In my practice and in my personal life there are two core issues in relationship with others that I see coming up time and time again. In fact they are so common and so disastrous that if each of us could wipe these patterns from our behaviour I am certain our self-esteem, our relationships with others and our world on the whole would be a vastly different and more peaceful and loving place to exist.
The two core issues are as follows:
1. Not asking directly, clearly, and respectfully for what you need.
2. Not saying “I’m sorry” when we know we have hurt someone.
These issues are flip sides of the same coin. On one side the person is not taking responsibility for asking directly for what they need, on the other side the person is not willing to take responsibility for acknowledging unmet needs that their actions have triggered in the other, even when they see the validity of that need.
This vicious cycle of not asking and not giving comes from the same place – fear – and regardless of which side we’re on most in any specific relationship it amounts to the same thing, a lack of safety, trust and respect that will ultimately lead to the end of the relationship.
Let’s take a look at #1 first and then see how it intertwines with #2.
Not asking directly, clearly and respectfully for what you need is a disaster waiting to happen. At best you feel apathetic; as though life just happens to you and you have to take what you can get and hope for the best. At worst you feel resentful, angry and judgemental of the people in your life or in the world at large who seem to get what they want and need while you are “doomed to suffer” or play the martyr.
Why don’t we just ask for what we need? There are many reasons but they all really boil down to one thing: Not feeling “good enough” ie. We believe we are not as deserving as others and that we will be rejected if we ask for something that we need.
Somewhere deep down in each of us who don’t ask respectfully and clearly for what we need is the belief that we are not good enough and therefore we don’t deserve what we want. This, we believe, is particularly true if getting what we want might in any way cause judgement from others or cause them to not get exactly what they want. The truth is there is always a way for us to both get what we want, maybe not from each other, but it is not true that if I get what I want the other person can’t get what they want. That is all or nothing thinking in its finest and most devastating form.
As long as we continue to believe the “I’m not deserving because I’m not good enough” story we continue to strengthen our allegiance to it, unconsciously assessing everyone and ourselves through the lens of our undeservedness leads us to interact with others from a place of being less than and therefore not as worthy. This often means that even when we have a partner or dear friend who has healthy self-esteem and would be happy and willing to hear us ask for a need to be met, we assume, because we feel undeserving, that they will reject us, get angry at us, or think we think we are better than they are, and so, we don’t ask for our need to be met. Instead we bend over backwards to meet their needs, biting our tongues about our own needs, and feel resentful and angry when they accept our offer of support.
We who carry the belief that we are undeserving and not good enough never get to see the truth of who we are and who we can be when we believe that we deserve to be happy and peaceful and to be the best that we can be. Instead we live half-lives, not fully engaging in anything and not ever getting to see the trust and safety and intimacy that can exist between two people when we really show our true selves to them. Inevitably, if we are holding back something of our selves in relationship for fear of judgement or rejection, the other person, regardless of their health and self-esteem is going to hold something of themselves back too. Not necessarily to the same extent but they will not feel safe and received in sharing themselves fully based on the modeling we are offering or even the energy we give off when they ask for what they need. Resentment is palpable – even if we’re not naming it, the people around us will feel it and it will create distance.
Now let’s look at #2: Not saying “I’m sorry” when we know we have hurt someone. Just as not taking responsibility for asking for our needs to be met directly impacts the health of our relationships and the behaviour of the other person as well, not taking responsibility for how our behaviour impacts others is a double whammy too.
The truth in any relationship is this: You are not responsible for meeting another person’s needs, unless you’ve openly agreed to and even then you ultimately have the right to change your mind.
That’s a key point in life that many of us never fully understand – re-read the above statement and see what your inner reaction is to it. Does it seem like a no-brainer or does it seem like some radical concept bordering on anarchy? So, someone around you can be having a rough moment because they have needs for closeness, or acknowledgement or play for example that are not being met. It’s not up to you to meet those needs for that person – it is up to them, they are their needs! However, if for example you’ve committed to meeting this person’s need for play (you agreed to hang out for the afternoon let’s say) and you choose not to follow through you are responsible for acknowledging that you are breaking a commitment and that you appreciate that your friend may have feelings about that and needs that aren’t met by you changing your plans. That is the honoring thing to do, for you and for them. Step up, acknowledge the needs of the other person and that you’re aware that they aren’t being met by you in that moment. The only way to be able to do this from a place of self-respect and strength is to know that you also have the right to have your needs met and that if your needs wouldn’t be met by spending the afternoon with this person on that day your first priority is to yourself.You see, when you know that you and your friend both have a right to have your needs met, and you know that you are not responsible for the other person’s needs you can acknowledge their need, agree or not agree to meet it, you can let them have their feelings about whether or not you are meeting their needs and you can still do what you need to do for you. In a healthy, interdependent connection there is appreciation on both sides that the other is not there for the sole purpose of serving them. There is appreciation that as long as both parties are respectful in their communication and acknowledge each other’s needs and are clearly willing to meet them when they can, that is the most any of us can ask of the other.Any time we have a connection where the person sees us as the sole provider of a particular need (barring dependent children of course) there are going to be issues of dependency and expectancy. If the needs of that person don’t jive with your needs there is going to be strife. We see this often in romantic partnerships where one party has a higher sex drive than the other and therefore one will often feel unfulfilled while the other feels resentful that they “have” to meet the other persons need.As long as we are stuck in our all or nothing thinking that there is only one way to meet our need (whatever it is) and only one person who can do it we immediately begin to feel fearful of not getting that need met. This leads us to feel angry and resentful (a mask for fear) before we’ve even asked for our need to be met. Because of the story we’re telling ourselves that our need won’t get met, we do a lot of judging and blaming of the other person (even if just in our head). We feel fearful and angry, and by the time we actually ask for the need to be met it often comes out with a force and a tone that imply fault towards the other person and leads them to step back into their own defensive posture. This makes it hard for them to hear you and to respond respectfully and to agree to meet your request. So they don’t. Nobody likes to be told what to do, or to be criticized or judged before they’ve even done anything!
The unfortunate thing of course is that because of the underlying story that you are not deserving and worthy of what you need, you are less likely to get your needs met both because you don’t ask and because when you finally do ask, you ask in such a way that is unclear or accusatory and doesn’t lead to open, receptive dialogue and understanding on the part of the other person. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy: “See, I knew I wasn’t worthy!” When in reality it is simply an example of harmful old core beliefs at work and likely a lack of communication skills which are easily come by if we allow ourselves to look for them.
At worst, when we ask for a need to be met and someone says no or doesn’t follow through it’s simply an indicator that it didn’t work for them to meet our need. It is not in any way an indicator of the validity or “okay-ness” of our need. It is about the other person, not us.
If you find that in your primary relationship you’re hearing no a lot when you ask for needs to be met, first check in with yourself about how clearly, directly and respectfully you’ve communicated. If you’ve done your part and the answer is frequently no – it could be time to reevaluate the health of that relationship. In most cases however, partners are only too happy to meet a clear request. People want other people to be happy as a rule, they just need us to tell them what we need rather than make them guess!
And as for taking responsibility for not meeting another’s needs. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging that their needs haven’t been met and (if you care to) asking what you can do now to meet their need. It is still their need and they need to let you know if, when and how you can meet it. It is then up to you to see how that feels to you and to agree or not.
Consider the asking for and meeting of needs an ongoing dialogue as opposed to a hard and fast agreement that must be made as soon as one or the other of you raises an issue. Take time to get clear on what you need and on what specifically someone can do to meet that need and then put that out there. Give the other person time to think – sometimes 5 minutes, an hour, a day, week etc. depending on the need. Then chat again and see what they think and feel about it. What needs do they have that will or won’t be met in meeting yours?
If you value your self and you value the other person you will never want to rush a discussion or force the other person to agree or give you an answer before they are ready.
From the all or nothing mind set of those who use food to cope this is a radical concept. That’s a good thing. If we stay in the comfort zone and only do what we’ve always done – we’ll only ever get better at feeling overwhelmed, anxious and using food to cope! Not such a great idea I say.