“I don’t want to be selfish.”
When I hear this statement in my psychotherapy practice, I get suspicious.
Often, it is code for “I’m afraid of expressing my needs.”
For some, the concept of expressing your needs sounds like a cliché. Having “needs” gets bad press. It sounds either “needy” or “narcissistic.” Let’s call it something more respectful today, like “showing up in life” or “I’m going to stop hiding.”
Here’s the thing about our needs: it feels so good when they are validated by others. Maybe this blog post will inspire you to pay a little more attention to your own needs.
By the way, if you are already good (or too good) about expressing and advocating for your needs, then stop reading this blog post. Too much of good thing is a bad thing.
To get your attention, let’s start with sex.
In Your Arousal
Sex gets better when you take responsibility for your own arousal. If you tend to escape your own needs and get preoccupied with your partner’s excitement, sex won’t be as exciting for you both. When you focus on your own pleasure and express it, it becomes exciting for your partner. That creates the synergy for better sex.
Another way to put it: you must take your own pleasure in sex. To grab it and own it. That’s sexy. The body knows its own needs. By tapping into your body, you are on the road to validating your needs.
If you are someone who is now asking “but isn’t that selfish?”, then we know we don’t have to worry about you being selfish. By asking that question it’s likely you have the opposite problem.
In Your Relationships
Many of us are afraid of taking up too much space in our relationships. We fear they won’t like us unless we focus primarily on them. And yet, ironically, when we start to show up more with our needs, relationships get better. There becomes more of us to hold on to and to connect with. We get more love, not less.
For those of you who are thinking that I am advocating for self-centered relationships, let me explain.
Yes, there are times when we must sacrifice in relationships. It’s a good idea to pick up your partner at the airport even though you’d rather be in bed with your laptop. You do need to go to your spouse’s family funerals in cities with bad architecture even though you hate funerals. It’s very important to visit your friends when they are in the hospital, and that includes sunny Saturday afternoons. These actions help people feel loved.
But “sacrifice” as a mission statement in relationships only leads to resentment. And resentment only leads to distancing or depression.
Sometimes, it is easier to understand this concept when we think about our workplaces. People who have trouble advocating for their needs often get chewed up at work. They are the ones working on the awful projects late into the night when others have figured out how to avoid that.
What Are Our Needs?
We know the obvious needs that we must respect our entire lives — for shelter, rest, safety, money, and ice cream.
Less obvious — but equally as important — are our needs for attachment. Attachment needs look like this:
- The need to be heard.
- The need to be respected.
- The need to know they think about us.
- The need to be loved.
They are “wired in” to all humans and they help keep our species alive.
These attachment needs drive almost everything we do in relationships. When injured, they are the basis of most fights.
How to Start Practicing
From listening to my clients, I have already learned the best technique to start experimenting with need fulfillment. It starts with the classic question:
Where do you want to go for dinner?
Your typical response might be to secretly figure out where the other person wants to go and to announce that as your preference. Or you may say,
I don’t know, where do you want to go?
Next time, practice listening to what your body wants and seeing what happens emotionally when you say, “I want Indian food tonight.”
Remember that others are more flexible than you think. They don’t always want to be in charge even if they like control. It’s fun to see others enjoy their needs. (Refer back to the first section about sex.)
Learning about your needs takes practice and patience. And if your parents were overly focused on their own issues when you grew up, this work may take longer.
But the pay off is supreme. A life that expresses you.