Learning developmental skills: Identifying and Expressing needs
This post is a continuation of a series started in But therapy can take us a long way: Learning Developmental Skills Part 1. In this post, I want to talk about learning to identify and express your needs. For most trauma victims, this is most definitely a skipped part of development. Because the caretaker is putting their own needs ahead of the child’s when abusing them, by definition the child’s needs are being overlooked and pushed aside. How do you learn to identify and express something that is not even acknowledged to exist?
A long-term trauma victim often becomes hyper-vigilant. They learn to watch their abuser and observe their behavior in minute detail in the hope of getting some warning before an episode of abuse. So they’re paying a whole lot more attention to the abuser’s feelings and needs than their own. Add to this the fact that many victims of long-term abuse believe and/or are told the abuse is their fault, so they are also watching the abuser for cues about who they need to be and what they need to do to “finally” make the abuser happy with them and stop the abuse. (This serves the function of providing some sense of control in a situation in which you are powerless and have none.) Your own feelings and needs fade to insignificance in the face of needing to survive.
So even THINKING about our own needs can feel like a very scary thing to do. Because to look away from the others needs was to risk having the (metaphorical or literal) blow fall when you were not prepared. To take our attention off our abuser was literally a dangerous thing to do. Years of learning this condition you on a very deep level. I have told the story elsewhere on the blog about the first time the BN asked me to think about what I wanted in a session. No hyperbole involved, he told me he watched the blood drain out of my face and I started hyperventilating. I found this incredibly ironic because if someone had asked, I would have classified myself as a needy person. Which I was because I couldn’t become aware of, let alone take action to meet, my needs. So in effect I was wandering the world looking for the right person to tell me who to be and what my needs were so I could finally be happy and get my needs met while not risking upsetting anyone else. I was going to find that right after I finished the unicorn ride. 🙂
So my unacknowledged needs were driving me in ways of which I was totally unconscious. My attempt to protect myself had become maladaptive, depriving me of the ability to get my needs met. Being always needy is no way to live; it’s miserable. So I came to learn from BN, that while I felt like expressing my needs was the most dangerous thing to do, the real danger lay in not being aware of them.
Expressing our needs is even harder than allowing ourselves to know them. I learned this through emailing the BN. BN has a between session contact policy that is very generous. I literally could contact him 24/7, including on his vacations (response time was longer) by email or phone. This proved to be critically important in my healing process, especially in this area of learning to express my needs. Partly because it was in this contact that I became conscious of my determination to NOT express my needs, and then once I was learning to express them, to experience my needs being heard and met.
BN has a very robust system set up around phone calls. I would call his service and leave a message. If I said it was an emergency (emergency was VERY loosely defined as anything that was making me come out of my skin) then he would return the call within an hour. He failed to do this only twice in all the time I’ve worked with him. Once because he was on vacation and out of range and the other because the answering service did not get the message to him right away. What I am trying to convey is that leaving a phone message pretty much guaranteed a timely response. I also had his email address. BN was not nearly as consistent about email. Sometimes he would get back to me fairly quickly, sometimes it would be days and sometimes he wouldn’t respond at all. A lot of our ruptures centered around email. And yet, I would much more often choose to email him rather than call.
One of these email disruptions occurred when he was on vacation. I was really missing him and sent off a brief email. I waited for a couple of days but got no response. By that time, I was in full on “I hate boundaries and not being able to know him fully” angst and ended up writing a fairly long, VERY raw, email about my feelings. Two more days went by with no answer. By now I was in full meltdown, convinced I had finally done it, crossed that mysterious line, the crossing of which broke even BN’s patience and I would be sent away. It was so bad, I finally broke down and called. He does have another therapist on call when he is on vacation. Basically, his service attempts to contact him, but if they do not get an acknowledgment within a time window, then the message is sent on to his backup. So my call was returned by his backup (who I must say was just a lovely man. He has the office next to BN’s and their relationship goes back many years. If anything ever happened to BN, I’d probably show up on this guy’s doorstep. :)) We talked for a few minutes and he was very understanding and supportive. At the end of the phone call, he asked me if I wanted him to try to contact BN and ask him to call me. That he didn’t know how long it would take to hear back, but he could try. So I told him yes, assuming I wouldn’t hear back. The phone rang about 20 minutes later (!) and it was BN. We had a good talk about how my fears of not mattering got kicked up when I didn’t hear back from him. He had read the emails and he briefly commented on the content. I was seeing him in two days so we kept it short. (Contact out of session usually focused on holding on to the connection; processing was usually saved for sessions.)
When I went in for the session, we ended up discussing the emails. BN told me that he wasn’t really sure what happened, that maybe he was just in vacation mode, but he had gone back and read the emails and he had felt neither required a reply. Inside I was thinking “you cannot be f—ing serious!!!!” but what I said was “BN, we’ve been around the block a number of times about email and you should know by now I need a reply.” Ha, I thought, try to argue with that one, sitting smugly back in my chair. To my eternal surprise, he said that he wasn’t just going to assume that I wanted a reply. That I was trying to keep myself from ever getting hurt. That I never asked for something unless I was SURE the answer was yes. So if I only implied that I needed a response then if one did not come, I was not being refused. Where if I asked for a reply, and didn’t get one that I had to deal with the pain of not getting what I asked for.
This was not the last time we discussed this reluctance to ask; it was the first of a long series of discussions. Even though my experience was that he was very responsive to phone messages, on a limbic, feeling level, I had to call his answering service and ASK for a call back and that was scary. In other words, I had to say I NEEDED to speak to him. That just felt way too dangerous, so I would email and not ask for a response so if I was rejected, I could rationalize that I hadn’t really asked, or the email got lost, or all the computers on the web simultaneously crashed. But I was protected from being denied.
As we continued to revisit the topic, I finally realized that I had been denied so many times as a child, had expressed my needs only to feel bereft, that I had made a vow to myself a long time ago. I was NEVER, NEVER again going to put myself in a position to hear a “no” and experience that pain again. So, ironically enough, although I hardly ever heard yes, I also never learned how to handle hearing “no.”
But in avoiding the “no” I also gave up the “yes.” Think about it, if we ask for what we need, sometimes we’ll get it. If we never ask, then we never get. So the price of my avoiding that pain, granted a pain I thought would overwhelm and destroy me, was to only get my needs met by someone stumbling across what I needed or my manipulating them into providing it (which often made it feel worthless). It was also a way to hide myself. Since I had to keep my needs hidden, I had to keep myself hidden. So I believed that my true self should not be seen and so could not be worthwhile.
So much of the pain I experienced was because I would be trying to get my needs for affection, comfort and safety met, only to be hurt. Eventually I decided my needs were the problem. If I had no needs, then I would not keep doing the things that resulted in me getting hurt. But these are powerful needs, which in childhood are life and death. The only thing that had a chance of holding them down was one of the most powerful motivating emotions a human being can feel, shame. We are social animals, whose survival depends on fitting into a group. Shame keeps us from violating the group mores enough to be driven forth. So I became very, very ashamed of my needs, so much so that the most reasonable of needs felt like an over the top, demanding, grasping, greedy demand.
So when I started to allow myself to express my needs, to ask for what I wanted, my strongest impression was that I was this gaping, insatiable maw of need which would devour anyone who got close enough. That to come close to me would result in the other being swallowed up. Just as I had been swallowed up when I got close to my father, who ran right over my boundaries time and again. Gosh, and I wondered why intimacy felt threatening both to me and the other person.
So BN provided a safe place where it was actually safe to ask for what I wanted. Actually he provided a safe place where I could express all of my feelings and identify what I needed. I would go into a session and go bleah! all over his office and just start describing body sensations and thoughts and my confusion and BN would very gently say “that’s anger, that’s what anger feels like” or “that’s sadness” or “that is a longing to be loved.” We learn to identify our needs by having a safe place to express all that we are feeling without being punished and having a caring, attuned other help us make sense of what is going on.
And if it was within his ability to provide what I asked for, he was highly responsive. So tentatively at first (read that as so scared I could barely breathe and for a period I thought the longest time in the world was from when I left a message until my phone rang) I would start calling when I needed to talk with him. Always, always feeling like I was being too much. But I never was. He would call back and we would talk. For a very long time, BN assured me EVERY SINGLE TIME I contacted him that it was a good thing I did. He also never parted from me, at the end of a session, email or phone call without telling me to contact him again if I needed to do so.
Many times when I needed him, it was just about reassuring myself he was still there, and as nothing bad happened, I became more open about what I needed. So we actually had a lot of conversations like this:
BN: Hi, AG, what’s up?
AG: I am feeling really scared and just needed to connect with you.
BN: I understand why you would need to do that and I’m glad you called. I’m here and we’re ok.
AG: Thanks, that’s what I needed to hear.
BN: Good, if you need to call again, don’t hesitate. Take care.
AG: Take care, bye.
Total time on phone, usually between one and two minutes. I remember expressing my fears to BN that I was too much, I was calling too much, I was asking too much and he literally looked at me and said “really, with your patented one minute phone calls? How much trouble could they be?” which I found pretty reassuring. 🙂
And every time I asked and got what I asked for, it became just a bit less scary next time to ask for what I needed. And I discovered an amazing fact. When you ask for what you need, you can actually GET what you need. And when you get what you need, you start to feel like you matter. And I also eventually learned that hearing no did not mean the end of my existence or the end of the relationship (but that’s a story for another post, or one I’ve already told, I’ll have to check. :))
So BN taught me what I should have learned as a child, that I could understand my own needs, that it was my responsibility to make my needs known. That I would always need other people to meet my needs, but when they can’t be there, I can take care of myself until they are available.
But I think the hardest part to get over was the feeling of why did I have to ask? If someone really loved me, wouldn’t they care enough to know what I needed? I mean if I had to ask then what I was given wasn’t valid or real, right?
There was a time when we should have had an attuned caregiver identifying and meeting our needs without our having to ask, in fact we didn’t know what we needed or how to ask. They had to teach us that. In that first year of life, we don’t talk, we cry. When we feel some kind of discomfort, we make it known by protesting. And our attachment figure answers that protest and sets about figuring out what is going on. Is our diaper wet and needs changing? Are we scared and need soothing? Are we hungry? Are we tired? and then they meet that need. As we get older, and encounter our emotions, an attuned caregiver will literally identify what is going on for us. “You’re getting really grumpy, you’re tired and need to get some sleep.” So we match what we are experiencing in our body and in our feelings and connect with “oh that’s what grumpy and tired feels like, when I feel that way I need sleep.” If we did not have that consistently, and most abused kids didn’t, we really long for it. To have someone attend to us so closely that we would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we mattered to them.
So having to express our needs can make us feel like it doesn’t count when someone meets them. But learning to take care of ourselves, means taking responsibility to reach out to others and make the need known. The loving response is that when someone hears that need expressed, they move to meet it, to provide for us that which we ask for. So BN quite stubbornly refused to give me something I was capable of asking for, but wouldn’t out of fear. He TRUSTED me to attend to myself. And so he would wait patiently until I could actually express it and then respond swiftly and surely.
I do want to be clear here that taking care of yourself does NOT mean you find everything you need inside yourself. We’re just not built like that, we need our connections and significant relationships to meet our needs, we cannot know ourselves outside of relationship. What it does mean is that you reach out to other people to get your needs met and know you are loved by their willingness to provide that for which you asked.
I think the healing we do in therapy is to learn to recognize that our deep longing for what we didn’t get is NOT wrong. What we are longing for are integral human needs. It’s HEALTHY to long for those things. And to recognize that the needs we still have, to connect, to be understood and to be heard, are also not childish but healthy. And even though we can’t go back into the past and get our needs as children met, we can learn in the present to understand our needs, move closer to other people and get our needs met now. We cannot go back to recover that which was lost, but we can go forward to claim that which is found and thrive.
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