A Woman’s Right to Have Needs: The Next Revolution

As women, we are raised to be accommodating.  We’re rewarded for taking care of others, being generous and compassionate. We learn, through a whole system of subtle and not so subtle measures, to put other’s needs before our own. We learn to keep the peace, often at the expense of our own needs.  We are conditioned, in fact, to not need. Not needing anything is considered a strength, a positive identity trait.  Our sense of self, as women, often gets built on our ability to take care of everyone and everything, and if possible, need nothing.

We learn to not be a burden, not put anyone else out, not ask anyone to do anything that might be difficult for them, require them to confront anything uncomfortable, and certainly not ask anyone to change.  When we do ask for or need something for ourselves we are often called selfish, demanding or needy, even unstable.  We are deeply conditioned to accept the short stick, do without, and find our nourishment in giving rather than receiving.  We learn, early on, that it’s not okay to ask or dare insist that our needs be taken care of.

As we grow and evolve, many of us learn how to tap into, identify, respect, and ask for what we need.  We become more compassionate and supportive of our own needs and relate to ourselves with a level of care previously designated for others.  We get better at taking good care of ourselves and most importantly, feeling the right to do so.  We matter more, to ourselves, and feel empowered.  And yet…

What remains a challenge for so many women, even those of us who are truly empowered and adept at taking care of ourselves, is still, to ask for what we need when our need is contrary to what another might want.

What I hear again and again in my office is some version of this: when we as women need something that might be difficult, or require a change in the other, a reconsideration of what the other has considered right, we are treated as the problem.  Our judgment is questioned, our validity, our right to need what we need.  We are too needy, too demanding, unappreciative of what we’ve already received and essentially, to blame for needing what we need.  We then take these judgments to heart, internalize them and doubt ourselves, distrust our needs, and more systemically, judge our very right to need.  Consequently, we tuck our needs away, anesthetize them, bury them, shame them, and get on with the business of meeting others’ expectations, accommodating, and shape-shifting into whatever it takes to keep the peace.

The result is that we suffer, not just from our unmet needs, but from the self-judgments and guilt that come from having needs at all, and daring to imagine that they matter.

As mothers, we give; it’s just what we do, usually without any expectation of receiving.  Perhaps it’s built into our female DNA whether or not we have children.  But as women, it’s vital that we learn how to receive, and also learn that we deserve to receive—not just give. It’s time that we knew that it’s our right to have needs, and not just have them but express and stand up for them, stand up for ourselves when they’re questioned.  It’s even our right to have needs that make another person uncomfortable and/or ask something that’s difficult—to “put another out” as we like to say.  (Out of where? I often ask.)  It’s important that we women not only take up more space in our professional worlds, but (and perhaps more challenge-worthy) that we learn to do so within our personal relationships, which means taking ownership of our right to have needs.  For some of us this is easy and natural, but for many of us, it is not.

We can introduce the idea of having the right to have needs and begin the process of allowing them, literally, by just saying the words to ourselves, “I get to have needs.”  It might sound simple or silly, but for some women, this simple mantra, repeated throughout the day and in difficult situations, can be powerful and transformative.  So too, we need to remind ourselves that we are not guilty for needing.  This can also be practiced through the regular repetition of such words, “I am not guilty” and/or “I am not guilty for having needs.” For some, this precise affirmation can be profound and revolutionary, often bringing women to tears as they fully absorb this truth, are given permission to own it and absorb it into their cells.  Such tears also carry with them the grief of having lived with the assumption of guilt for so many years, of taking a blame and shame for which they were never and are not responsible.

We’ve made incredible strides as women over these last few years, establishing undeniable new “No’s,” and setting strong new boundaries around what we will accept in our treatment, everywhere.  This is an extraordinary evolution and revolution.  My hope is that as we gain strength and feel the right to speak up more and more on the public front, we will also feel empowered to champion our own personal needs, the emotional ones and all the others, the needs that we stash away, suppress and numb, the needs that go unheard and uncared for, because somewhere deep down we believe we’re not supposed to have them; we don’t have the right to our own needs.

It’s spectacular to witness and participate in our awakening as women, into knowing that we have the right to be safe from sexual predators, to not be silenced, even when our words are inconvenient.  In personal relationships, we still have a ways to go.  Many of us still need to know, really know… in our bones, that we have the right to need what we need, which is no one else’s to decide or judge.  And, we have the right to receive, not just give. This quieter, more private but equally profound knowing is, I hope, the next universal truth to emerge in this astounding women’s movement now unfolding.

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