This week, a new client wrote me this question—Why is it so hard for me to ask for what I want and need? Why do I let myself get so run down?

Do you have a hard time asking for what you need?

And does this struggle lead you to feel run down, exhausted, and overwhelmed?

Or contribute to conflict with loved ones?

If so, in today’s article, I want to share with you why it is so challenging for so many people to honor their needs and what to do about it.

Let’s start from the very beginning, from when we were born.

When you and I were born, we had the capacity to express whether or not our needs were met.

When we were wet, hungry, lonely, sleepy, or otherwise uncomfortable, we cried and reached out for support.

But we were not born with the ability to understand or meet our needs.

Instead, babies come into this world reliant on their caregivers to interpret and meet their needs.

Here’s how we ideally learn to interpret and respond to our needs well:[1]

Let’s imagine that there’s a baby.

The baby wakes up after a nap and starts crying. The caregiver comes into the room, coos lovingly to the baby, picks the baby up, and rocks the baby back and forth. The baby stops crying. The baby realizes, in perhaps not so many words: “Oh! That feels good! I felt lonely, and now I’m held. I needed attention.”

After a moment, the baby starts to squirm with discomfort. The caregiver checks the baby’s diaper, realizes it’s wet, and changes the diaper. The baby realizes, consciously or unconsciously: “Oh! That feels good! I felt wet, and I needed to be dry!”

After a few more moments, the baby begins to cry again. The baby hasn’t eaten for a couple of hours, so the caregiver offers the baby a breast or bottle. The baby eats, feels sated, and realizes: “Oh! I felt hungry, and now I feel full. I needed food!”

In the ideal scenario, we humans develop secure attachment—the ability to interpret and respond to our needs well and trust ourselves and others to help us meet our needs—through being in relationship with people who attune to our needs and offer solutions that match.

However, if we don’t receive this support as babies, we are less likely to learn to effectively interpret or respond to our needs.

We are more likely to develop avoidant attachment or preoccupied attachment.[2]

Preoccupied Attachment

Let’s imagine that the caregiver occasionally attunes to the baby and matches their response to the baby’s needs, but most of the time, the caregiver offers the wrong thing at the wrong time.

For example, the baby cries out of loneliness, but the caregiver gives them a bottle or the baby feels overtired, but the caregiver sits them down in front of the tv.

The preoccupied attached baby learns to sense what they need, often acutely so. But they learn not to trust themselves or others to meet their needs.

Preoccupied attachment often emerges when a primary caregiver relies on the child to meet the caregiver’s needs and the child learns that their needs are more likely to be met if their caregiver’s needs are met first. As a result, the child learns to be preoccupied with others’ feelings and needs, and prioritize others’ needs before their own.

In the preoccupied attachment dynamic, a caregiver often expects a child to handle adult responsibilities. Not knowing any better, the child expects themself to handle these responsibilities, too. But no matter how hard they try, the child doesn’t have the power to meet all their needs effectively. As a result, the preoccupied child can blame their inability to meet their needs on themselves and stop trusting themselves.

Because they have a hard time trusting themselves, preoccupied-attached people can develop a pattern of seeking advice from others or following others’ directions rather than following their own inner guidance.

Because their caregivers are so inconsistent with meeting their needs, preoccupied attached children often come to expect that even when their needs are met, their needs will soon not be met.

It therefore becomes challenging for preoccupied-attached people to notice when their needs are well met or trust that their needs will continue to be met. They may say things that diminish good things that happen (“yeah, but…”), anticipate disappointment, or worry that the other shoe is about to drop.

Preoccupied-attached people are often on high-alert to every little feeling and struggle to soothe themselves effectively. To avoid the pain of rejection and disappointment, preoccupied people sometimes appear to become avoidant.

Avoidant Attachment

Let’s now imagine that the same baby cries, but the caregiver consistently does not attune to or match the baby’s needs.

The caregiver may be hostile toward or critical of the baby or absent for reasons such as an illness or preoccupation with work or other responsibilities. The parent may also appear involved but only become excited about a shared interest or the child’s high performance, not about the child’s deeper needs.

This baby still experiences feelings of distress from their unmet needs, but because it seems pointless and feels painful to even pay attention when there’s nothing they can do to meet their needs, they learn to ignore their body’s signals, turn away from their longings, act as if they’re getting what they need, or convince themselves that they don’t need anything at all.

Because avoidantly attached people had to rely on themselves to meet their own needs, they can also tend to believe that other people won’t or can’t help them, that they shouldn’t trust other people and should rely on themselves, or that their vulnerability might be used against them. In order to protect themselves from being hurt again, they often hold back from reaching out to others or asking for help.

Avoidantly attached people may be highly cognitive and task-oriented, show up as the most competent person in the room, or become highly respected yet lonely leaders.

If you have a tendency toward avoidant attachment, you may now have a harder time identifying your feelings, needs, and desires. You may feel a sense of embarrassment or disgust even considering the idea that you have needs, look down upon others for their messy emotions, feel irritated at the hassle of having to add your needs to your to-do list, or think you should need nothing at all.

Avoiding our needs and desires can also emerge as a strategy to cope with traumatic experiences later in life (i.e. difficult experiences that we are too alone in).

If you’ve experienced a trauma like being laid off from a job, dumped unexpectedly, or scapegoated at work, you may now draw a blank, feel overwhelmed, or feel a sense of looming disaster when you try to imagine the life you long for. If you regret past decisions, you might feel a sense of sadness as you examine how you want to live now.

If you’re experiencing heartache in your life right now, like grieving the loss of a loved one or the state of the world, living with illness or disability or poverty, or otherwise grappling with needs that are currently impossible to meet, it makes sense that you might turn away from acknowledging what you need.

In the face of painful circumstances largely outside our control, knowing what we need is not a quick fix. Paying attention to unmet needs can feel really painful. It makes complete sense that part of you might argue that acknowledging your needs seems pointless and distract yourself instead. Sometimes, distraction actually meets our needs for ease and comfort in the short term.

But ignoring our needs rarely helps us feel good in the long term.

When we don’t acknowledge our needs or hyperfocus on others’ needs to the detriment of our own, it becomes harder to make choices that honor our needs.

We are more likely to burn out, change paths but then burn out all over again, grow resentful and irritated toward others, ignore others’ needs and harm our relationships, get sick, have a hard time sleeping, lose our sense of purpose and focus, achieve what we think we want but still not feel satisfied, struggle to set priorities, regret lost opportunities for joy, and experience despair, cynicism, chronic depression, or anxiety.

Of course, attachment wounds are not the only reason it is can be hard to honor our needs.

Imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy creates so many obstacles to meeting our needs. Burnout is caused by a systemic lack of support. The same extractive logic that undergirds systems of oppression convinces us to work beyond our capacity and believe there’s something wrong with us when our overwork leads to dis-ease.

These systemic factors are not our fault, and creating a world where all people can thrive will require systems change.

That said, you and I cannot just wait for systemic change in order to honor our needs.

To bring forth a world where all people’s needs are met and nourish ourselves as we work for change, we must transform our relationship with our needs and learn to honor our needs along the way.

As Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, writes, If you are not resting, you will not make it. And I need you to make it.[3]

What are your attachment strategies?

Most people use an avoidantly attached coping strategy sometimes and a  preoccupied attached coping strategy (otherwise known as anxious attachment) sometimes. It can help to understand how.

To get a clearer picture of how these strategies show up in you, I recommend taking these free assessments: dianepooleheller.com/attachment-test/ and yourpersonality.net/attachment.

What if you’re a parent?

Please know that your parenting doesn’t need to be perfect for your children to develop secure attachment. Research shows that when parents attune to their children about thirty percent of the time, children usually develop secure attachment.

Also, repair is key. If we cause harm—even in the distant past—healing can come from naming the harm and its consequences, expressing remorse, offering a sincere apology without explaining away why we did what we did, and changing our behavior.

I apologize to my sixteen-year-old frequently!

Finally, how can we cultivate secure attachment now that we’re grown-ups and start honoring our needs?

Ultimately, secure attachment with ourselves—the ability to trust ourselves to honor our needs—is about repairing our relationship with ourselves.

At their core, attachment wounds cause us to turn away from our needs.

To heal, we must learn to turn toward our needs and take concrete steps toward meeting them.

I call the practice I’ve come to rely on for cultivating this relationship the Discernment Pause.

In the Discernment Pause, we pause, turning toward ourselves with warmth and kindness, get curious about what we feel and need, get curious about what our situation needs, and choose a next step that honors these needs.

I invite you to try this now:

  1. Pause, notice any part of your body that feels some type of emotional or physical pain or discomfort, do your best to embody a compassionate witness perspective (like you’re sitting on a balcony and watching the uncomfortable part of yourself on stage).
  2. Ask this part of yourself what sensations and emotions it feels. You can download my Emotions Wheels and Feelings List for help. Look for words that your body says yes to.
  3. Ask this part of yourself what it needs. Look for words that are essential needs (like connection or reassurance or appreciation or purpose), as opposed to strategies, which are actions you would take to meet your needs. To get a better sense of what I mean by needs, look for words to describe what you need, and identify your priority needs, I invite you to download my Priority Needs Wheel & Needs List.
  4. Notice any shifts in how you feel when you find words that acknowledge what you feel and need.

Like I shared above, acknowledging our needs is not the only step toward meeting them. But it is the first step.

Each time we get curious about what is needed and choose a next step to honor our needs, we orient our lives in the direction of what matters most.

May it become so very easy for you to ask for what you want and need.


[1] Although I had learned about attachment theory before, I hadn’t heard these depictions of how attachment wounds develop in infancy until taking Carmen Spagnola’s course, Secure, through her online membership site, the Numinous Network. For a deeper dive into healing attachment wounds, I highly recommend taking her course or reading her Medium article, Portrait of A Marriage (Yes, It’s Mine).

[2] While most people refer to these strategies as styles, I use the word strategies to underscore that these are ways we attempt to meet our needs and that we can learn new strategies to meet our needs.

[3] Melonyce McAfee. The Nap Bishop Is Spreading the Good Word: Rest. (New York Times: Oct. 13, 2022.) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/13/well/live/nap-ministry-bishop-tricia-hersey.html

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