by See Change Ambassador, Lucie Kavanagh
“Sometimes you can have everything you want but fail to achieve anything you need.”
― Craig D. Lounsbrough, The Eighth Page: A Christmas Journey
In my social care worker days, I supported a man who, let’s call him James, was terrified of dogs. James didn’t communicate verbally so he couldn’t discuss his fear with us but it was so great that, if he spotted a dog when out for a walk, he would panic and run as far as he could in the opposite direction and place himself in danger if that happened to be across a main road. It was difficult to know how to support James to enjoy his walks safely and manage his fear of dogs but then we noticed something.
If you were walking with James and he saw a dog in the distance, James would immediately tense up and his breathing would quicken. But if you then said “James, I see the dog”, there would be a visible relaxation. He would allow you to take his hand and walk with him, sometimes actually passing quite close to the dog. You could say that what helped was the support to be in the dog’s vicinity but it wasn’t. It was very clear that what helped James was the acknowledgement, the fact that he knew that we knew what was upsetting him. In that instance, greater than his need to be away from the dog, was the need not to have to deal with the fear alone.
I saw a similar pattern over and over again in my work, that helping people to develop their communication skills sometimes helped not only in the ability to communicate their needs and desires but in the fact that they knew for sure that those needs and desires were being heard, even if they couldn’t be immediately met.
It’s not always easy to answer the question “what do you need?” At the moment, living through a Pandemic, that will vary from person to person. For some, it might be a break,a holiday or simply a quiet house, for others it could be their business reopening and money coming in, or for their loved ones to keep safe. When someone around us is distressed or struggling, sometimes in our desire to try to help and to “fix” we can forget about that simple question “what do you need?”
It’s rarely asked in mental health appointments, possibly because lack of resources mean that it’s easier to tell the person what’s available rather than ask the question and not be able to meet the needs. But in many conversations, I have had with people who have been in a variety of difficult situations, no one ever forgets when they were asked that question and how validated it made them feel.
Asking someone what they need is showing that you see them as individual and that you aren’t going to assume anything based on your own experiences. It shows that you are listening and that you are prepared to hear their reply even if it’s something you won’t be able to help with. After all, can any of us really ever solve an entire problem for someone else? There might be something we can do. There might not. But we have heard it and held the space for those needs.
On the flip side of that, it’s not always an easy thing to have or express our needs. In therapy a few years ago, my therapist talked to me about how it is human to have needs and about my inability to say, inside or out of therapy, when I have reached my limits or need something. We even practised making requests. My therapist asked me to ask her for an object in the room. I laughed at how easy that sounded. But then I couldn’t do it.
How do you practise having needs?
Having needs means being vulnerable. It means attention being on you. Being seen.
I told her about an incident months ago where I was in the back of a car with a friend, feeling horribly car sick. I said nothing until the situation became desperate and I had to ask for the car to be stopped. My friend immediately remarked on how pale I was and asked why I’d said nothing sooner.
“Why didn’t you?” my therapist asked.
I didn’t want to be a nuisance.
I thought I could manage it myself.
I hate causing trouble.
She asked me to try and rephrase the above sentences until we reached something resembling an acknowledgement that these situations are normal and part of life.
My therapist pointed out that while part of me fears and dreads being seen, another part regularly spoke to her about feeling unreal or invisible. My needs seem so selfish compared to other peoples’. Relationships are about supporting each other, my therapist reminded me. But it can be very hard to translate that to real life.
The concept of real is a lot of my problem with needs. Other people are more real than me. It’s always been the case. At work I would watch my colleagues, wondering how they slipped in to these lives that might seem ordinary to them but extraordinary to me. Other people make connections. Other people have or have had relationships, they are parents, relations, part of a circle; they have careers they are passionate about or simply lives that they are active in or passionate about. I felt like and sometimes feel like a ghost in my life, with problems that are transparent, old and faded. They are not real. Maybe, therefore, I am not real.
But we are. Needs are real. If you’re reading this and whether or not you’ve ever been asked or had a chance to think about it, allow me to ask you, right here, right now:
What do you need?
“At the root of every tantrum and power struggle are unmet needs.”
― Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following