How do you think about your needs?
Have you ever been in a conversation where you heard one of these comments about needs:
“It’s selfish to focus on your needs”.
“Our culture has become so self absorbed – all this focus on my needs.”
“I can’t think about my needs, when so many people are suffering and I have so much.”
“I don’t have time to think about my needs.”
In my early life, I’m not sure if I was all that aware of what I needed. I know I operated from a belief that I should not put myself first. Others’ needs were more important. It’s a belief I absorbed.
As I look back on those early years, I recall a diffuse lingering anger that I grew to believe was just part of my personality. I thought I had better just ‘suck it up’ and get used to it. It was not something I talked about to others. It just was. No matter how much I reached out to others to help meet their needs or fought to ‘feel better’, I could not overcome the smouldering resentment, exhaustion, lifelessness… and eventually experienced burn-out.
What a shift when I finally began to listen to what I was feeling, give myself permission to have needs (beyond food, water, shelter, clothing, safety) and find ways to address those needs. In fact, in the years that have followed, I have found that I offer the best of myself to others when I am making choices about my needs.
Is it ‘self centred’ to acknowledge my needs?
Is considering my own needs right? wrong? self-centred?
I suggest that using labels like ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘selfish’ gets in the way. The issue is less about whether it is OK or not to have needs, and more about:
- Am I aware of what I need?
…and, once I am aware…
- How do I choose in this moment – in this situation – to respond to that need?
- Can I take full responsibility for the choice I make and embrace that?
Imagine you are feeling tired and unwell. You have promised your son you will go and watch him perform in tonight’s school concert. Firstly, I am celebrating your awareness that you are feeling tired and unwell. That’s a step in a healthy direction! As you connect with what you feel, what are you aware of needing? It might be rest, healthy food, support (for you and for your son). There may be several needs you are aware of. You might choose one of many strategies to meet your need/s, e.g.
- Organising things so that you can go to the concert, come home and go to bed.
- Asking a partner or other support person to go to your son’s concert in your place (and have them film your son’s performance on their phone) – while you rest.
- Going to the concert and deciding to take a rest day tomorrow to recuperate.
- Going to the concert long enough to see your son perform, and have a support person bring him home, while you come home and rest.
Of course, each choice has consequences, and we are responsible (and also free) to weigh them up and make our choice, without labelling it as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s just what we freely choose to do. Labelling choices as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ can absolve us of our responsibility and place power in the hands of someone else.
When we take the time and space to become aware, choose and take action (rather than jumping into reactivity) there is immense freedom – a freedom that may be scary. We may be judged by others in ways that leave us feeling uncomfortable. We may feel unsure. We may face the grief of lost years as we experience the ease and joy that is possible when we find ways to give voice to our needs.
What if I don’t know what I need?
If we’ve spent most of our lives disconnected from our needs, it can take some time to discover what they are. To support your exploration, you might like to build a vocabulary of needs like the Needs Inventory available at the Centre For Nonviolent Communication.
How do I know what I ‘want’ vs what I ‘need’?
For me, definitions about needs vs wants, become academic in the moment. In reality it differs from person to person. Most people I work with find they know and can make the call on what ‘needs’ are important for them to address and what ‘wants’ they might choose to hold more lightly.
What gets in the way of asking for what we need?
When our physical or psychological safety is at risk: An obvious barrier to asking for what we need is when our physical or psychological safety is at risk. What I’ve said above assumes we have a supportive person in our family or network that we can trust. If not a family member or friend, it may be someone at work, a caseworker, psychologist, counsellor, or other professional who can support us to connect with and access what we need.
When we don’t have support: What about those who simply have not support? Sometimes our social systems are just not set up in a way where everyone can access what they need. It’s my longing that we continue to build community connections and lobby for services where support can continually be offered to people who do not have support: those who live alone, single parents, refugees, people struggling with mental illness and people living in abusive relationships. An important part of our work in Aware with Words is to contribute to this need by offering scholarships for coaching and communication support to those who cannot afford a standard fee.
Fear of being vulnerable: Another barrier to asking for what we need is fear of being vulnerable – even when our immediate safety is not at risk. It can take great courage to drop the masks we hide behind and ask for support. I’m reminded of Marshall Rosenberg’s words, in his book “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”1: ‘We’re often judged harshly for identifying and revealing our needs.’ I appreciate his acknowledgement that ‘revealing our needs can be very frightening’.
Rosenberg makes this reference particularly with women in mind; women who may be ‘socialised to view the caretaking of others as their highest duty’. I suspect that for many men, however, vulnerability is just as frightening, especially when they have been socialised to never show emotion or perceived weakness. And, for leaders in organisations, vulnerability is something that is only slowly finding its way into the management lexicon.
Limiting beliefs: A final barrier to asking for what we need can be our beliefs. Our belief that “support is never available” may be a protection from choosing the path of vulnerability and not having the control we thought we had. “I don’t have needs” or “My needs don’t matter” are other beliefs that can keep us out of connection with ourselves and our resourcefulness and out of connection with others.
What is possible if we ask for what we need?
So much is possible when we ask for what we need, and most of it is summed up in the word ‘connection’ – with ourselves and with others.
Once we are free to acknowledge our needs and take responsibility for them, we get to know ourselves more fully. We discover what we enjoy and what we don’t, what our gifts are, what our needs are for rest, for exercise. We are likely to experience better health. We gain a greater sense of when we need time out, and when we need connection with others. We become more free to step into all of who we are.
When we are at peace with our needs, we experience greater connection with others, who experience us as more present. Our demanding and resentment (which others shrink from) disappears. Others want to spend time with us and will trust us more. We are more free to be curious about what others are needing and how we might contribute to their lives.
I recall as I became more in tune with my own needs, that my appreciation of and connection with nature grew. Colours seemed more intense, the sky seemed brighter. I could feel a gentle breeze on my face. No longer were jacaranda trees just a November reminder of university exams. They became a lively art scape that changed each day – vibrant with purple against the grey skies of a sunless day, and a dance of green when the sun returned. .
- What beliefs did you adopt early in life in regard to your needs and the needs of others?
- What is your current belief about your needs? Do they matter?
- What other beliefs about your needs could you try on?
- What gets in the way of you asking for what you need?
- What needs are you already tuned in to?
- How might you step more fully into acknowledging and meeting your needs?
It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea2
- Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd Edition. PuddleDancer Press. 2015. CA. p 54-55.
- Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. Gift From the Sea. Pantheon Books. NY. 1955