Friday, August 19, 2011

What I Want, versus What I Need.


Note: This is a guest blog by D. Hopefully the first of many! Enjoy!
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I've always been a rather literal person. I was when I was young and I still am today. I am often able to recognize when others are not speaking literally (from context) and adapt my understanding and responses accordingly, but to this day it is an uncomfortable experience. I especially deplore hyperbole, unless I'm the offender.
Now I don't mean to say that this is the case in every situation. Rather, I find myself preferring to interpret and formulate verbal communication as literal more and more as the importance of the topic elevates. If we are talking about a movie that just came out, by all means say that it's absolutely horrible (I will still take you seriously, but the repercussions are negligible). But when we are talking about feelings, relationships, or cheese, please do not stray far from saying what you actually mean.
I remember talking with friends about how people used the term “need” far too freely, in my opinion. There are few actual needs that come up in day to day experience. Oxygen is a big one. A person needs water somewhat regularly. Food is a good thing to have from time to time. Some form of temperature regulation, whether that be from clothing, shelter, or climate doesn't really matter, is also something that seems to qualify as a “need” for pesky health reasons.
That was a perfectly reasonable position to hold, in my opinion, and I did so for a long, long time. I even remember feeling a bit superior to people who held a less stringent standard for their definition of the word. Silly that. When a disparity in definitions became apparent I corrected others, informing them that they were confusing a “want” for a “need”. In each case the person would pause, put on a troubled look, then concede my point, all the while cursing my inflexibly pedantic usage, no doubt.
This continued until one day I was speaking with a partner about this topic, how others confuse “wants” and “needs”, and how we really didn't need to discuss “needs” at all within the context of relationships unless there was some sort of survival-level dependency involved. They did the same pause, and wore the same troubled look, but then they said something quite different. With some heat they countered that while that was certainly a valid observation if we were talking about surviving in the wilderness, that we were actually talking about the survival of a relationship.
Wow, was I dumb.
Using a context based definition of necessity is not an earth shatteringly original concept, but it was one that had evaded me. I was diminishing others' statements of what they needed by arguing that it wasn't really a “need”, but simply what they “wanted”. While there may be some traction to that argument, especially for those with less self-knowledge or those who are particularly selfish, it certainly isn't the case all of the time. Besides, if someone is particularly selfish, wouldn't it be better to address that issue directly rather than debating a semantic point about their use of language?
I found, after careful reflection, that this was actually an adaptation that had allowed me to deal with some things that happened (or rather, didn't happen) to me as a child. My father provided for me. He protected me. My needs were seen to. The thing that I realized, however, was that those statements were only true with my particularly inane definition of the term “need” (or “provided”, or “protected”). None of those statements were true if you used a broader definition.
It felt very important to me to defend the way that my father raised me. The deck was stacked against him quite badly, and he worked hard to make sure that I always had food, shelter, clothing, and that I always felt loved. This was no mean feat, truly. While considering other possible definitions of “need”, I ran across one that caused me a great deal of pain. It's the one that I still use to this day.
“Need: Required for healthy vibrant growth and/or existence.”
When I first thought of this I cried. I still feel teary, writing this, as it really strips away the defenses I had built up over the years. I wasn't given many of the things that children need in order to have healthy vibrant growth. Not on a regular basis, certainly. I used to think about people who had it worse than me, and I would backslide and argue against this position. In the end I'm forced to conclude that just because there were people who were worse off than me doesn't mean that I had it all that good, in some ways.
When I compared my childhood against this measure, one of being provided with what I would have required for healthy, vibrant growth, it's clear that my experience fell well short of the mark. I say this with little to no blame directed at my father. He really had it tough. I do have some feelings about the way things worked out, but if I'm going to be honest, he really was a hero. The things that he did, the things he endured, I can't blame him for the way things happened, at least not without a great deal of compassion and understanding.
That being said, how does this epiphany play out now? What changed when I plug this new definition into the same old conversations I'd been having with partners for years?
Well, first off, I raised my standards by several orders of magnitude. I could see how weak self-esteem had reinforced my previous position with regard to relationships. How could I ask for more in this relationship when I was lucky to even have a partner in the first place? It seemed that two separate “tapes” were playing and were mutually reinforcing each other.
Another change was that I began to notice some of the unrealistic standards I had set up for myself. After some quiet reflection I realized that I needed to take it a bit easier on myself and be more intentional with my requests of others. Let me be careful to emphasize that these were requests, not demands.
To this day I can still struggle with asking for what I want in relationships. I'm getting better, but it's still enough of a success that when I do it, I notice, then I immediately pat myself on the back for it. If things are uncomfortable or problematic I speak up quickly, but it things are neutral and I'm trying to proactively seek joy, there is still something holding my back.
I get to expect what I need. I get to ask for what I want. I get to seek my own happiness with those around me, as I contribute to theirs in kind. It's my job to pay attention to my inner world, gleaning self-knowledge, and to share that with those who are closest to me. If a particular partner doesn't want to be a part of a given desire, that's fine, but it they aren't willing to meet one of my needs, then perhaps we ought not to be partners.
In my current season of dating, it's making me feel much more comfortable, competent, and confident knowing that I can discuss and describe my needs, thus giving people of interest the opportunity to let me know what they can or can't do or be for me.
So, what do you need from your partners?
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