Chances are that like most of us, you probably never questioned the validity of being trained out of your sterling ability to communicate your needs very precisely to the world as a newbie human to become instead a responder to the apparently much more important needs of others as you began to grow up. It would have served us all so much better if we’d been taught how to verbalise our needs with more ability, refining our communication as we matured and learned how to fit into our human family, than to repress our own natural needs as part of the process of being socialised.
Here’s a little metaphorical story
A little girl, we'll call her Sally, had mostly always felt a degree of security as she was growing up (she was fortunate to be raised in a relatively stable, if not always kind family). She’d never had any trouble getting her needs met. Everyone seemed to love her, and they seemed to make allowances for her wilful character. She was a happy child with a ready smile.
One day, when she was around 5 years old, her mother told her that it was time for her ‘rite of passage ceremony’. Her mother told her this with a strange look on her face, like she was relieved but also disappointed that this time had come. Sally didn’t really understand what she meant by ‘rite of passage’ but she trusted her mother and just said with a cheeky grin ‘ok’ before stating in no uncertain terms that she needed food soon as she was hungry and skipping off out to play in the garden.
On the day of the ceremony, her mother had dressed her in her best party outfit and laid on a special lunch for the two of them. There was a rite of passage cake with a more grown up looking little marzipan figure that looked like herself on top, wearing a lovely dress and with her hair done up in a grown up style. Before she was allowed a piece of the cake, her mother told her that growing up meant that she had to start changing her behaviour and being more responsible. Part of that, she said, was that she would have to start thinking about her own needs less and begin putting the needs of others ahead of her own, because it's a woman's role to look after other people. She made it sound really cool – and grown up!
Trying to keep it simple, her mother had explained needs to Sally this way: Your basic needs are things like food, shelter, warmth, safety, a calm & secure environment etc. These needs are allowed but we don’t really talk about them, even if sometimes it feels like they’re not being met very well.
Other than those basic needs, others are ‘less important’. She said that things like needing encouragement all the time; needing to be praised; needing to have constant reassuring cuddles; needing to constantly tell the world how she felt; needing to be left on her own sometimes to play quietly; needing to cry when she felt hurt; needing to have time to learn how to do things for herself when her mother just wanted her to get on with it quickly; needing to have her say when her mother considered her word final, and so on.
Her mother explained that now it’s going to start getting a bit tougher and some of these needs will have to be given up – because she’s ‘growing up now’! Her mother made it sound so exciting, peppering her language with lots of references to ‘growing up’ so that Sally wanted to earn her growing up stripes. When it seemed like she understood what was being asked of her, she presented Sally with a box and some pretty wrapping materials, telling her that these were for her to make her box as pretty as she likes – because it was, after all, her box!
She then brought out a packet of pretty pastel coloured pieces of notepaper and asked Sally to come sit down, inviting innocent chat about things that came up in Sally’s mind that seemed to her like the kind of things her mother was talking about. Wanting to please her mother, she engaged with the exercise enthusiastically. Each time, her mother would come up with neat and precise descriptions of the things she had offered – like ‘to be praised’ / ‘for constant reassurance’ / ‘to keep telling everyone how she feels or what she wants’ etc – explaining words she didn’t quite understand along the way so that Sally would remember what she was consigning to the box. Her mother said she had to choose which ‘needs’ she was willing to give up, but it felt like she didn’t really have a choice, and she so wanted to make her mother happy.
At the end of the ceremony, Sally felt a bit sad and confused, though she wasn’t really sure why. The deliciously sweet cake helped cheer her up a bit but she couldn’t shake off the feeling that what she’d just experienced was something important but that it wasn’t something she much liked. After they’d eaten their cake, her mother left her alone to think about what she had ‘decided’ to give up, and to decorate her box. As she looked into the box before putting the lid on it, she was aware of a strange sad feeling she didn’t fully understand, like there were little pieces of herself inside and that putting the lid on the box was like shutting them away forever. As she began to decorate it, a little tear formed in the corner of her eye and she brushed it away with the back of her hand, feeling that she must be brave to please her mother. She so wanted to be a good girl.
When she was done, her mother came back and told her that she must now create a space somewhere that was difficult for her to reach and her box must be put there so she can’t easily get to it. Her mother tells her that she trusts her to obey this rule and that she must leave it alone. She tells her she must remember that to be grown up, she must remember the things she’d agreed to give up and not make these things an issue from now on, or she will seem like a child again. More than anything, she didn’t want her mother to think she wasn’t ‘grown up’ so she knew that she’d do her very best to behave responsibly, as she was being asked to from here on.
Each year marks another visit to Sally’s box. She was allowed to open it, and to re-read / re-commit to the sacrifices she made in exchange for being thought a bit more grown up. Each time she was given another pile of notepaper and encouraged to add new needs that have come along in the time since her last visit. She may not know that these things were needs at the time and so was always guided to think about times when her behaviour was judged selfish; encouraged to tag her own label on that behaviour; write it down and put it into the box. Every time she did this exercise over the years, she felt more and more disconnected from herself, but every time her mother reassured her that ‘we all have to do it’, and so she just went along with it like a good girl.
By the time she reached 13, her box had quite a lot of notes in it but between then and around 17 or 18, she filled it to near busting. During those years, she found that among her friends, she always seemed to be looking out for their needs – second guessing what they are by reading between the lines to find the clues in their moody, frustrated and difficult behaviour. She felt like she was behaving the same way too sometimes. Nobody was able to talk straight – herself included – because they all seemed to feel ashamed and full of guilt about their feelings and behaviour, and so everyone disowned how they really felt. Mostly, it seemed to her that everyone was so disconnected from their ‘real’ that not a one of them could even begin to put their feelings into words anyway. Besides, nobody dared be open because of the unspoken understanding that to do so would mean another bit of themselves would have to go into that box!
None of their mothers seemed to miss a trick and they were all watchful for slip ups. It was a confusing and traumatic time. It seemed to her like everything she felt she needed was denied her, and everything that mattered to her was considered ‘selfish’. Boy, did she have a tough time during those years as she felt ever more compromised. She always had a feeling like she was a bird whose wings were being clipped almost to stubs rather than be allowed to grow into the magnificent feathers they were meant to be.
In the week of her18th birthday, Sally was instructed to bring out her box as she was going to take it to a special place to mark her ultimate passage to adulthood. It was explained to her that this is something all young women had to do when they reached 18. Her reward would be the great feeling of accomplishment she would attain for her maturity – a new sense of self-respect.
She made the journey to this strange place with her mother, travelling in uncomfortable silence – down a dusty old road to a dusty old yard. She had to take out her box and walk down a dusty old track to a large dilapidated corrugated metal building. Once inside, she saw that there were piles and piles of other once beautiful bow-tied boxes – all individually decorated but now pretty battered and covered in .. dust!
Her mother then told her that she must put her own box on the conveyor belt that led down to the basement level floor where all the other boxes lay in disarray and left her alone for a few minutes to discard hers. She placed the box gently on the belt, feeling all manner of mixed emotions raging through her heart. Upset. Hurt. Frustration. Confusion. Anger. She felt cheated. But no sooner had she begun to try unravelling her messy feelings to make some sense of it all, her mother appeared at her shoulder, looking sort of understanding and stern all at the same time – resolute about her having done what’s necessary to prepare her daughter for the full transition to womanhood. She was considered ready now to go out into the world and create her own path – controlled, compliant, stunted. Her mother’s expression was one of a silent sigh of relief and resignation - her job now done.
Then the day came when Sally met a boy. They began spending lots of time together and fell in love. At first, he was sweet and kind and they had lots of fun together. Eventually, they got married and spent another happy year or so settling into their new life. Then one day, her beloved husband came into the kitchen where she was seated at the table reading – his chest all puffed up and his face flushed with bravado. He swept the book off the table and onto the floor in a deft movement of one arm and dropped from the other with a thud a heavy, tattered box in front of her.
She looked at his face in surprise and saw that he was looking strangely smug. She noticed that there was a label on the box that said ‘My Needs’. At first, she was taken aback and asked him how come he still had his box, because she’d been made to discard hers. He jumped in right away, hardly missing a beat, deliberately dismissive and disinterested – smirking now as told her that this is her job now – to cater to his needs. He coldly told her that the time had come and that he now expected her to read all the notes in his box and start first thing tomorrow on making sure his needs were always her top priority from that moment on.
Many times, she found herself on the other end of his new bullying tactics before she learned to tread very carefully around him – making sure to always keep her focus on meeting his needs – or else! With no idea any longer of her own loss all those growing up years, there was little for her to counter the feeling that her role was only to look after the clearly defined needs of her husband – and of course, he was never satisfied!
Do we lose touch with our ability to recognise our own needs and instead base our satisfaction (or lack of) on the messages given to us for so long that they ‘feel’ kind of right, but somehow don’t quite hit the mark? When we offer up our empty cup – not entirely sure what it is we actually need to be put into it, and some kind friend tries to fill it up for us, do we still feel there is something intangible missing; something that no-one else can ever give us?
As long as we keep ourselves too busy with trying to meet the needs of others and never make time to revisit and claim back our own true needs, could we ever even hope to fill up our empty cup? Can we, even if it were worth it, meet anyone else’s needs anyway, when we’ve been trained right out of the business of knowing what our own needs look or feel like? Have we all learned to fake it so well that it’s all just got too confusing?
Could it be that when we all learned to give away our own needs (by nature of our compliance with the rules being forced upon us in the beginning; by habit later on) – we gave away the chance to really know ourselves? Could it be that when we don’t really know ourselves, we can’t truly know anyone else either, and so enter into relationship with other people as if wearing a blindfold?
Could it be that the things in all of our boxes have become little more than dusty old ancient artifacts now, on our own watch, like phantoms that evaporated into the ether, and all the while we hadn't even known we were mourning their loss? Could it be that they were calling to us all along - in the whispers from the chasm in our own uncared for hearts as we nurtured and fussed and danced around on eggshells, trying so hard to do that thing we were trained to do, and do it well, even if hardly a glance of acknowledgement let alone a 'thank you' passed the lips of the self-absorbed man who thought the world, our world, revolved around him?
Could it be that we pretended so well that we didn't really need much for ourselves, as we watched and celebrated the fulfilments, the joys, the opportunities and the successes that ran past us as if we weren't even there straight into the open arms of those we gave it all up for - that maybe the self-sacrifice wasn't actually all it was cracked up to be? Did we just get so disappointed; so disillusioned; so deflated and so lazy that we just gave up the dreams; the passions; the excitement and the lust for life in exchange for feeling like a martyr who unquestioningly did the right thing; that we honest to God do get everything we really need from serving the needs of others?
Could it be we had a choice all along and just didn't know it? Could the years we sidelined ourselves while giving up the absolute best of ourselves - the best of those years, our years - in the thankless and impossible task of bending over backward to try to keep someone else happy while our own heart ached only to be blessed with a few fleeting moments of our own loving attention?
Could it be that that sweet, shushed little girl is still waiting and hoping we will finally down tools, look up from our toil and go take her to the park - to play and laugh and delight in our own pleasure; to pick up a paintbrush and make a colourful mess on a canvass just because it feels so damn good; to go pick up pretty fallen leaves or seashells or pebbles to make into something beautiful; to go with her and swim in the warm waters of some far-off tropical island for a week of pure, long overdue indulgence and connect with her again?
Could it be it's not too late?
An extract from my forthcoming book:
'How To Change The Game'