The other day, my therapist told me I'm, "self-aware to a fault." This was not a compliment. He was concerned that I shirk my own needs in order to meet the needs of others, especially in relationships. "You're a people pleaser," he accused, not unkindly. And he's right. A lifetime of avoiding conflict and keeping the peace has resulted in an uncanny ability to identify and meet the needs of others while simultaneously stuffing my own needs deeply beneath the proverbial rug. And people think therapy doesn't work.
More than once, a relationship ended with a man telling me I'm "too much," after months of my too-muchness being one of my biggest charms. I'm "too much" in that I demand "too much" time, require "too much" patience, and generally expect my partner to be able to deeply dive into our individual and collective psychoses. Easy, right?
But the really awful part of my too-muchness is that I'm not too much. It's more accurate to say that I'm too much for certain people, or rather that they're not enough for me. Therapist checks my records and sees that my birthday means I'm an Aquarius. I roll my eyes, because astrology is bunk, but therapist charges forward anyway. "Aquarius is the most humanitarian astrological sign," he says. "Makes sense. And they are unconventional, rebels at heart. They are stubborn," here he looks at me over his round, speckled glasses, "and require space and freedom in relationship at the same time that they value close connection with those they grow to trust."
My problem, I tell therapist, has nothing to do with my astrological sign, my date of birth, or whatever cycle the moon was in at the moment I exited my mothers womb. My problem is that I've learned, as many of us do, to usurp my own needs to meet the needs of my partner/friends/family. It can feel selfish to put yourself first, but it shouldn't. Somewhere along the way I learned that if I kept those around me happy, they wouldn't leave. A deep fear of abandonment led me to downplay my own needs and desires, and I'm only now reconciling my wants. I know what I require to be happy-that's the first step. The second step is to express my needs and have them met. If someone can't meet my needs, the logical but often difficult thing to do is to move on.
Over the past few years, I've seen a handful of different therapists: good ones and bad ones, men and women, some right out of grad school and some who have been practicing for years. But my current therapist is one of the best. He's an older man who is kind and blunt all at once. I feel comfortable telling him anything, and we've talked about nearly everything: my eating disorder, my childhood and family, my sex life, my goals and aspirations, and my darkest, ugliest fears. We've recently done a deep dive into why it's so difficult for me to trust men, and this dialogue would simply not be possible with a woman. In learning to trust him, I'm finding it easier to trust other men, or at the very least express my needs to them. But it's still a work in progress, as most things are.
He leans forward in his black swivel chair, "You have hardwired biological needs for safe and secure emotional connections. We all do. Even," here he pauses and raises one eyebrow, "even dumb men like me." He extracts a note card from his desk drawer and hands it to me. He has a collection of note cards in that drawer, some bearing inspiring quotes, some with mantras or phrases, and some with simplistic, parsed-down direction. The card he handed me said: "Emotions" with the following flow chart beneath:
I blink at him.
"Which emotions would you rather feel? The ones on the right or the ones on the left?" he asks. I roll my eyes, because an eye roll has never been more apt. He chuckles.
"Obviously I'd pick the left column," I answer, "but we can't know pleasure without pain, you know."
"You're absolutely right," he says. "We're going to work on you feeling more pleasure and less pain."
He then hands me a blank sheet of paper and we write down how to make that happen.
Below is a re-created version of my feel-more-pleasure-less-pain list. Maybe it'll help you, too.
1. Work on Identifying Your Needs First
Many of us don't even know what our needs really are, and therefore, we can't ask to have them met. Taking time for some quiet self-reflection will help you understand which needs you can meet on your own and which needs you need met in various relationships.
2. Don't Make Excuses or Justify Behavior
Justifying your own behavior or someone else's will never move the needle forward. Doing so will only cause resentment and unhappiness.
3. Avoid Accusations
Use "I" statements instead of "you" statements. For example, say "I feel loved/appreciated when you make time to call me," instead of saying, "You never call me."
4. Don't be Afraid to Ask!
The worst thing that can possibly happen is that someone may be unable or unwilling to meet your needs. If that's the case, it's better to know so you can meet your needs elsewhere.
After compiling this list, I feel a modicum better, but something is still bothering me. "I feel like I shouldn't rely on other people to meet my needs," I say. "I should be able to do that myself."
Therapist is quiet for a beat before saying, "Most people who come see me feel that way. But look," he points to the note card, "the opposite of love is fear. You might be afraid to trust someone to meet your needs, but the reality is that we need other people. Nobody is an island. Love is the best and worst part of life. It breaks us and sustains us. That's all there is to it."
As always, therapist is right. Love is the best and worst part of life. It brings us joy and heartache. It leaves us floating above clouds and crushes us in despair. Love is Jekyll and love is Hyde. Most of all, love is scary. But sitting in that fear, as I've done for so many years, is the worst kind of pain because it's self-induced.
Our needs don't shrink when they're ignored, they just grow bigger and louder until they explode, or until unhappiness becomes too uncomfortable to live with anymore.