsu, I can confirm does not take long), we can't help others. Then we all die.The lesson?
LIFE RULE #1: WE NEED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR OWN HEALTH AND WELL-BEING BEFORE WE CAN TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR OTHER PEOPLE'S HEALTH AND WELL-BEING.
We have a right and a responsibility to ask for what we need in a relationship, and we're in the best position to determine exactly what it is we really need. After all, we are the experts on ourselves.
If we don't take care of our needs, we run ourselves into the ground physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And we run the risk of falling into the martyr complex. We're actively damaging our self-worth and our value.
In addition, if we're not getting our needs met, we're unconsciously sabotaging all our close relationships.
LIFE RULE #2: VOICING OUR NEEDS IS AN ABSOLUTE PREREQUISITE TO HAVING HAPPY, HEALTHY, MUTUALLY-FULFILLING RELATIONSHIPS.
Learning to ASK to have your needs met can be an incredibly difficult thing for many of us. I know it was for me. It was really terrifying and just felt so... wrong.
Damn that early life conditioning!
Anyway, before we get to HOW to ask to get your needs met, let's talk about the needs themselves.
What Do We Really Need?
We all have needs that require other people. We are, after all, social animals. Some of those needs include:
- We need support. We need someone who has our backs.
- We need affection.
- We need to feel intimate physical contact. Think cuddling.
- We need companionship.
- We need to feel physically and emotionally safe.
- We need to feel like we're a priority.
- We need to feel heard and understood.
- We need to feel financially secure.
- We need to hear positive affirmations from those we care about.
- We need to feel valued and appreciated.
- We need to feel connected to others.
- We need to be nurtured sometimes.
- We need sex and the resulting physical connection.
- ... and so on.
If we're missing any of these, we tend to feel what could best be described as "emotional hunger." And that emotional hunger gnaws at us whether we recognize it or not.
How Do We Know if Our Needs Aren't Being Met?
One of the weirdest parts of habitually not getting your needs met is you don't always recognize your needs aren't being met... usually because they've never really been met in a healthy way. So the needs manifest in other, strange ways, including:
- We resent others because they're not "reading our minds" and fulfilling the needs we expect them to fulfill.
- We get stressed out, feel anxiety, and feel depression because our needs aren't being met.
- We feel contempt for the people who aren't meeting our needs.
- We get angry at others for not meeting our needs.
- We feel neglected and rejected by those we love.
- We feel unimportant because we're not being heard or seen.
- We feel unloved because our partners don't seem to be willing to put in the same level of effort we're putting in the relationship.
- We find ourselves minimizing our own needs to make them seem less of a priority compared to other people's needs.
- We withdraw from those we love.
- We start picking silly fights.
- We start "testing" those we love to determine if they really love us.
- We start "keeping score."
- We start fantasizing about greener pastures... a lot.
- We start seeking attention elsewhere.
Why Don't We Ask for What We Need?
There could be all kinds of reasons we don't ask for what we really need. In my past, I did so because I was terrified I would make people angry by expressing my needs, and they'd ultimately abandon me. In retrospect, it was a pretty fucked up train of thought that wasn't grounded in reality. Or even logic. But it's how I felt.
We may have all kinds of reasons for not asking for what we need, including:
- We think asking for what you need will cause conflict (which may have happened in the past.)
- We don't want to trouble or inconvenience others.
- We may not know exactly what it is we need.'
- We feel what we need, but we have trouble articulating the need to others.
- We were punished in the past for asking others for what we need.
- We don't want to feel needy because we see ourselves as being strong, independent, and resilient.
- We're afraid of making people angry.
- We may not want to admit we're dissatisfied.
- We don't like feeling vulnerable.
- We're afraid of being judged negatively.
- We grew up in an environment where a parent or both parents somehow used our needs against us.
- We never learned how to express our needs in a healthy way.
- The voind of not having our needs met, while feeling bad, also feels comfortable. And comfortable is less risky than asking for what we need.
- ... and so on.
Usually part of this problem stems from some sort of emotional abandonment we experienced in childhood or in our early dating life. This causes us to initiate relationships with people who avoid the intimacy required to create an environment where both partners can and do freely share their needs. The crappy relationship satisfies some of our needs for a connection to others, but the emotional distance feels safe. Even if that relationship is defined by constant fighting, addictions, infidelity, and other forms of shitty abuse.
What if I Don't Deserve to Feel Good?
I intentionally left this one off the list above because it deserves its own treatment. Thinking you don't deserve something is a big fucking cowardly cop-out. Harsh, yes, but true. To see how absurd this is, do this thought experiment. Think of your all-time favorite ice cream flavor. Now think of your all-time least-favorite ice cream flavor.
For example, my favorite is fudge brownie in mint ice cream. Whatever that's called. My least favorite? Coffee-flavored. A little ironic given I love black coffee. Anyway.
Now imagine you just entered an ice cream shop and you're deciding which flavor to get. Would you choose your absolute favorite flavor of ice cream? Or would you settle for that least-favorite shitty flavor because you felt you "didn't deserve" your favorite? Settling seems pretty damn absurd here, doesn't it?
I know I'm choosing the brownie mint stuff, not the gross-ass coffee ice cream. And you would, too.
So why should your needs be any different?
Still not convinced? Do this thought experiment. Think of your kids. If you don't have kids, imagine a future when you do. If you don't want kids, think of a beloved pet. Part of parenting is wanting what's best for your kids. We want them to have a life that will make them happy. We want them to have the life they deserve.
As their parent, you're their most influential role model. If they see you ignoring YOUR needs because you feel you don't deserve to have your needs met, they will grow up and ignore THEIR needs because they will feel like they don't deserve to have them met. It doesn't matter what we say. It matters what we DO.
So How Do We Fix the Problem?
When people can't ask to get their needs met, they typically use a few strategies that are guaranteed to fail almost every time. Maybe we try using guilt or shame on others. Maybe we use our unmet needs as weapons. Maybe we buy them gifts or do them favors (even the sexual kind!) Maybe we use passive-aggressive tactics like withdrawing or throwing tantrums. Maybe we try dropping subtle hints. Whatever tactics we use, they always result in the same shitty outcomes - we're left emotionally starved.
But the solution is pretty simple! And there's only TWO steps!
There's really two steps to this process. The First Step is figuring out exactly what it is you're missing, which can be really difficult. Let's call this step "Naming the Need."
I know when I started this process, I had never even really consciously considered my own needs, even though I was constantly trying to get them met. And being a god damned psychology teacher.
Yeah, kinda embarrassing.
For me, it helped to see a list of needs people actually, well, need. Scroll back up to that "What Do We Really Need" list above. Start there. Whether we consciously feel it or not, all of us share all of those needs; they're universally human. So note which needs are currently being met and which ones are not.
In addition to this, we can do a thought experiment. Ask yourself "If I could have anything I wanted in a relationship, with NO limits, what would it be?" What would that relationship look like? What would that relationship feel like? Don't hold back here; be selfish! This is YOUR fantasy; have fun with it!
Once we do that, the second part of step one is important - taking personal responsibility for our own emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Tell yourself "I am personally responsible for getting these missing needs met." Repeat that ten times.
That second part of this first step is important because, even though we disguise it with a lot of different rationalizations, our inability to ask to have our needs met is really a shifting of responsibility from ourselves to other people. We need to change that. Taking personal responsibility means we have to be willing to ask for what we need.
Now on to the Second Step - actually asking for what we need. Pick one need at a time, and figure out who in your life is best able to meet that need. It's probably going to be a significant other, but it can also be a friend, a family member, or even a coworker. WHO isn't critically important.
The first thing we need to do is make sure you and the other person are calm and relaxed. Don't do this is you're stressed, angry, or in a hurry. Now describe the situation. You want to describe the situation in a way that doesn't blame them, so stick to factual terms. You want to encourage connection, not conflict. For example, let's say our partner doesn't hug us as much as we need. We could say:
"We don't hug as much as I need us to hug."
Simple and to the point with no blame or judgment.
The second thing we need to do is explain how we feel, preferably by using "I" statements. Again, it's important not to blame the other person here. You're simply expressing how the behavior in the last part makes you feel. For example:
"Our lack of hugging makes me feel unloved."
The third thing we need to do is request the desired behavior in clear, actionable terms. What can they do to meet the need? We need to make it easy for the other person to meet the need we just expressed.
"I need to start hugging each other when we both get home from work."
In this last step, it's important to only request behaviors. Don't ask the other person to change their values, attitudes, desires, motivations, or feelings. Behaviors only. And limit each request to ONE or, at the most, TWO specific behaviors.
It's also important to TELL your partner what you need. Don't ask. Don't say "will you please start hugging me when we both get home from work?" Directness establishes boundaries; it tells other people how you expect to be treated. Being direct prevents people from walking all over you because being direct tells them where to step. And people LIKE that. We LIKE boundaries. It makes life much, much easier.
That's it. That's all we need to do. It's really simple. HARD, but simple.
Luckily, this is a process that gets wayyyyy easier with practice. So start small, maybe with the needs that are easier to fulfill or require less action on other people's part.
The cool thing about this process is the feedback is usually pretty immediate. In healthy relationships, we'll quickly find our partners (romantic or platonic) are happy to meet our needs, not angry we're expressing them. Humans are, after all, hard-wired to help each other. We wouldn't have survived as a species if we weren't designed this way.
It doesn't take long to start to realize we're worthy of having our needs met, and we deserve to feel wonderfully fulfilled in our relationships. We deserve to to feel safe expressing our thoughts, feelings, and needs, and having those thoughts, feelings, and needs heard and acknowledged.
So How Did This Work Out for Me?
It's been around a decade since I learned to start asking for what I needed from any relationship. And damn, has it been liberating. All my relationships are far more authentic; I no longer feel I need to act a certain way in the hopes of getting my needs met.
Importantly, I also don't have unmet needs. Asking for exactly what I need from any given relationship has become so second-nature, it's not even a conscious thought process. I no longer ruminate about how to get needs met without upsetting people. I just do it. And it's awesome!
The real payoff, though, is my relationship with Shelly. I've been writing this article for three days. During that time, I've been plumbing the depths of my psyche to find any needs I have that she can provide that I'm not getting. I can't think of a single one. We've been together for quite a long time... somewhere in the ballpark of seventeen years. Since discovering how to ask her for what I need, our relationship has truly blossomed.
|12,000 feet. Literally on top of the world.|
Long gone is the feedback loop where my unmet needs caused all kinds of personal angst. Long gone is the feedback loop that led to anger and resentment of others. I can finally engage in relationships and enjoy them for what they are. That authenticity has enriched my life in ways that are difficult to explain in writing. That's doubly true of my relationship with Shelly.
So yeah... it's well worth the effort of learning how to identify and ask for what you need from others. NOT doing this really kinda limits the quality of your life, negatively affects those you love, and limits your ability to make a real, sustained difference in the world.
If you don't currently have people in your life that you can rely on to
meet your needs, I'll give you some pointers in the next post.
Hopefully that old friend internalized these ideas and will start working on learning how to ask for what they need. Because like all of us, they deserve nothing less.