At some point in my life I unknowingly decided that I did not have needs. That to have needs meant to be needy and someone who is needy is selfish and weak. No one ever actually told me this, it was just the conclusion I came to given the circumstances of the situation in which I was raised.
When I was three, my mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Understandably, she had a lot of needs and required assistance. Any care-taking I required paled in comparison to hers. After her death when I was eight, my father, incapable of properly caring for my brother and me, sent us off to live with members of his side of the family in another state. That family consisted of a trio of young adult women in the midst of their own individual paths in life. They provided my brother and me comfortable shelter and an expensive education. Between my mother’s requirements, my father’s neglect and my new family’s busy schedule, there was not a lot of room for needs, or the expression of them. So, I took that part of myself, the one who has needs, and I rejected it. I would need nothing and accept nothing. This state of mind became quite problematic for me.
I came to realize this through anger. Anger: my most valuable teacher. Anger has grabbed me by the throat, held me against the wall, and given me no choice but to pay attention. And pay attention I have. I used to blame my anger on others. First it was my family, and then my friends, but where it really showed up was in my intimate relationships. When my needs were not met, I would get very angry. I did not know how to express my anger, so it would fester and turn into resentment.
This is a common side effect for a lot of us who are indirectly taught that anger is not an acceptable emotion for a woman. If my brother were to get into a fight at school it was just a simple case of “boys being boys.” If I were to show any type of aggression I would be met with the puzzled look and a, “what’s wrong with you?” So, I would bury the anger, camouflage it, turn it inward and then project it out onto whoever I was with at the time.
I have ended almost every intimate relationship consumed by rage at my partner’s inability to (fill in the blank). Through a lot of deep work around my rage I have come to acknowledge it as a result of two things: 1. Wanting things to be different than they are, and 2. Not getting my needs met.
1. Wanting things to be different than they are. Well, if that isn’t a recipe for complete misery, I don’t know what is. I have always had a slight case of “the grass is always greener” syndrome. I have been told that many times and it has never been a compliment. I have been told it makes me sound negative and unhappy. But, it’s that same “grass is always greener” point of view that gives me what I love most about me. It provides imagination so my creative energies can soar. It allows me the ability to see bigger, better and beyond the box. It’s how I come up with words to write and theories to articulate. It is how I found spirituality and connection to something deeper than myself. It allows me to live in colorful rooms and see the world through a colorful lens. It has given me the ability to see my life from a fresh perspective and see my anger for what it is.
Through this understanding, I am able to come into a place of acceptance over my life – my past, present and future. I have gratitude for the path I have been put on, because without it I would not be where I am today. And, although things could most certainly be better, I know that no other path would work for me. It is this path that is taking me closer to my truth and nothing is more valuable to me than that.
This is the power of opposites. For every place of darkness there is light, and vice versa. It is not until we are able to see the power of both sides that we can accept them and allow both darkness and light to exist within us. Whatever it is you want to be different, try and explore what the opposite is. I bet you will find that what the light side of the opposite brings you is too valuable to lose, so you will find a way to allow the dark side to exist in you. Just like yin cannot exist without the yang, sky without the earth, convex without concave, one part of you absolutely cannot exist without the other to counter it. Freedom is in the understanding of these opposites.
Once I was able to acknowledge the positive side of seeing the grass as always greener, I was able to find acceptance of that part of me that thinks that way, and through that I am able to see when it comes up. “Oh, this is that moment when I want things to be different. OK, that was fun imagining that. Now this is what I have, how should I deal with it?” By doing this process I am able to avoid being angry at it for being something that I do not want it to be. Truth be told, I still get frustrated, but it doesn’t last as long and I don’t seem to hold on to it as much. That feels like freedom to me.
2. Not getting my needs met. I spent my life waiting for someone to step in and take care of me the way I needed to be taken care of. He was going to know exactly what I wanted and needed and everything was going to be great! I feel a sympathetic internal chuckle thinking of all the poor men that have come across my path. How could they have possibly known what I needed if I, myself, was clueless as to what that meant? I had no idea what I wanted in my life, let alone what I needed.
Terrified of being perceived as selfish or weak, I learned that the best way to show my strength and worth was to figure out what others needed and meet those needs. I would accomplish two things by doing that I would: 1. prove that I was valuable and worth keeping around, and 2. keep the peace by making others happy. At first I did this by observing what others liked and would emulate them or offer up what it was they needed: A good ear, a nice compliment, commiserating, offering lots of favors – no matter how put out I was – and never, ever, ever, never saying, “No”. This became exhausting. And, so did my anger. I would never make myself a burden by asking for anything in return. But, then, I would be resentful if the other person did not offer me the same undying, unconditional, self-sacrificing effort.
At 34, I entered a relationship with someone that I thought was THE ONE for me. I was convinced he was the end of the line in my search for true love. I thought I met my match and he was perfect. It turned out that he was perfect, but not in the way I had hoped. He was instead the perfect lesson: The one who unknowingly challenged me to the edge of myself. He played for a team of one, and I joined that team, abandoning my own. It wasn’t until I was angry, depleted and begging for relief that I was forced to answer the calling of my own needs. I was left with no other option but to turn around, look inside myself and ask, “What can I do for you?”
I am not the only one who has found herself here. I work with women every day who fumble around trying to find the balance between caring for themselves and their partners/families. They become lost in the relationship or the life of the Other thinking that is what it means to show love. We are genetically driven to do this- we are the care-takers, the nurturers-we put the needs of others before our own. If we are in a heterosexual relationship, we are teamed up with a partner whose internal drive is for autonomy. So, when you combine our drive to nurture with their drive for autonomy it is not surprising that we find ourselves in an unintentional state of self-abnegation. There is a compromise, however, and our side of that compromise is not to play the victim and blame them of neglect, but to take responsibility for our needs. We do this by dropping inward to find out what it is we need and taking care of those needs first.
In order to meet my needs I had to learn what they were. I did this by asking myself when faced with having to make a decision, “If everyone else was taken care of, what would I want out of this situation?” At first I would have to sit with this question for a long time, repeating it quietly to myself. The more I’d ask it of myself the more clearly the answer would come. I recently heard that to pray is to ask for help and to meditate is to listen for the answer. I use this question like a mantra/prayer and listen deeply for the answer.
Now, as I enter my 39th year, I understand that meeting my needs means being the one thing I worked so hard not to be: selfish. It wasn’t until I learned to embrace the selfish side in me that I began to feel nourished and complete. If it weren’t for my selfishness, I would have never been able to say “no” to the multiple requests from friends for my time so I could complete this essay. My selfishness allows me the personal space to be with myself, ground myself, and tune-in to what my needs are, so that I may soothe the fury of my fiery rage. It prevents me from taking on others’ battles and it helps me define my boundaries. It is the embracing of the selfish part of me that has taught me that I am no good to another person if I am not good myself – that by taking care of myself I am taking care of others. And, if I am selfish enough to take the space to listen and act on what my needs are I am able to drop the blame and the anger and take responsibility for my needs, so I can fully live this life that is mine.