Needs. The magic word that makes the world go round. It's been on my mind because it's often at the center of my work with one-on-one clients. Lately as I've been coaching several couples, it's at the center of their sticky conflict points that they can't seem to walk past. And this perplexing thing called needs has been at the center of countless conversations I've had with friends and family these days.
Do these phrases sound familiar to you? "I need this." "They need this." "I can't give you want you need." "You can't give me what I need." "You should know what I need by now." Who knew a small four letter word was such a heavy weight. Tricky business.
I suppose as a conflict resolution practioner it shouldn't be a surprise to me. I studied Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs multiple times years ago and the topic of "needs" is a conversation starter and stopper in the international development world where I worked for a decade. But the funny thing is that it is a surprise. Part of it was that I didn't recognize how much of a major player needs were in my own life until I started asking some hard questions. What did I need from people in my support system? What did my friends need from me? What did I need in a relationship? What did a partner need from me? When I started unraveling the bundle of string called needs I realized that I'd been avoiding an intentional look in that bucket for some time. Throwing trust into the wind and hoping it'd catch some wings. Part of it was because I prided myself on not needing anything...or anyone. For the last several years, I've been totally fascinated by the role of needs, the practice of transcending our needs, and getting clear about what needs other people can and cannot fill.
Much of why I didn't think much about needs was because my own spiritual practice for a long time was about transcending needs. Self-sufficiency. Freeing myself from what I saw was the root of suffering. A sense of "lacking." So I did my darndest to get rid of this thing called needs. But a funny thing happened along the way. I uncovered all these hidden needs under the surface in my life that fueled passive aggressive behavior in myself and in others trying to get our way, or trying to pretend we don't need anything when unconsciously we absolutely do.
Ok let's be real here. As I mentioned in a post late last year, we are not alone and as independent as we believe ourselves to be. We are inherently interdependent by virtue of being born into a realm of existence where every single item of food, water, and shelter depended on thousands of people to harvest and bring them to you. So let's get that straight. Given that we are so interdependent that means that we do in fact need things from people.
Three situations related to our needs inevitably lead to suffering and conflict:
1) When we are unclear about our own needs;
2) When we don't clearly communicate what we need and expect others to read our minds;
3) When we expect everyone outside of us to fulfill ALL of our needs.
Let me explain. When I got divorced I never felt more alone in my life. Married friends had me feeling like I had a bad plague that they might catch. Single friends couldn't relate because they had never been married. But my biggest problem was that I was unclear what I needed from my support network in the first place and therefore wasn't communicating it. My friends had no idea how to support me because I wasn't asking for it! I wasn't sharing what I needed.
It hadn't occurred to me how much support I really needed until I was at work one day. My team leader asked me about an assignment I was working on and mentioned that lately I hadn't seemed quite like myself. Suddenly I found tears boiling up in my eyes and dripping down my face. Shit I thought to myself keep it together! Seeing the pain welling in my eyes and being a very empathetic leader she pulled me aside into a small conference room to see what was going on. "I'm in the process of going through a divorce." I sobbed to her. "What!? Why didn't you tell me?! Do you need some time off? How can I support you?!" she asked. How can you support me? Huh. It wasn't anything that had occurred to me. How could my team leader support me? I hadn't spent an ounce thinking about what I might need from my supervisor and my co-workers during such a big transition. I just figured I had to keep it together and figure it out. This was the first door that opened up for me.
Flash forward to my time in a monastery. After living in a monastery and deciding to become a Buddhist nun, when I sat in the mountains of Arizona by myself I realized wait a minute...I really wanted partnership. I was trying to run away from the need for partership because I was pretty sure I was able to transcend that stuff. After all, it created a lot of pain and suffering, why would I go through all of that again? But since opening myself back up to the idea of partnership I discovered that there are parts of myself that I had never gotten in touch with.
What precisely did I need in a relationship? It seemed pretty simple. A nice person who gets me. Who understands and accepts me. Easy peasy. But underneath all of that are boxes of needs that required unpacking. How would I know I was understood? How would I know I felt accepted? What would that look like? Hmm. Not something that had occurred to me, but it was clearly the crux of why things in my past and present weren't working in romantic relationships. I learned I need a unique combination of very potent meaningful time with a partner paired with space to pursue my own love of my work. I learned that I need someone who could engage with me about intellectual conversations about the nature of the Universe and politics. People who couldn't meet me there, or who found that overwhelming, didn't expand and challenge me like I wanted.
First, you must acknowledge that you have needs. Second, you must get clear about what they are.
Guess what. That's not enough. After you're clear about them, you have to ask for them. People can't read your mind! Harville Hendrix writes about the way we expect people to read our minds. Regressing to childhood where our caretakers had to guess our needs based on little communication cues and language at a young age. Strangely as adults, we often relate to our partners and those we are relation with as our caretakers. Which means that we then assume people should figure out what we need. When is the last time you told a friend what you needed in a situation? Time and time again in my coaching with individuals and couples I hear the story about how people should just know. They should know me well enough to figure it out.
People will only know what you need...when you tell them. Stop playing the you guess first game.
Trust me. You'll save yourself some serious drama, fatigue, and unneeded stress. The number of times that I wanted either a partner or a friend to know what I needed without telling them is countless. Do you know what that creates? It's a proven recipe for resentment. And the other person feels it. Because we are energetic creatures. So we feel that the other person needs something, but we don't know what it is. If your partner or friend is ambitious they try to figure it out. Guessing game. If they are tired or don't like playing games, they go back to what they were doing. So just tell people what you need. Just do it.
Lastly, and this is sometimes I think the toughest one of all. We have to get real that all of our needs cannot be filled from those outside of us.
When I need something I need to check in with myself and see how I can give that to myself first. I'll take my own love life as an example.
I hate being left in the dark. Hate it. I've been in a push-pull dynamic on and off for the last nine months. This person and I keep re-triggering each other's deepest wounds. Which means I understand us to be each other's best teachers. Here's what he's taught me. Sometimes when things feel fuzzy, I have a need to connect. I have a need to touch base and know he's still out there. In the moments when I can't get that connection in the timeline that my brain wants it, I go into override mode and want to preemptively push him away. What I've learned over time is this. In those moments, before I send the frantic text that pushes him away with a "goodbye" what can I do to give myself connection and love in that moment? Maybe I can call a friend and feel connected. Maybe I can meditate. Chant. Go to the gym or practice yoga. Journal. But I must first dip into filling that need myself and then see what remains. Sometimes I'm great at this. Other times I regretfully send the "goodbye" it's my turn to push you away message.
Any time you have a need from another person, take the finger you are pointing at them and see the three fingers pointing back at you. Ask yourself, how can I give myself that need ?
How can I give myself ove now? Acceptance? Connection? Assurance? Understanding? Nurturing? Fill that void with your energy and then see what remains. In that process, we get clear about how much of a need we are asking the other person to fill and we can get clear on how much they are able to reciprocate.
I know. I'm asking a lot of you this week. My invitation is really to just start getting in touch with your needs. This is an unfolding process. Not an overnight one.
This week's Joy Tip Wednesday is to invite you to begin your journey on understanding what you need. Begin getting in touch with the word need. Notice what is your relationship to it. Aversion? Attachment? Do you love it? Hate it? Are you afraid of it? Check in and notice, how clear am I about my own needs? About communicating them? About filling them myself first? I simply want you to gain an overarching awareness of the role of needs in your life.
Maybe it's a journal entry prompted from the questions I've posed above. To the question what are my needs? How do I currently fulfill them? Am I communicating them? Maybe it's an expressive dance acting out what the word needs means to you. Maybe it's making a playlist about different needs that resonate with you. Maybe it's a fun coffee chat with some friends. Whatever it is, I'm inviting you to just simply become a little more aware of the role of needs in your life.
In the meantime, I have a need to end this post because really...I could go on and on about this topic forever. For now, I'll see this as my place marker of the beginning of a very important conversation and exploration. Looking forward to exploring with you.