by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
I think most of us have this secret fear lurking in our core: that our needs are too much for the people around us. That our unvarnished self is a black hole of emptiness and nothing can fill us up. We hide our fear of emptiness/neediness in a variety of ways: by developing hyper-independence, or engaging in excessive care-taking of others, or by dissociating with food/alcohol/television/Facebook/tasks.
To understand where this near-universal fear comes from it helps to know two things:
One, the brain is a meaning-maker. It makes meaning by recognizing patterns and generalizing those patterns out to arrive at conclusions to help us navigate life. One major pattern we learn is simple cause and effect tracking: If I do X, Y will happen. This cause and effect pattern-recognition is half the battle of functioning in a given environment. For example: If Harry consistently gets to work late (X), he will lose his job (Y). If I rinse my dishes before putting them in the sink (X), it’s easier to clean them (Y).
Two, just because a pattern is true at one point in time doesn’t make it true in present time. Therein lies 98% of the work of therapy.
If you were born into a compromised environment such as a family system where addiction or mental illness or poverty or disability affected the adult’s capacity to care for you, than your needs were too much. At that time, and in that family system of diminished capacity, a growing child’s constant need for food, love, shelter, attention, explanation, comfort, sanitation, structure, stimulation, and consideration is too much for the parent(s) to meet. The parent, ashamed at their failure to meet the demands of this needy being grows angry at the child for putting them in this position and blames the child. The adults convert their own failure into blame and send the message to the child: Your needs are too much. The child’s meaning making looks like this: If I have needs (x), I make my mother angry (Y). The child then starts to hide his needs, first from his mother and ultimately from himself.
Of course we all have needs, and our adult selves need the very same things that our child selves needed. Some of those needs we can now meet directly (food, shelter, sanitation, structure) while others still must be met via relationship (love, attention, comfort, consideration).
If we are still in that child habit of hiding our needs from ourselves, we don’t know it’s okay to have needs and we don’t know what we really want. We may think we want a Rolex watch or watch ten hours of Netflix.
Here’s a handy way of telling if we are meeting a need or blotting ourselves out: when we meet a need, it goes away. We return to a state of calm. When we are blotting ourselves out, the need gets quiet for a short period of time and then resumes its shrill driving force. When blotting out, we vacillate between distracted and restless. When meeting a need, we feel relief and peace.
My wish for you, dear reader, is that you take the time to know your needs and value yourself enough to meet them.