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Getting in the Way of our Own Needs

Despite the ubiquity of the oft-quoted first five words of this poem, in our culture, individualism is so valued that we sometimes fail to see that we simply cannot meet all of our own needs. We must rely on others for certain needs, such as to experience trust and understanding.* However, due to the lessons of our shared culture or the beliefs instilled in us by our unique family upbringings (oftentimes without our conscious knowing!), there are many reasons why we get in our own way when it comes to having some of these needs met by others.

Love knots

Lori Gordon names the reasons that we get in our own way as ‘Love Knots,’ which she writes about in this book. Not only do the Love Knots describe the underlying beliefs that keep us from asking for others to meet our needs, they also describe beliefs that keep us from extending ourselves to meet the needs of others. Though Gordon has identified many such “Love Knots,” I will present only a few here. See which ones feel familiar to you:

  1. “If you really loved me, you would know what I want, and you would do it. Since you don’t you obviously don’t care.”

  2. “If I let myself close to you, I will need you. If I am too dependent and need too much, I will not be able to survive without you. I will become weak."

  3. "If I ask what you are thinking or feeling, I believe I am intruding (as you would tell me if you wanted me to know). If I don’t ask, you believe I am not interested, so you never tell me. We live as strangers.”

  4. “When you are in pain, I believe I should be able to fix it. I don’t know how to fix it, so I feel inadequate. I get angry with you for making me feel inadequate. I withdraw from you and blame you when you are in pain.”

To see these in action, consider the following example: my wife, Kelsey, and I recently had an argument. While Kelsey was making dinner, I was in another room doing my own thing. Kelsey became upset, and, at first, she wasn’t certain why, other than the obvious fact that she was cooking our dinner and I was doing something else. When I saw that she was upset, I automatically became defensive, and because I didn’t know how to respond to her, I refused, at first, to talk about it. We were both left feeling hurt and angry, and neither of us was exactly certain what had happened.

Perhaps this situation is not one you’ve experienced, yet it still may feel familiar to you, whether it’s with a spouse, another family member, a friend, or a coworker. You may have even taken sides! My wife and I were both operating from different Love Knots, which may or may not align with your own.

Getting out of our own way

As you might have noticed, Love Knots are often built on assumptions about how needs should be met in relationship – if at all – and these assumptions are what get in our way in terms of getting our needs met. So how do we get out of the way?

One simple way is to become aware of our assumptions and communicate them with others. By having a mutual understanding of these assumptions, we can begin to shift our behaviors in the relationship.

When my wife and I did make time to talk about our argument, Kelsey realized that she needed to feel connection to me while making dinner. She also realized that she assumed that I should have anticipated this need. When I didn’t, she felt uncared for. In reflecting on my part, I realized that I rarely ask Kelsey how she is feeling or what she might need, and I do that because, for some reason, I assume that it is rude to ask such questions. Furthermore, when she became upset, I shut down because I thought I should be able to fix the problem, but I didn’t know how. By not being able to fix the problem, I tapped into fears that I am inadequate, and I retreated.

By talking openly about our experiences and the underlying beliefs, we were better able to understand one another, and we were able to make requests of one another to help us avoid playing into these Love Knots in the future. For instance, Kelsey agreed to let me know when she’d like company, and I agreed to occasionally check with her to see if she would like me to help her with her task if I notice that we are doing separate things. And, we both agreed to remind the other to follow through on these agreements.

This points to the second way of getting out of our way in terms of getting our needs met: to challenge the assumptions that underlie Love Knots. Take, for example, the second Love Knot from the list above: “If I let myself close to you, I will need you. If I am too dependent and need too much, I will not be able to survive without you. I will become weak.”

For those of us who are held back by this particular Love Knot, what would happen if we were to actively embrace a new, alternative belief, such as: “I can enjoy being close to you, and allowing you to meet my needs does not mean that I am helpless without you. In allowing you to meet my needs, I gain the pleasure of our increased closeness.”

Of course, in order to truly challenge the Love Knot, we have to enact the new belief, which can feel like quite a risk. But even in evoking the new belief in small ways, we can begin to change our approach to how we communicate our needs to others, resulting in getting them met more often.

If you have trouble advocating for your needs in relationship or want to explore your Love Knots, contact me to see how individual or couples counseling can help.

*You can find a non-exhaustive list of universal human needs here.

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