A client reminded me today of the story of my last birthday. It was a good day, but not for the reasons you might suspect. I was not spoiled. I didn’t get that one gift I’ve always secretly wished for, but never requested. The weather wasn’t even that great.
The amazing thing (to me, at least) is that it was a good day DESPITE the fact that my celebration was decidedly underwhelming. Neither of my sons (who, I should say are usually pretty good at this sort of thing) got me even so much as a card. And my husband got me a mug. A nice mug, from one of the best coffee shops in the world Blue Bottle (and mug that I had admired – which he’d noticed,) but still, not exactly a trip to Tahiti!
There was no special dinner, no special dessert planned. But when I told my family (some of whom we’re feeling bad when they realized what was happening) that I really was FINE. I wasn’t just saying it. I really was fine. In fact, I was quite happy. I was in a place I’d chosen to be in, with my parents and my kids and my husband. It was enough. It was good.
Mind you I was not always this Zen about underwhelming celebrations of me. But I am now, more often than not, because I have learned to do the two things I’m going to suggest to you.
1) I’ve learned to ask for what I need and want.
2) I’ve learned to regularly get for myself what I need and want regardless of what my amazing loved ones do or do not do. In other words, I take responsibility.
If you’re already great at asking for what you want and taking responsibility for getting what you need on a regular basis, that’s awesome! You probably don’t need to keep reading.
But if it’s hard for you, as it was for me—for decades—then read on. I’ve got a couple thoughts about how to overcome some common barriers to getting started.
Barrier #1: It can be hard to ask for what you need or want because when you ask you risk getting a “no.”
You risk getting disappointed. You risk feeling hurt. True.
But here’s the thing—if you DON’T ask for what you want or need you massively increase the chances that you will be disappointed and that you will not get what you want.
Because even people who love us aren’t magical mind-readers. And people who don’t love us are even less likely to know what we want without us telling them. Yes, there are a few amazing folks who seem to be really good at this sort of thing, but it’s rare.
The thing is that our brains are wired to pay attention to all the risks of moving forward, but to ignore the risks of staying still and silent. When you don’t ask, you INCREASE the risk that you won’t receive what you want and need.
So, here’s my first suggestion, if you’re not getting what you need—from your partner, your boss, your professor, your friend—try asking. You might not get what you want, but then again, you just might.
Bonus suggestion: Track your courageous asks for a week and see how many times you get shot down and how many times you get what you hoped for, or compromise and get something that still feels good, or maybe something surprisingly better! I’ll bet you find that the risks were worth it.
Barrier #2: It can be hard for many of us to ask for what we need or want because we don’t want to let go of a cherished fantasy—
the one where your loved one/friend/child magically knows exactly what you want and makes it happen for you, and you never had to say a thing.
It’s a lovely fantasy. It makes for a great romantic comedy. And every once-in-a-while you might have a friend or loved one who does hit that sweet spot. Yay! Enjoy it! But most of the time it’s not reality.
In real life, in real relationships, we have to tell others what we want and need. We have to ask for it. That’s how they get to know us better. That’s how we grow.
That leads me to suggestion #2: I know it’s painful, but to get more of what you want and need, you’re going to have to let that fantasy go.
Barrier #3: We don’t recognize that as adults making sure that we are meeting our own needs is our job.
This one is especially common among women generally, good moms specifically and save-the-world educators too.
There can be beliefs that hang us up in relation to this one:
1) We think that meeting our needs (God-forbid our wants too!) is selfish.
2) We think that meeting our needs/wants is outside of our control (this is somewhat connected to the above fantasy.)
Regarding belief #1 (meeting my needs is selfish) the oxygen-mask-on-the-plane metaphor is always a good one – if you pass out because you have no air, because you tried to put your kid’s mask on before you put on your own, then how helpful are you to him/her? Not any. Right.
It’s your job to be sure you get air, then you can care for your child/ren or students, or friends etc.
What “air” looks like in everyday life will vary from person to person—it might be 15 minutes of silence after work. It might be a once-a-month massage. It might be a day when you don’t have to cook. It will change at different times and phases in your life.
So that’s suggestion #3: Whatever is “air” for you, that is, whatever it is that helps you to keep functioning well, so you can do the important work in front of you, I suggest you start taking responsibility for making sure you get it.
Regarding belief #2 (getting what I need want is outside of my control), let me just say that it’s great when some force outside of ourselves meets our needs or desires, whether that force is a loved one, a surprise check or a new best friend. I’m a huge fan of interdependent communities and relationships and I’m not opposed to miracles and surprises.
But knowing that we’d like to have someone or something magically meet our needs, and acting in ways that make that possibility more likely, is not the same thing as sitting around waiting for Prince Charming, or the lottery, or Magic to give us what we long for.
It’s a childish approach. It’s the approach of someone who thinks they aren’t strong enough or smart enough or just plain ENOUGH.
But I KNOW that you are enough. Yes, there may be some real limitations on what you are capable of, but I’ll bet money they aren’t as big or as absolute as you might make them out to be.
Suggestion #4 is that you take a tiny step towards claiming your responsibility for your life, including your needs and desires – by changing your language. Stop saying “I can’t” and start saying “I choose.” Instead of “I can’t sleep in because my kids wake up at 6 am.” Say. “I choose not to sleep in because it’s important to me that I keep my children safe.” Or instead of “I can’t miss that faculty meeting.” Say, “I choose to go to this meeting because it’s important to me to keep my job.” Or “I choose not to go to this meeting because I’m exhausted.” Instead of “I can’t eat that bowl of ice cream,” say “I choose not to eat that bowl of ice cream because I want to feel strong and healthy.” It seems silly, but that tiny shift in language can bring a big change in how you experience your power over your own life.
These suggestions are practices I’ve been using for the past couple of decades. I'm not perfect, but I’m getting better and better with practice.
And as a result, I pretty much live FULL now. Before I started asking for what I want and need and taking responsibility for getting it, that was not the case. I mostly felt starved inside. I mostly felt maxed out. In fact my body even started to rebel against itself in the form of an auto-immune disease. (Did you know not caring for your needs can be a big contributor to this crazy class of diseases?)
Anyway, now, I live mostly nourished – body, soul and spirit. I live mostly satisfied. And I’m more free to love and appreciate whatever and whoever shows up, or doesn’t.
That’s why my birthday wasn’t a big deal. Because I wasn’t asking this one day, this one celebration, to fill me up with love and goodness. I wasn’t asking my husband and my sons to magically meet my needs and desires. It would have been icing on the cake to have a bit more of a celebration, but I didn’t NEED it.
I DID, however, tell my sons that next year I would at least like a card (a.k.a. I ASKED). And my husband and I are working on his gift-giving skills, slowly, over time (he has other strengths!) and my next birthday is my 50th so I’m trying to figure out what I want and need for that celebration and how I can seek to make it happen (a.k.a TAKING RESPONSIBILITY.)
Here’s to each of you getting more of your needs – and wants — met this week. Here’s to Thriving!