To keep showing up and do so in a joyful, nourished way, we must learn to honor our needs.

And yet, at first, acknowledging what we need and want can be so hard. Here’s are some reasons why:

You and I were born with the ability to know what we needed and wanted—cuddles, nourishment, rest, play, learning, listening, care, so much. But as soon as we were old enough to start watching the faces of our caretakers, most of us began to pick up on messages that there was something wrong with us for needing what we needed. As we got older, we received more messages—from kids on the playground, tv and magazines, social media, religious leaders, teachers—telling us what we should and shouldn’t want.

Perhaps, growing up, nobody asked what you wanted.

Perhaps your religion taught that your bodily pleasures were sinful. Maybe people told you that your emotions or desires were too much.

While some of us held onto the knowledge that our needs are valid, most of us started to believe that at least some of our needs were unimportant, dirty, wrong, sinful, gross, weird, shameful, or excessive. Many of us learned that we shouldn’t need anything at all.

The more our bodies deviate from what Audre Lorde calls “the mythical norm” and what Sonya Renee Taylor calls “the default body”—the white, cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, thin man—the less dominant culture values our needs. The less our desires conform to or serve the capitalist, racist, cisheteropatriarchal status quo, the less valid they’re deemed to be.

As Audre Lorde writes in The Uses of the Erotic, when we desert our desires, we become easier to control:

“We have been raised to fear . . . our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for . . . many facets of our own oppression.”

It can also be really painful, even dangerous, to turn toward our unmet needs.

If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, coping with chronic illness or disability, dealing with the impacts of racism or classism or colonization, living in poverty, hurting at the state of the world, or grappling with other needs that are impossible to meet right now, acknowledging your needs isn’t a quick fix. Sometimes, acknowledging our needs doesn’t fix anything.

And if you have it relatively good, you might tell yourself it’s selfish to acknowledge your needs. Others probably do have it way worse (we live in a world with so much suffering). And, yet, the Oppression Olympics leads us nowhere. Ignoring our needs leads to burnout. We help no one when burnout sneaks up unsuspected, and we drop out of the fight.

In the face of the dominant narrative that denigrates desire and denies our agency to know what we want, I invite you to consider this new story:

Acknowledging our needs is an act of aliveness and rebellion. For our bodies to access joy, we must also be able to sit with pain, including the pain of knowing what we want. It’s not fair, but it’s how our bodies work. To be fully alive, we must know what we want. Reclaiming desire is a radical act.

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