Many people struggle with communicating their needs in relationships. Whether it be with their partner, workplace, or family members. Somewhere in our past we commonly learn that it is not okay to express our emotions and or tell others what we need to feel safe. Boys are encouraged to be stoic and strong while girls are taught to be quiet and sweet. “Children are meant to be seen not heard”, “boys don’t cry”, “be a good girl and play nice”, or the classic threat “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”. Although younger generations may cringe at these [hopefully] outdated phrases, the discomfort with speaking up is still largely a part of our culture – perhaps especially in Canada where we have a reputation for apologizing for everything!
Who remembers their parents saying “after everything I’ve done for you.” This can be a particularly heavy message for a young child to internalize. This phrase shames the child rather than addressing the emotion or confronting the behaviour of concern. It can enforce the belief that the child must hide their emotions to have their necessities met. In other words, if I want to feel taken care of and loved, I’d better learn to keep my feelings to myself. Otherwise, I’m selfish and don’t deserve anything my parents provide for me. Some people then find themselves in adult relationships where they believe it is selfish to express their feelings – especially if they have a partner who is more of the breadwinner or who shows affection through generosity.
Expressing love with gifts, acts of service or other love languages can be another strategy people use to communicate when they do not know how to use their words. A lot of us did not learn to communicate directly and assertively. The partner who is expressing their love through gifts and chores may feel unappreciated or ignored because they are greatly trying to please someone who still appears unsatisfied. The unsatisfied partner may want to express what they need emotionally but are afraid to do so for fear of appearing ungrateful or selfish. When we show our love indirectly through generosity instead of communicating directly, it can be like having a limited toolbox. The person can become exhausted by expending all their energy, hammering away at the problem when what they really need is a screwdriver. Couples therapy can be an efficient way to learn how to express love in a way that enhances connection rather than confusion in the relationship.
In our closest relationships, important things can go unsaid because we’re afraid of how the other person might respond. For example, for those of us who grew up in a household of fighting – we may do everything possible to avoid confrontation because “we don’t want to argue like our parents.” If we witnessed yelling, verbal, or physical abuse as a child, then any confrontation as an adult can trigger attachment trauma. This is why expressing our emotions or needs (even trivial) can lead to a deep-seated fear that our partner will reject or abandon us. This is because when our nervous system becomes activated or ‘triggered,’ it can become difficult or even impossible to communicate. Counselling and couples therapy are ways that help us to understand the body’s response to triggers and how to ground ourselves while having difficult conversations.
So what exactly are needs and how do we know if they’re being met or not?
The notion of having needs or expressing them may feel completely foreign. Emotional responses are generally a cue that something has been said or done that doesn’t feel right for you. Working with a therapist can help you to listen to your body so that you can learn what you need to feel safe in relationships. For example, have you ever received a text message and then had a body reaction that feels like anger, anxiety, depression or sadness? That might be an indication that a boundary has been violated or a need has been unmet.
The body’s reaction may also indicate that we’re jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, or making assumptions about what the other person is saying. Asking for clarification on what the message was attempting to say is an example of expressing our needs – I need to know what was meant by that before I can proceed safely in the discussion. If you routinely catch yourself guessing what other people are thinking, a therapist who works with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to identify and reframe distressing thoughts.
Again, identifying and expressing needs can be highly context-dependent so navigating these nuances with a licensed therapist is strongly recommended. Stay posted for my next blog post where I will explore assertive communication as a constructive tool for getting your needs met.
Colter Long is a Registered Clinical Counsellor with years of experience at Thrive Downtown. He specializes in mental health, career advising, LGBTQ2A+ issues, goal setting, crisis prevention, stress, burnout, substance use and psychedelic integration. He offers various therapies, including CBT, mindfulness-based, and person-centred therapy. Contact to schedule a session and start healing.