Respect Your Needs

— An Excerpt from Making Great Relationships

Respect Your Needs

We live dependently, needing many many things for physical survival, happiness, love, and all that we want to accomplish. Second by second, our lives depend on oxygen, the plants that “exhale” it, the sun that drives photosynthesis, and the other stars that exploded billions of years ago to make every atom of oxygen in the next breath we take. From the moment of conception, we also need other people. You and I and everyone else are frail, soft, vulnerable, hurt by little things, and hungry for love. When we accept this universal fact, we’re not so hard on ourselves—and others.

Many people feel needy or ashamed about their needs and deep wants. (I won’t try to split hairs between what is a need and what is a deep want, and will use both terms synonymously.) But needs are normal; we all have them. Simply recognizing this can feel calming and ease self-criticism. The first step in getting others to meet your needs better is to respect your needs yourself.


In your mind, out loud, on paper, or with a trusted friend, try a little experiment in which you start a sentence with: I need __________, and fill in the blank. Then do it again and again. Just say what comes to mind, even if it seems silly. As you repeatedly complete the sentence, you may find that you’re getting deeper, into more fundamental needs. When it feels like you’ve expressed what there is to say, at least for now, try different sentence stems such as: I really want ___________ . . . It’s important to me to feel ___________. . . . When I get what I need, ________. Next, try this exercise again while focusing on one or more specific relationships.

Then, pick one of your needs, and say to yourself things like this: I do need ___________ . . . I accept that I really value ___________ . . . ___________ is very important to me . . . It’s normal and OK that I need ___________. Try to soften inside and help yourself feel OK about having this need.

Take another step and ask yourself if there is a deeper need under this one. For example, you might have come up with “I need more compliments from my spouse.” But compliments are a means to the end of a deeper need, such as needing to have a sense of self-worth. We can get caught up in trying to satisfy superficial, means-to-an-end needs, sometimes by becoming fixated on particular words or behaviors from others. One reason for this is that it may feel safer to talk about these “proxies” for deep vulnerable needs. For instance, when our kids were young, I asked my wife if she could give me a hug when I got home from work. Sure, affection was nice, but what I really needed was to feel that I still mattered to her as a being, not just as a co-parent—and that was a lot scarier to say out loud. Even if you can get someone to say the “right” things, your deeper need may not feel fulfilled if it is not directly addressed.

Once you identify a down-deep need, consider what you could do to honor it more fully. (You can repeat this process for other needs, too). It might seem that the deeper the need, the harder it is to meet it. But actually, our deepest needs are usually about having an important experience, such as feeling peaceful, contented, or loved. When you shift your focus from reality having to be a certain way—such as from getting a compliment or a hug—to what you need to feel inside, then there are usually lots of ways to help yourself have that experience. This is wonderfully freeing! Ask yourself: What would I feel deep down if others did what I wanted them to do or say? And then ask yourself this crucial question: How could I help myself have that experience without being so bound to what other people do?

For example, if you want a greater sense of self-worth, you could look for ways that other people do appreciate and value you, without them saying a word. You could recognize some of the many things you accomplish in a day, and really take in the feeling of your capabilities. Before you get out of bed in the morning and before you go to sleep at night, you could tune into your fundamental kindness and caring for others. All of these are entirely within your own power. There’s certainly a place for speaking skillfully with others—including about their needs, too—and for some suggestions about how to do this, please see the chapters in parts four and five. But it’s all too easy to get stuck in a sense of unmet needs because other people just won’t, you know, act the right way! Then you might feel helpless, even despairing. It’s really good to make a plan for how you will respect your needs more fully—especially if you’ve been raised or treated in ways that criticized or downplayed your needs. Instead of waiting for others to meet them, it’s empowering, hopeful, and healing to take responsibility yourself for doing all that you can to experience that your deep needs are being sufficiently met. While we do depend on other people, we can take responsibility within that field of dependence, which over time will probably help you be more effective when it’s time to ask for things from others.

Last, consider how you also depend on . . . you. The you that you are today has been gifted in thousands of ways, large and small, by previous versions of yourself. Like runners in a great relay race, you hand the baton each day to the you who wakes up the next morning. No matter what mistakes you’ve made in the past, think of some of the many things that earlier you’s have contributed to your life: problems solved, goals accomplished, dishes done, relationships nurtured, lessons learned. What would it feel like to imagine some of those previous you’s, and thank them?

Looking forward, consider how your future depends on what you do today. Not as pressure, but gently, let it sink in that your future you is counting on you, right now. What will be important to this being that you will become? What could you do this year, this day, that would set up this future person to live with safety, health, happiness, and ease?


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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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