I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?
The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.
I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.
Ironically, I recognize now my greatest failure by far in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.
This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.
The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another — a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide with the values of others.
Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.
As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.
I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.
Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!
The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is the lack of recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.
I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.
As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?
As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again — that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?
Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.
Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs along with the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.