Embracing our needs: a guide to deeper communication with family, friends and partners

By Helen Diamond

I would imagine that most of us would dread being labelled “needy” by those close to us, and heaven forbid if we were ever to be considered “too needy!” The irony of this is that to be human and to be in relationship with others, we NEED to have needs!

Successful relationships come down to three basic questions about needs:
  • “What do I need in order to feel loved, happy, fulfilled and secure?”
  • “What do you need to feel the same?”
  • “Are we willing to work towards understanding and meeting each other’s needs?”
This requires a strong base of friendship and trust between people, together with a willingness and ability to communicate clearly and to compromise if necessary.

Being able to express our needs requires of us an ability to identify what our needs are.

Just as it is futile to expect others to be able to mind read and “just know” what we need, so too is it pointless to try to express our needs if we’re not actually sure of what these needs may be.

Needs often lie hidden very deeply within us and are more often than not expressed through our behavior, rather than being articulated. To expand further, it can be useful to think of an image of an iceberg, with the tip of the iceberg (the 10 percent visible above water) representing ours and others’ behaviour.

Underneath the surface lie our feelings and needs. 

Taking the time to explore and get in touch with what we stand for.

Our values and what we need to be able to embody these values, gives us a vocabulary to express the often inexpressible.

The more we are able to express and label our feelings and needs, the greater the chance of being more clearly understood and therefore entering into a deeper level of relationship with others.

Being able to express how we are feeling and to take a leap of faith in so doing, helps us feel more closely connected to others and to feel more “comfortable in our own skin.” This also reduces the possibility of mental health challenges as the more we know ourselves, the more we can identify our “triggers” and the more compassion we can shine on ourselves when we are going through difficult times.

In order to be able to identify our feelings, the first step is to tune in to our body.

Emotions are expressed through our physiological state - can we identify any tension or sensations in any of parts of our body? If so, take five slow deep breaths into these spots and try to relax into these areas.

It can be helpful to take an objective stance and to practice being the “observer” so we can check in with ourselves, be curious about our thoughts and responses and take some time to reflect on what’s going on around us: This is the way we come to understand ourselves and learn to view these feelings and experiences as being part of the rich tapestry of life and thereby, part of the universal experience of being human.

The next step is to label and name the emotions, being as specific as we can.

It has been found that the act of labelling emotions, both “positive” and “negative” creates a calming effect and reduces the physiological manifestation of the emotion.

It can also be helpful to write down how we are feeling. Doing this connects the emotional and clear-thinking parts of the brain and assists us to make sense of our responses in an integrated way.

We can banish our emotions, but they don’t vanish.

When it comes to our deeper emotional experiences, it’s pretty easy to “skim the surface” but when we do this, we risk living an inauthentic, discordant life which, because of the unplumbed depths, can lead to physical illness, mental health challenges and issues with substance abuse as we try desperately to silence or quell the tapping of our emotions and needs as they persistently knock at the door.

When we notice that a loved one may be struggling (usually as a result of some uncharacteristic behaviours) it can be really helpful to gently point out to them that we have noticed a change in their behavior and with kindness and curiosity, explore what might be going on for them.

This may or may not open the door for further conversations, but the most important aspect is that they now know that we’ve noticed something about them and that we’re interested in understanding what might be going on for them.

When someone close to us is dealing with strong and difficult emotions, it can be very tempting to want to jump in and “fix” it for them or to try take the pain away.

Neither of these approaches is helpful and often leads to the other person feeling even more misunderstood. Another approach is to “be with” them by not necessarily saying very much but turning towards them with empathy and warmth, offering companionable silence and comfort in our presence, bearing witness to their pain.

To really nurture that feeling of closeness and connectedness we get when we dare to delve deeper, we need to be able to take some risks and expose our vulnerabilities to the other person. This is in effect, exposing our humanity to the other which makes way for them to reciprocate in turn.

Timing is also important.

If there’s something really important we’d like to discuss, it’s a good idea to flag the idea with the other person and make a time that suits us both to sit down and talk things through.

When we start communicating our feelings and needs, it is very helpful to stick to what are known as “I statements.” For example, “I feel…. when….and I would like….” This way, the “sting” is taken out of the conversation - no blame is cast, and the speaker “owns” their own feelings.

It can be very difficult to do all of this, especially as the vast majority of us were not raised in emotionally literate households and it may therefore feel really uncomfortable the first few (hundred!!!) times we give it a go.

But it is very well worth persevering if we are wanting to deepen our emotional connection with others as well as understand our own emotional world, thereby leading to more satisfying and meaningful relationships and greater physical and mental health.

Helen Diamond is a counsellor at Catholic Care Ballarat and has been supporting families for over 23 years. If you’d like to access counselling and support, our MS Connect service can link you into a variety of services including social workers and peer support. Call 1800 042 138 or email msconnect@ms.org.au.


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