“Sometimes, we are so focused on what we want, we miss what we need.”
Focusing on other people’s needs is something that comes naturally to me. It could be because I’m the eldest of four children but it’s also certainly the result of our society’s values which encourage us (especially women) to look after other people’s needs.
The psychologist Dr Harriet Lerner once said that most women were brought up to be “emotional service stations” for others. I am a proud one! I love listening to other people’s problems and thinking of ways to help. I can spend hours discussing an issue that someone is facing, just as though it was my own.
Sometimes, I even think that helping other people meet their needs is a need of mine. Yet, I have found that the energy and time I spend caring can leave me feeling drained and even resentful. I catch myself thinking that I do a lot for others and, instead of feeling joy, this thought triggers sadness and anger.
I catch myself thinking that I do a lot for others and, instead of feeling joy, this thought triggers sadness and anger.
I run two businesses, on top of being involved in my husband’s business. I don’t have kids but I do have a ranch with over 20 animals, most of which are rescues with heavy emotional luggage. I love everything I do. But one day, I realised I was feeling resentful for my life, resentful for the businesses that finance my life and resentful for the animals I care for. That day I realised I had to change something.
This is my story, but it is also the story of many friends, family members and coaching clients. I recognise in all of them the duality of, on the one hand, a spontaneous urge to want to help and the desire, often a pleasure, in caring for others. And on the other hand, the tiredness, isolation and resentment felt at the end of the day when our own needs aren’t met. All this, crowned by guilt. After all, if we truly love and care, we should experience happiness and joy, not resentment and frustration.
But resentment and frustration have a way of showing up regardless of what you do to contain them. In the short term, they make you irritable and short-tempered, both breeding grounds for emotional outbursts that you can’t control. Over time, resentment and frustration leave you feeling isolated, not known by others. This puts huge strains on relationships, sometimes causing you to end them, often to the complete surprise and confusion of the other person who did not see it coming (though they should have, shouldn’t they?!).
What if I told you that there is a way out? That there is a way for you to follow your caring instinct towards others while at the same time getting your own needs met so that you don’t experience this below-the-surface resentment. There is a way for you to end the day feeling fulfilled and energetic, not frustrated and drained, having catered to both yourself and others.
There is a way for you to end the day feeling fulfilled and energetic, not frustrated and drained, having catered to both yourself and others.
Here are five very common (I’ve definitely been there) mistakes that stand between you and getting your needs met. If you have experienced the tiredness, frustration and resentment mentioned above, chances are that you’re doing one - if not more - of the following.
Mistake #1 - Not knowing what you need (instead of what you want)
Needs and wants are not the same things but they can be incredibly difficult to differentiate. Generally speaking, needs are more essential than wants, the latter being mainly desires. Both are deeply personal - therefore something that others can’t figure out for you. A want is usually a means to an end (a need) whereas a need is an end in itself. We often get fixed on a want and miss the underlying need.
One client, Julie*, came to me feeling frustrated and resentful about the lack of help from her husband at home. Both of them have demanding careers but she found herself doing much more than he did inside the house and with the kids. This was taking a toll on their relationship. Together, we worked on identifying what her underlying needs were. She realised that a tidy house was what helped her relax. She also saw that she needed to feel supported and loved in her relationship. In this case, we were able to identify that her want (that her husband helps at home) was concealing her needs to relax and feel supported.
>>> Way out: Ask yourself: What am I really trying to achieve here?
Mistake #2 - Assuming that others know what you need (because they don’t)
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you spend a lot of your time trying to figure out what others need - it probably even comes naturally to you. As such, you expect the same from them and you get frustrated because they don’t. The truth is that most people don’t know what others need, even when they think they do. As mentioned in #1, needs are deeply personal. You will save yourself a tremendous amount of energy if you just assume that others don’t know your needs, not because they’re bad, selfish people, but simply because they are not you. Only you can really know your needs.
During the program, Julie realised that she had unconsciously picked up on her mother’s tendency to need a clean house to be able to relax. Her husband, on the other hand, grew up never even noticing whether his house was clean. Looking back on this helped Julie understand why her husband didn’t share her need for a clean house.
Mistake # 3 - Expecting others will meet your needs (because you meet theirs)
First, if others don’t really know your needs, you can assume that they won’t meet them. Again, not because they’re selfish but because they don’t know. Second, most people are just too busy living their own lives. Sometimes, focusing on other people’s needs just doesn’t cross their minds. Third, not everyone was brought up to believe that helping others meet their needs is a good thing. Your natural tendency to take care of others is not, in fact, natural. It’s something you have developed and for which you were (often unconsciously) rewarded.
Julie told me that she naturally catered to the needs of everyone in her family because that’s what she saw her mother do. So every time she asked her husband to help with the cleaning and he didn’t - or did a bad job of it - she resented him. During the program and by talking openly with her husband, she saw that her husband did not grow up developing the same urge to help. Rather, he learned to help in different ways, such as being present or making gifts. Julie realised that it was not so much that her husband was being selfish and lazy but that his upbringing and thought process were completely different to hers.
Mistake # 4 - Ignoring your emotions
Your emotions exist to protect your needs (and not your wants). When you experience a negative emotion, it’s a sign that your needs are not being met or that they’re being trampled on.
With Julie, we worked on identifying and recognising every time resentment and anger crept in. Instead of feeling guilt or frustration against herself for experiencing these emotions, she learned to be curious. She started using her emotions as a way to help her see when her needs were not being met.
>>> Way out: When you experience a negative emotion, take the time to ask yourself: What is going on here, why am I feeling like this?
Mistake # 5 - Thinking that expressing your needs is selfish
Meeting your needs is a pre-requisite for you to feel good and to feel safe, both of which allow you to be the best version of yourself. Since you know that it is normal for others not to know your needs and not to meet them, not because they’re selfish but because they don’t know, then it becomes your duty to voice them clearly. You will discover that expressing needs, instead of wants, is usually well-received by others. It gives them a choice of what they can to help you, and most people do want to help. If you express a want, which is usually what we do, a lot of people feel like they are being told what to do.
As Julie became more fluent in identifying her needs, she was able to tell her husband when she needed to relax and feel supported, instead of asking him to tidy the house or make dinner. She shared with him some of the ways that help her meet those needs, but she also learned to accept and appreciate the ways in which he decided to help. Eventually, he asked the cleaner to come more often. They also decided on two evenings a week when he’d cook for the family. Julie still wishes that he would make healthier meals but she recognises that this is his way of helping and that it’s important for her to respect it.
Expressing your needs helps others know you better. It helps them understand you, which in turn makes it easier for them to be in a relationship with you, whether at home or in the work place. When you don’t express your needs, it can be difficult to know what to do or not do in a relationship with you. Expressing your needs is the opposite of being selfish because it helps you be the best of yourself - and we know that it is a version of you that is even more helpful and caring of others (minus the resentment).
The take away
Every time you feel frustration and resentment, or any other negative emotions that might be flagging that your needs are not being met, ask yourself the following:
-What is it that I really need here? What is it that I am trying to achieve? (Identify the underlying need)
-Am I assuming that the other knows what I need?
-Am I assuming that the other should meet that need?
-Am I expressing this need clearly in terms of a need (and not a want)? Does the way I express this need give the other person the flexibility to chose how to meet it?
What if they don’t meet my needs?
That happens all the time. That’s why it’s so important to know what you need because there is ALWAYS more than one way to meet a need. So, if someone is not meeting it, a) it gives you valuable information about your relationship with that person and b) you can look for alternate ways of meeting that need.
Paying attention to your emotions, good and bad, will help you identify when your needs are being met and when they aren’t. Beware of confusing wants for needs, and always look to identify the underlying needs involved in a given context. Knowing that most people, even the ones very close to you, don’t know your needs will save you from resentment. Keep in mind that expressing your needs will help others care for you and help them know you better. Both of which are necessary for you to be the best version of yourself in a sustainable way.
Do you find yourself experience resentment and frustration more often than you’d like? Are you struggling to break out of patterns that are feeding these negative emotions?
If this is something you’d like to work on, my program may be for you.
*Not her real name
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