My track record with house plants is pretty dismal. I forget about them and under-water. Or I worry about forgetting them and over-water. Or I’m afraid I’m over-watering and so… It’s a joke in our family when I buy a new plant and bets are placed on how long it will last. What can I say? It’s not one of my gifts. Just like houseplants need water, we parents also have basic needs, though we aren’t always paying attention to them. Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of Nonviolent Communication, gave us nine categories of universal human needs: sustenance, safety, love, understanding, creativity, recreation, belonging, autonomy, and meaning. These are the things we need to live healthy, fulfilling lives. When we’re in an uncomfortable situation, say an argument with our teenager, we want to be able to get beneath our feelings in the moment, identify what we really need and speak from that place. Then, we can be sincere and authentic. We set clearer boundaries, make better decisions and create an environment for honesty and mutual acceptance. We create better connections with our kids.
Good in theory but… I’m sure that every one of us has ignored, postponed, denied or failed to notice our needs in some situations. Part of that is about not having the skills to identify your needs; the other part is ingrained beliefs that prevent parents from tending to their needs. It’s different for everyone but here’s where I get stuck: I am a peacemaker. I automatically crave a state of harmony and ease. When I’m agitated and my system directs all its attention into returning to peace, it’s difficult for me to get access to much beneath the surface. I don’t know what I need. Maybe I actually need to feel safety, consistency or efficacy in the moment, but I’m fixated on the idea that I need the conflict to be over and the waters to be calm. Another place I stumble is in making my needs the priority, especially over my kid’s. When they placed that tiny baby in my arms, his needs became the focus of my life. And while giving up showers and sleep was necessary, it developed into a habit of forgetting that my needs are just as important and sometimes must come first. What I’m learning is that, when I do this and when the stars align just right, meeting my needs means also meeting theirs. What about you? What gets in the way of recognizing your needs? Perhaps it’s a desire to be the one who knows best. Or the idea that it’s your job to help them, make sure they’re happy or warn them of the hazards. Maybe you’re trying to achieve or prove something. I invite you to name your automatic “need” — the one you often tell yourself or say out loud in the heat of the moment — and consider what other deeper need it might that be masking.
Practice Identifying your Needs Watering the plants once a month isn’t enough. Believe me, if you only attend to your sense of autonomy, belonging, meaning, etc. intermittently, they won’t be a strong resource for you. And if your only ask others to meet your needs on rare occasions, no one will be any good at it. You can’t pour a gallon of water on a plant, walk away and expect it to thrive. The universal human needs are further broken down in this handout. Every so often, I find myself referring to this list. I didn’t learn to identify my needs when I was young — I don’t think many of us did — and so, when we’re sorting out something that has come up for us, we sometimes need help recognizing the need that underlies our upset. Let’s do a little exercise. Think of a recent challenging experience and let’s identify which of your needs were present. To begin with, it’s a cognitive exercise. “ What did I really care about here? What was so important to me about that? What did I value most? What was I committed to right then?” Maybe you know the underlying needs or maybe you want to take a look at the list. Most of us will pick out several. Write them down. And then I invite you to bring your attention down from your head into your body and feel into the longing of that need. What was some part of me longing for right then? Sense into your heart and your gut. What did the desire feel like? What seemed to be missing? You might land on a couple of possibilities. For example, if it seems to be about independence or acceptance, take a few moments with each of these. A few breaths. Feel for the difference and then name the central most need. Next, focus on to what it felt like to have that need unmet. What emotions came up — sadness, frustration, hopelessness, anger, anxiousness, etc.? Take the time to be specific here. Can you recall what happened in your body? Did you feel heavy, shaky, stiff, headachy, cold or nauseous? Jot down your observations. These are clues for you in the future when this need isn’t being met. When you’re ready, switch your attention to the feeling of having that same need met. Let’s say the need is belonging. Remember a time you felt you really belonged. How did it actually feel, physically, emotionally and energetically? Write some notes to remind yourself what’s beautiful about this need. Now answer these questions:
What becomes possible when your need for __ is met?
What would be different about the way you carry yourself, what thoughts run through your mind and how you feel in your heart?
What impact might this have on your relationship with your child?
Finally, repeat the exercise reflecting on a recent positive experience. Identify the underlying need. Explore what it feels like to have that need met and unmet. Write a bit about how meeting this need supports you in your personal growth and how it affects your parenting.
Honour your Needs Identifying your needs takes practice, just as plants need to be tended regularly. The more practiced you become, the more you’ll be able to save yourself from reacting emotionally and making things worse between you and your kid. Instead, when emotional discomfort arises in you, you’ll learn to get curious about what need isn’t being met. You can also use your self-knowledge when you consider broaching a subject or making a request of your kid. Ask yourself “What needs will be met for me if it happens this way? What needs will be met for my child?” You’ll make choices that build honesty and acceptance in your relationship. And that feels oh so right in your whole being. The more you express your needs, not just what you want them to do but the heartfelt need that underlies it, the more tools you give your child for developing her awareness of what she’s actually longing for in a certain situation and her ability to communicate that to others. When a parent lives a life in which you unapologetically have your universal human needs met, you show your kids a path to self-respect, greater connection with others and deeper contentment in their hearts. Being the author of your life and cultivating your desired way of parenting requires that you become fluent in your own needs — what they are in different situations and how to meet them.
It’s about coming home to your humanness and your natural human needs. And honouring your beautiful essential Self.
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Photo by Sebastien Goldberg on Unsplash