I have a very dear long-term client Bella who — as a consequence of a very particular type of childhood — has learned to always put herself second. Over the time that we’ve been working together, her inability to ask for what she wants and needs has become somewhat of a running joke between us. The joke has now gone so far that we no longer even need to say the words, just use a simple shorthand where we mime an imaginary set of scales showing the disparity between her needs and everyone else’s.
The idea that the things we want in life need to wait until everyone else has what they need, is one I imagine a lot of us can identify with. The concept of putting ourselves first (or even just not dead-last) might have all kinds of bad associations from our childhoods, previous relationships and the culture we grew up in. The word ‘selfish’ is instinctively rejected as a negative descriptor, while ‘selfless’ is seen as a quality that will be almost certainly be met with rewards, either in this life or the next.
“I mean, I give him massages all the time! When he comes home from work, I’ll sit him down on the bed and really work on his shoulders! But when it’s me in pain? Nothing!”
“And you’ve asked for a massage in return?”
“I sat down with my back to him and told him my neck was in agony. He literally just gave me like…two little squeezes and that was it!”
“And then what happened?”
“He just got up and went to get himself a beer.” [pause] “I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to ask me if I told him what I wanted, or if I just left him to guess. But seriously, he knew. He would have to be stupid not to know I wanted him to massage me.”
“So let’s assume he’s stupid. I imagine we’re all pretty stupid when it comes to this stuff. What could you have said that would have made sure you got what you wanted?”
“I’m not going to beg him to give me a massage!!”
“Would you need to beg? Is it possible he didn’t understand how important this was to you?”
“It’s not important!! I honestly don’t give a shit about the fucking massage!!”
“So what is it that you give a shit about?”
“I want him to…want me to feel good, to think about what he can do for me.”
“Is that something you can ask him for?”
“Would that be so terrible a thing to say out loud? ‘I want you to tell me that you want to make me feel good’?”
“Yes!! Because you can’t…force someone to say stuff like that!”
“No, you can’t. But you can tell them what you want to hear from them. Then, if that isn’t something he wants to say, he’s free to say ‘no, I don’t want to say that’ or say something else.”
“And what if he doesn’t feel that way at all?”
“You imagine he doesn’t feel that way? Then maybe add that too. ‘I want you to tell me that you want to make me feel good, and I imagine you don’t want me too. And I make myself’…what? What do you make yourself?”
“I make myself scared. That you don’t care about me… as much as I do about you. And that you’ll see me as just …needy, clingy…pathetic.”
I imagine the scariest part of asking for what we honestly want is imagining the rejection of our needs, and all the physical sensations that go along with that. I think we probably all have a story about rejection, a time when we worked ourselves up into a state of high anxiety, only to have our fragile hopes crushed. I know how to describe it emotionally, but it’s when I unpick the physical experience that I start to realise why I make myself so afraid. The rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, shaking knees & thighs and sweaty neck feel an awful lot like signifiers of danger. Like my life is under threat, and I need to do something about it right now.
My life isn’t in danger of course, so why do I feel like it is?
If I believe that the love others feel for me is conditional - based on my behaving in a certain way - I might conclude that if I cease to behave this way, their love will be taken away from me. The ‘me’ that they love will cease to exist, because I will have exposed that person as a sham: “You thought I was selfless? Well, surprise! I actually have all these needs, and now I believe they’re just as important, no…more important, than yours!”
I hide my needs, I don’t ask for what I want, because I make myself afraid of appearing ‘needy’. I imagine asking for what I want means making myself vulnerable to your ‘no’, which I make devastating and into a total rejection of everything I might ever want or ask for.
But what if ‘no’ is allowed to be something else, something fuller and more nuanced than total rejection? What if — rather than just hearing your ‘no’ and walking away — I share my imaginings with you about it, and we talk about them, together.
“When I ask you for a massage and you say ‘no’, I imagine you think I’m needy…clingy…pathetic. I make myself scared you’re comparing me to your old girlfriend. I imagine you’ll think I’m too much hard work, and that you can’t be bothered with me after a long day. That you’d rather just have a beer and chill out than be nagged. And I make myself nervous about saying all this, because I imagine you’ll think I’m nuts.”
“How does that feel? Does it seem like something you could say?”
Bella frowns, “Yes, because it’s not about him. It’s about me. It’s my stuff.”
“And what would you like from him in response?”
“Maybe just… ‘ok. I hear you’? I imagine I’d like him to say he doesn’t see me as clingy and pathetic!”
“And was his old girlfriend ‘clingy and pathetic’?”
“She wouldn’t stop texting him, or accept that they broke up.”
“And why did they break up?”
“He said she was a total doormat and just agreed with everything he said.”
“So…she never asked for what she wanted?”
Bella narrows her eyes, but her lips are twitching into a smile. “You’re so funny,” she says.