Having our needs met is one of the prerequisites of happiness and health. Apart from stable wifi and Netflix, we need things like belonging, recognition, and intimacy, along with more basic needs like safety, food and sex.
These needs are natural and legitimate. We have a right to them simply because we exist, not because we earned them or others awarded them out of the goodness of their heart.
In childhood, our parents, teachers and other caregivers were responsible for meeting our needs. They were also supposed to give us the knowledge, skills and inner tools to, gradually, meet our needs ourselves.
Ideally, this will have given us the maturity in adult life to be autonomous yet connected, to practice self-care, have clear boundaries, be emotionally present and have healthy relationships.
It will also have taught us to ask others for what we need if we cannot give it to ourselves or change our environment – e.g. relationship, work, community – if that is in our best interest.
Reality is more messy than that. Our caregivers did not meet all our needs or fully teach us how to take care of them ourselves. And we do not always fulfil our needs in healthy ways or even know what our needs really are.
Which is why we will meet people who will try to prevent us from getting our needs met. This is because, in order to get our needs met, we ask something of them that prevents them from getting their own needs met.
Imagine you feel the need for intimacy and that you ask your partner to be emotionally open. If for whatever reason that feels unsafe to them, your need for intimacy clashes with their need for safety.
Or imagine that you want more autonomy at work. If the only way your boss can feel competent is to micromanage others, your need for autonomy will undermine your boss’ need for feeling competent.
‘Winning’ a zero-sum game
Ideally, in a healthy personal or professional relationship, both parties are mature enough to draw and respect their boundaries. “I know you really need me to X , but right now I am simply not able to.” Or you could say “I am sorry, I don’t feel the need for Y” and have the other person look for alternatives.
Often, however, opposing needs escalate into to an emotional zero-sum game in which only one person gets their needs met and the other is left resentful, sad or ashamed. And to ensure it’s you and not them loosing out, people employ a number of strategies.
Here, in random order, are some you may recognise:
One time-honoured strategy is straight up verbal, emotional or physical violence. It’s effective because it’s hard to focus on your needs when you are trying to stay safe. Yelling, abuse or hitting someone is obviously violent, but withholding affection is not necessarily less violent than grabbing someone angrily. One client was repeatedly told by his father “not to be more useless than God had already created him.” Words can be violent, too.
Instead of being violent, someone can simply threaten to cause harm. “If you tell the Board what happened, I will destroy your career.” Or a parent telling their child: “If you make one more noise, I will send you to your room.” Or what about this one: “If you leave me, if I have no idea what I will do to myself.” Sometimes the fear of what will happen, no matter how vague, is enough to keep us in line.
Sometimes people try to shame us into submission. “Stop being such a pussy.” or “Stop being such a needy little bitch.” Or imagine you’re in a team meeting and you ask your boss for more responsibility and the only response you get is condescending laughter. Shame causes us to loose esteem at an identity level and is existentially so painful that we won’t have attention for our needs.
“You made me do this” or “You asked for this” are two great ways to shift responsibility from the other person to you. You basically get blamed for the other person’s inability to act in a way that meets your needs, meaning suddenly you need to makes things ok before you have the right to talk about your needs. “You made me loose my temper and lash out,” meaning it’s your own fault your are not treated respectfully. Breaking news: it’s not.
Sometimes people will belittle our needs, so that their urgency is lessened and the other person doesn’t need to act. “Come on, it’s not that bad” or “What do you need that for, when you already have so much else?” An extreme version of this puts the onus on you. “Seriously, what do you need that for?”, implying that you only have a right to your need if you explain it or justify it.
6) Hiding behind positive intentions
People act from positive intentions, but their actions can still prevent us from getting our needs met. When we bring this up, they can try to hide behind arguments like “But I didn’t mean for that to happen” or “I meant well”. That may be true, but it’s not the point, because actions rather than intentions have consequences
7) Tu quoque
Tu quoque, or Latin for ‘you too’, is a sneaky little basterd. You ask someone for X and they deny that request by saying “You never do X for me either.” Or you ask someone to stop doing Y and they don’t because – you guessed it – “You also do Y”. The underlying assumption is that your right to your need is contingent on reciprocity. That is bollocks: you have an innate right to your needs, regardless of what you or anyone else does. This, incidentally, is why I am against the death penalty as a matter of principle.
If a parent hits a child and then ‘makes up’ for it by buying him or her a toy, psychologically it becomes very hard for that child to still complain about the abuse. Or think of women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace, but are given a sum of money if they promise not to pursue legal action. Sure you get something, but you loose the right to ask for your needs to be met.
Here’s a great strategy: deny the need or the action that prevents the need from being met. At a birthday party I once saw a little boy fall and start crying, only for his dad to immediately pick him up and declare that “nothing happened!”. Or “You don’t really need X, you are just saying that because you read about it in some stupid self-help book.” It’s effective, because how do you argue about something that apparently doesn’t exist?!
Another fabulous way to ensure our needs are not met is for others to ignore us. They walk away from a tough conversation, ‘forget’ meetings, bury themselves at work, don’t pick up the phone or look the other way when the going gets tough. Anyone who has ever been given the silent treatment by someone close to them, knows how painful this can be. It’s pretty darn hard to begin a conversation about your needs if you feel like you don’t exist.
11) Playing the victim
Rather than take responsibility for their actions, some people find it easier to act like a helpless victim and drown in their own self-pity. Your partner is out cold on account of smoking too much weed, which he blames on “Peterson, because he forced me to keep on smoking.” Or, as was the case with one of my clients, mother was in bed all day being depressed, meaning not only her daughters had to take care of her, but they couldn’t tell her to get her act together “because poor mommy couldn’t help it.”
Dealing with these strategies
All these strategies have one important thing in common: they are all diversions. They shift energy and attention away from the original issue – getting our needs met – to a completely different and irrelevant conversation. How do you deal with that? Here’s a couple of suggestions.
First, you can name the strategy in order to weaken its hold. “By saying that I don’t do X either, you’re suggesting that I don’t have a right to ask you for it. We both have a right to X, so let’s talk about how we can both get it” or “When you say you don’t know what you will do when I leave you, it feels like you are threatening me. I don’t appreciate that and still need some more space in this relationship.”
Second, you could simply choose to ignore the strategy and return to asserting your needs. This takes presence of mind and some guts, but the moment you react to the diversion strategy, you are stuck in a useless meta-discussion. Stay true to your course and don’t let the other person dictate the conversation.
Third, you may choose to go away and find another relationship, employer or community in which your needs can be met. Rather than waste time on an endless tug-of-war, it may be time to move on. This can be tough when, say, your relationship fulfils your need for safety, but doesn’t fulfil your need for intimacy.
Finally, it may be time for you to learn to meet your own needs rather than depend on others. Just because you have a right to your needs, it doesn’t mean that others are obliged to meet them.
In principle, we should (learn to) meet our own needs in order to have balanced and mature relationships. So ask yourself where in your personal and professional life you rely too much on others to give you a sense of safety, competence, belonging, value, importance or validation.
Some final thoughts
So far I have been speaking about strategies that other people use to prevent us from getting our needs met. Now, I would like you to consider the possibility that you, too, at times use these strategies.
You may use them on others, when what they ask of you prevents you from meeting your needs. Maybe you say ‘no’ in a healthy way, but maybe you revert to denying, threatening, ignoring or some form of violence.
Also, you may use these strategies on yourself.Perhaps you deny or ignore your own needs, blame yourself for being too X or not enough Y, tell yourself you are a victim of circumstance or use shaming internal monologue.
You won’t be the first and you won’t be the last. Knowing and honouring our needs in healthy ways takes considerable inner practice of the kind that we don’t get enough of at home or at work. Hopefully this blog will open up some possibilities for you.
Ilja van Roon
p.p.s Because part of me still relies on my readers to validate me, I need you to share this blog using the social media buttons below. If not, I may use any of the 11 strategies outlined above 🙂
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