This past week, I’ve had three meaningful interactions with friends that complemented my own continued inner journey and, together, led me to want to speak, again and anew, about the tragedy of how we’ve been taught to relate to our needs. On the surface, our stories look so different from each other: being let down by friends at a time of crisis; exploding at a partner in response to a small stimulus; being unwilling to talk to a mother; and finding it exceedingly difficult to maintain a mindful engagement with life. It took some focus to see the theme that ties them all together: they all stem from a pervasive challenge about making our needs important enough.
In a moment, I unpack each of these (changing details to maintain anonymity) to illustrate the theme. For now, I want to start with marveling at how far we are, collectively, from taking our needs seriously and making them a priority. Instead, we have been trained to view our needs as a sign of weakness or dependence, and as something bottomless that cannot be controlled. We have also been told to view anyone who puts their needs first as inherently selfish. I am happy to say that I have freed myself from this myth. Instead, I think of attending to our needs, especially within a culture that so devalues them, as a courageous act that requires commitment, attention, and the willingness to face potential reprimand from others. Because what pulls us away from our needs – habits, impulses, obligations, fear, internalized norms, desire for reward, or belief in scarcity – are so powerful, it takes vigilance to keep our focus and intention in the face of all that’s stacked up against it.
As part of my large vision for what life could be like, how the world could be structured, and what we humans could conceivably be like in such a world, I wholeheartedly want to have millions and millions of people who are as committed to uncovering and cherishing their needs, who keep each other company on the journey to full, authentic, and caring living. If this piece inspires anyone to take their needs more seriously, I will be happy for having written it.
Generosity vs. Buying Love
Stan is the kind of friend anyone wants to have. He remembers everyone’s preferences, will drop everything when called by a friend for support, and is always exuberant and warm. Stan has been doing it for years, his whole life. Recently, when his partner was going through a scary medical time, Stan reached out to his community of friends, asking for their support. Despite being specific in his requests and making it clear that the need was large, hardly any of his friends responded to the call. Stan was alone with his partner at home, juggling more than the usual and without support. When we talked, he was in deep despair and feeling utterly lonely. Through lots of tears, Stan said all he could think about was turning off his automatic “yes” and replacing it with an automatic “no” to whatever is being asked of him.
As we talked more, what became clear is that Stan’s generosity is entirely integral to who he is. Turning it off so completely would be a form of violence to himself. At the same time, alongside the genuine generosity, and inextricably linked to it, is the hope that being so generous would create enough of an investment that, when his turn came for needing anything, his friends would come through based on his previous generosity.
Therein lies the catch: all this time Stan has been trying to earn others’ love instead of trusting that his own needs would be enough to bring it forth. As far as I can tell based on years and years of working with people in many parts of the world, we are creatures wired to respond to need in others. Seeing a need tends to open our hearts and then we usually want to be helpful. Sadly, to the extent that our own needs, and the vulnerability of showing them, have been squashed, many of us are quite uncomfortable when others show vulnerability. This fear can easily inhibit what would otherwise be our natural, openhearted response to another’s need. Perhaps the fear of that kind of response is part of what perpetuates and reinforces our frequent reluctance to expose our needs.
Instead of a blanket “yes” or a blanket “no”, Stan is hoping to be truly attentive to his limits in a new way, to recognize and own his needs as he weighs a request from a friend, so that he only says “yes” in those instances when there is pure generosity, free of any subtle future exchange, and without overriding his own limits.
Needless to say, no matter what Stan does, his friends may or may not rally up in his support next time he faces a crisis. This discipline does accomplish something vital, though. Internally, it changes Stan’s way of being in the world, aligns him more closely with what is true. More to the point, in the new setup it would be much more difficult for his friends to fall into Stan’s projected image of needing nothing and always being available.
Stretching beyond Limits and Snapping
Janine’s story shows up in a different form, and yet stems from the same underlying challenge. Janine has been married to Greta for years, and their relationship is growing stronger and deeper the longer they are together, despite the challenge of raising two kids, now in their late teens. Still, from time to time Janine suddenly explodes at Greta in response to something that she herself knows is far smaller than the size of her reaction. Why is she doing this? Can she find a way to transcend this dynamic?
As Janine was speaking, I saw clearly the flaw in her reasoning: she was only focusing on what she could do to control herself better, and feeling helpless to change the situation. As we talked some more, Janine’s true predicament became clear. From early on in her childhood, she was simply not allowed to say “no” without incurring the consequence of losing affection. She was put in the position to stretch and stretch, or else suffer disconnection and fending for herself in her large family of origin. Moreover, there was never any appreciation or recognition of her efforts.
Why would that lead her to snap, you may wonder? As an adult, in a loving relationship, she wants to be able to free herself from this tight grip of never saying “no.” Since she never lets it be known that she has limits, and often is not even aware of them, there is no way for Greta to know when Janine is stretched beyond capacity. There is nothing she could ever recognize or appreciate, let alone support Janine in changing, without knowing that Janine is actually stretching, and doing it constantly.
The path forward that emerged from our conversation was, indeed, an exacting discipline, just as exacting as the one I offered Stan: Janine would need to notice when she is stretching, recognize her needs and her limits, and, most especially, check to see if there is any motivation to be seen or to have her needs be recognized. If any of those exist, then, instead of continuing to say “yes” – to requests, to responsibilities she had assumed in the family, or to anything else – she would approach Greta and engage in conversation, bring the dilemma to her, and work together with her on finding a solution that works for both of them.
As similar as Stan’s and Janine’s situations might now seem, Mary’s appeared quite different when I first heard from her. In her last visit back home in Virginia, she had a very unpleasant interaction with her mother, and has been avoiding her ever since. Mary’s brother now tells her that her mother is angry, and she is still not finding a way to say anything to her mother.
The clue to the same theme emerged when Mary declared that she just can’t think of what to say to her mother, because she didn’t trust her mother to be able to hear anything. When I probed and asked for examples, I could see the sad history: over the years, she had tried to get her mother to hear her needs without ever articulating them in any direct way. When we do that, I have noticed, we tend to speak in ways that are far easier to interpret as an attack. Exposing the need, risking the possibility of being open and not being heard, actually increases the chance of deeper connection and of our needs being attended to.
With their ongoing history, I didn’t see a way that Mary could stay true to herself in the moment while managing both her own attempts to step outside of their decades-long pattern while at the same time finding a way to be open to and kind with her mother’s responses. The discipline, in her case, is just to follow the thread meticulously enough within herself to be able to articulate it at all, staying close to her own experience and needs rather than falling into despair about how it has always been. I proposed that she do it in writing, where each of them can have breathing space to take in what the other writes and find the possibility of responding rather than reacting.
Beyond “Just” Meaningful Engagement
It is often easier to see patterns clearly in other people which become fuzzier in ourselves. I am no exception, and articulating my challenges with mindful choosing may not be as clear as I would like. Still, I recognize so much that I am not alone in this struggle that I want to make it public in the hopes of increasing my own and others’ capacity to grapple with this pandemic.
I don’t own a TV and I don’t read the paper. I don’t surf the internet, not even for news which I avoid. I don’t visit Facebook (although others created and have sporadically run a Facebook page for me, thinking I needed one). I don’t text and I hardly use my cell phone. One surface layer of common distractions is entirely absent in my life.
My life is almost entirely free of obligations, guilt, or shame. I hardly ever do anything that I don’t have true willingness to do. In fact, I have had a pact with myself since 1985, when I was studying for qualifying exams in computer science at Columbia University, that I will never force myself to do something that I can’t find willingness to do. I can’t remember any significant instances of violating this pact in all these years. The friendships I have are all significant, and I have an abundance of intimacy in my life. My work is deeply aligned with my values and vision, and I have the ongoing satisfaction of supporting many people in tangible, real ways.
Still, in the midst of so much richness and meaning, my days are often harried and I rarely have a felt sense of spaciousness. I clearly do too much for my own well-being. The one clue I have is that I attend to self-care primarily, almost exclusively, when it is scheduled and involves another person. What I don’t know to do is to notice, in the moment, when I am stretching myself to continue to do what I am doing, and make the choice to stop, to rest, to read a book, to put on some music, to reflect, to write something for myself, to look at pictures, to go outside and sit in the sun. Just about every day ends a little breathless.
All this is clear, painfully clear. What I lack is an understanding of what it is that makes attending to my needs, only my needs, so easy to lose sight of. All I know to say to myself is that the more I manage to notice and choose my needs, the same discipline I have been recommending to my friends, the more likely I am to decipher the code that keeps me so unable to choose. It is so humbling for me to see how difficult it is for me to make different choices from what I have been making.
Packaging for No One’s Benefit
As I wind down this piece, I come back to the topic of “packaging,” about which I wrote last time. In the time since, several people have asked me to name exactly what I mean by packaging. The simplest way I see it is about making myself look like I am doing better than I am. As in the painfully hilarious experience I recently had of being on the phone with two very dear friends, where our aim is explicitly to connect on the most raw and open level possible. Then one of the friends said: “I am generally OK” and proceeded to share a series of quite harrowing things that had just happened to her in the week prior to the call, each one of which would have knocked me out.
For me, this habit stems from not wanting to put my needs on other people to care for. Not because I don’t believe in community, friendship, or deep caring; obviously that is one aspect of what I am dedicating my life to enhancing in the world. Rather, I have a deep and personal mistrust that I am slowly dismantling, that leaves me captive to a belief that there just won’t be enough care for me in this world. Somehow, in this story, my own needs are too much for others, my tendency to experience things intensely and be so aware of suffering in me and in others too overwhelming, and my pervasive experience of feeling an alien in this world too awkward. It is only when I am able to manage myself, I tell myself, that others will continue to want my company. Although my early experiences of being an outcast are now long gone, and I have an abundance of people who love me and want to support me, I continue to hold my needs in this invisible package, to display them within a glass, as if they are an exhibit, not a pulsating reality asking for attention and love. This is why my own discipline, a deeply demanding practice, has been to notice, in each conversation with each close person, when and how I do it, and then to aim to unpackage, to discover the reality of my experience which I often leave unexamined in my packed days.
While the unfolding of this story remains in the future, and I have no way of knowing how far I can go, what I will discover, and how my discoveries will affect my choices about the details of how I schedule my life, I know already that this discipline is having significant and positive effects on my life. My support calls are richer, the intimacy I share with people even deeper, and my inner vibrancy sharper. Often during these times I cry, which for me is always a sign of life coming back into me from being exiled into the land of prohibitions. The people who are with me also benefit, as they want the real me, and my opening allows all of us to be closer to truth, less willing to participate in the ethos of not needing anything, and more able to be free agents of change in our lives and beyond.
The Fearless Heart Teleseminars
Join Miki to talk about recent posts on this blog. These are drop-in teleseminars open to all and free of charge. They are offered twice a month, on a Sunday morning and on a weekday in the early evening, to accommodate multiple time zones from around the globe. Register here for the next ones:
Sunday November 16: 10:30am-12pm PST
Thursday November 20: 5:30pm-7pm PST
Sunday November 30: 10:30am-12pm PST
Thursday December 4: 5:30pm-7pm PST
Image Credits: All from Flickr Creative Commons. From top:
- United Way of Greater St. Louis’ 100 Neediest Cases 2011 artwork: Third place winner, Nerinx Hall student Mary Burwinkel.
- “give earth a chance…” by CRASH:candy
- “Stop Requested” by Michael Daines
- “One little snowdrop” by harold.lloyd