Needs, wants, what’s the difference? This is a discussion that occurs frequently in my office. In our culture, we spend a lot of time talking about our needs. Most couples in my office begin the conversation with, “I need my partner to ____,” Or, “I just feel like my needs aren’t being met in this relationship.” We grow up believing that others are there to meet our needs. This stems from our experience as young people when our parents held that job. And indeed our needs were required to be met, because we were unable to meet them ourselves. For example, babies need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, loved, held, acknowledged, soothed, reassured, and kept safe. There is an inherent dependence in this parent/child relationship. If your parents or primary caregivers were emotionally and physically available to meet those needs, you were able to develop an internal sense of trust that when you asked for what you needed, your request was met. As you grew older, you learned how to meet more and more of your own needs as your abilities and resources developed. You came to trust that you can and will take care of yourself. This is called “growing up.”
Now, your parents are human beings and may not have been able to meet your every need 100% of the time. For many of you, that percentage may have been considerably less. If you cried out for your need to be met and it was not, or your caregivers were not physically and/or emotionally available, you may have developed beliefs about yourself such as “I’m all alone in the world;” “I have to take care of myself (as a baby);” or “I am unimportant, wrong, or invisible.” Growing up with these core beliefs and a history of unmet needs, contributes to a void within. That void is that nagging feeling of something missing in your life or a hole that seems never-ending in its depth; no matter what you do, there is never enough. Your partner may experience that void as a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to your satisfaction with them or your relationship. Commonly, you may seek external sources to attempt to fill that void (relationships, material possessions, money, addictions to people, substances, work, sex or other means) which continue to fall short every time.
Meet Your Own Needs: “What do I need from myself?”
As adults, this continuous seeking of external validation becomes especially problematic when you attempt to develop healthy intimate relationships. You may find yourself seeking unavailable partners, feeling like your partner is your parent, feeling all alone in your relationship, or feeling overwhelmed because you are doing everything by yourself. What is required is an internal “re-parenting” of yourself, by identifying, acknowledging, attending to, and meeting your own needs.
Its important to recognize that the part of you that needs attention is a child part who did not get what he/she needed as a little person. As an adult, you now have the resources, language, and perspective to see what is needed. Being gentle, patient, and nurturing with yourself opens an opportunity for compassion and understanding that only you can provide. This develops a strong relationship with yourself and an ability to feel whole as that void is filled with love, integrity, trust, courage, and confidence.
So practice with yourself. The next time you find yourself complaining that your partner is not doing something, seems disconnected, or is otherwise pissing you off, take a deep breath, pause, and check in with yourself… “What do I need from myself in this moment?” More specifically you might ask:
- Do I need to ask for something?
- Do I need reassurance?
- Do I need to remind myself that I am safe?
- Do I need to rest?
- Do I need to exercise?
- Do I need to speak up for myself?
- Do I need to set a boundary?
- Do I need to stop participating in a pattern that continues to hurt me?
- Do I need to advocate for myself?
- Do I need to organize my thoughts, so that I can share them clearly?
- Do I need to push myself a bit more?
- Do I need to tell the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable?
- Do I need to hold others able to take care of themselves?
Allow these questions to serve as prompts to clue you in to what you need. Do not let this be an exhaustive list, come up with your own as well. You are the expert on yourself! When you slow down enough and stop numbing out with those external substitutes, you can finally hear that little voice inside that is calling out and desperately needs you to listen.
Ask for what you want: “What I would like from you is….”
So, once you have attended to yourself, you may find there is nothing else that is desired from your partner in that moment. However, you may discover that there is something that you would like from him or her. Now you have a clear opportunity to ask for something that you would like, or invite your partner to give you something. When you ask for what you would like, know that you may or may not get it. That is up to your partner to determine whether or not they can freely give to you with a “clear yes,” as discussed in a previous post (The Top 2 Secrets to a Healthy Relationship). The difference now is that your life or your relationship no longer depends on your partner meeting your request. And if your request is granted, you can trust and know that you have taken care of yourself and you can trust that your partner is genuinely participating with you rather than feeling pressured or cornered to keep you afloat.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Allow this to become a fun exercise to practice with your partner, children, family members, and friends. Have fun with it, as it will feel awkward at first to talk with yourself and each other in this way. Your old patterns took many years to form, so know that it will take some time to shift direction. This is the foundation for healthy communication and self-love. Take the time to pay attention to your little-self within, you may find that you are a lot more lovable than you ever imagined! And the love and intimacy that you invite into your life by clearly asking for what you want is priceless. If you find you could use some extra help, couples counseling is a great place to break those old patterns and practice this new way of communicating in a safe place. If you want to learn how to slow down more and tune into that inner voice, try meditation at home or in a class. To get to the root of those old core beliefs, hypnotherapy is an excellent path. Take the next step and keep practicing! You and your relationships are so worth it!