“If you’re not really clear on what matters to you or what goals you’re working towards, you’re much more susceptible to accommodating other’s wishes, even if it’s it a great personal cost to yourself.” Elisha Goldstein
I grew up in a family of ten, the fifth of nine girls; my brother was the youngest. That kept my mom busy as my dad worked long hours to support us. No one ever told me it was not OK to have needs, but I grew up believing it wasn’t OK to have needs. Whenever I asked my mom if I could do something or have something that she didn’t want me to do or have, she would say, “We’ll see.” Or “I suppose.” Which meant that she would say yes, although she wanted to say no. Thus, leaving me to feel guilty for asking, having, or doing.
There were also implicit expectations in our family. Being “nice” was one of them. My mother often said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We internalized this as if you don’t like something, just live with it and don’t say anything. When I was young, our housekeeper accidentally made me a liver sausage and jelly sandwich. After I took a bite, I said, “There is something wrong with this sandwich.” My older sister said, “It’s fine; just eat it.” So, I took a few more bites. But I hated liver sausage. So finally, I opened up the sandwich and saw liver sausage where the peanut butter was supposed to be.
When I was in seventh grade and just coming out of my shell, my best friend told me I didn’t fit in with the group anymore. So, I learned to be a chameleon, being whoever I thought my family, friends, or boyfriend wanted me to be. For many years, I had no conscious preference on where to go out to dinner, what to eat, or what to do in my free time. And if I did have a preference, I would not state it; I would just hope that my friend, partner, or whoever would choose my choice.
While the details of our lives are different, our socialization caused many of us to believe that it is not OK to have needs. We need to be good and nice and sacrifice to make others happy. We need to live up to the expectations of our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, bosses, and partners. That leaves precious little time for ourselves, so why bother thinking about our needs.
“If we’re going to care for ourselves, this means taking charge of our own well-being. In order to alleviate our own suffering, we have to take our needs seriously and value ourselves enough to meet them. Once we acknowledge that our needs matter—one of the first principles of self-compassion—we can stand our ground when we’re asked to sacrifice what’s important to us. We don’t have to rank our needs below those of others, the way women have been socialized to do.” Kristen Neff, Fierce Self Compassion
After college, I pretty much gave up my two favorite hobbies: reading and sewing. Working, getting my MBA, being married, and having a social life left me with little time for myself. After I finished school, I had kids leaving even less time for myself. When I got divorced, I allowed myself more time to read novels. But, it wasn’t until I became an empty nester that I was able to read to my heart’s content. I also got into quilting, which reminded me how much I love sewing. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the look on my granddaughters’ faces when they see their new matching dresses.
But I still could not tell you what I wanted for dinner, where I wanted to go on vacation, and how I really wanted to spend my time. I went into freeze mode as I was afraid that I would come up with the wrong answer as defined by whoever was asking. I lived in the “What will people think world” instead of the “I am enough world.” I thought I was accommodating my husband, but actually, it bothered him. He never knew if we were doing what I wanted or just doing what I thought he wanted.
If you asked me five to ten years ago, I would have told you I don’t really have needs. I am good with anything. As my mindfulness practice matured, I have peeled away some of the layers of defenses that have covered up my needs. And I have built up the strength to be vulnerable and ask for what I want. But until working on this talk, I never spent time reflecting on what my needs are.
So, I created a What Might I Need list. It looks at different areas of life and lists different needs that you or I might have, such as home, relationships, body, personal space, beliefs and opinions, stuff, communication, social, work, and hobbies. I probably have missed some crucial areas for you, so use this list as a starting point, skipping any that don’t relate to you and adding others. Within each section are listed ideas that may be needs. Again, use this as a starting point, throwing out what doesn’t matter and adding in what does. The goal is not to create an extensive laundry list. But to hone in on what really matters to you. So, it will take some reflection.
For this reflection, you may find it helpful to have the What Might I Need list handy. You may choose to write noted directly on the list, “staring” the important ones and crossing out those that aren’t. Or you may choose to journal about each area. In this individual reflection, we will focus on home, relationships, body, and personal space. We will get in small groups to reflect on the rest.
Sit in a way that is comfortable for you, so you feel relaxed and yet supported.
With your shoulders over your hips and your head over your shoulders, let your weight sink into your sit bones.
Feel the strength of your posture with each in-breath.
Feel the tension in your body relax with each out-breath.
Feeling relaxed and alert, review the potential needs list one area at a time.
When your inner critic distracts your attention, take a few minutes to feel the strength of your posture with each in-breath and relax your body with each out-breath.
Take your time with this reflection. You deserve the time to uncover your needs.
Gift yourself the time to reflect on what you need. It is not a one and done, please find the time to come back and review your needs.
Preferences, Desires and Deal-Breakers
So, now that you have explored your needs, what do you do with them? We don’t want to get too rigid as they don’t all have the same importance. Looking through your list, take the most important ones and list them on the sheet called Preferences, Desires, and Deal-Breakers in the document with the What Might I Need list.
Preferences mean that you are partial to one option over another, but there is room to compromise. Desires are a step up from preferences; while we may compromise on them, we would prefer not to. Deal Breakers are non-negotiable boundaries, things you cannot live without. Rate each need you listed. If you selected your top needs, most will be desires or deal-breakers.
Congratulate yourself for spending the time to understand what needs are important to you. This reflection will help you set boundaries in your life to free up time from what doesn’t matter to give more time to what matters. Understanding our needs allows us to reduce our anxiety by aligning our lives with our values.
To have healthy boundaries, they need to be based on authentic self-knowledge, not the expectations imposed on us by others. Please spend some time understanding your needs, so you are ready to define your boundaries and explore how to put them into practice next session.