The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

Getting Trapped in the Words of the Past - Part Th

Whose Need Gets Met?

The answer to that question often lies in how one defines the word need. Is “need” the same as “want” – or the same as “needy” – or the same, in a more extreme definition, as “narcissistic.”

 As I wrote in Part One of this series, a child’s general understanding of how the world operates and what to expect from others is rooted in that child’s experiences growing up. Thus how a child experiences and internalizes the responses to his or her needs by the individuals in that child’s world, often determines how the child defines these words -- with each environment offering different definitions and meanings of the same word. Given that children think concretely and in egocentric ways, the distortions of the word “need” based on how the adults in that world responded to a child’s need – as well as the emotional models that the adults offered -- can act as incorrect and damaging definitions leading children -- and the adults they become -- to mistrust the validity of their own needs.

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Let’s first turn to a dictionary for a general definition of the above words:

• need is defined as something required, necessary;

• want is to desire greatly, wish for;

• needy is wanting attention or reassurances, especially toan excessive degree;                         

• narcissistic is self-love, with a lack of empathy for others.

 A key theorist in the field of understanding the needs of children was Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and analyst. Parents may not recognize his name but may be familiar with his notion of the good-enough mother, a mother who is able to establish an environment in which her infant can thrive. By “good-enough” Winnicott meant that the mother provides satisfaction in response to the infant’s signals. If however, the mother has not been “good-enough” and substitutes her own gesture or need for that of her infant, the infant’s sense of self is distorted.

I use the “good-enough mother” versus the “not-good-enough mother” to explain how children get confused about needs. The picture of a baby lying quite content with the mother nearby, personifies the good-enough mother. Baby starts to feel the pangs of hunger, cries (signals), mother hears and understands the signal, and offers her breast. In this process, baby is allowed to experience his or her own need, signal, and have the need met. There are other kinds of mothers, including those who ignore the signals, don’t understand the signals, or are too busy or overwhelmed to respond in a reasonable time. The mother who is particularly difficult to identify as the problem is the one who wants to be the good mother. In this picture, baby is content, mother looks at her watch and thinks, “It’s two hours since baby ate ⎯ he must be hungry.” Wanting to be a good mother, she wakes the baby up and offers her breast. Offer a breast to a baby, baby sucks. Whose need got met?

 The question - “Whose need got met?” expands well beyond the mother/infant dynamic. It asks the question in the context of a child’s development through the critical years between early childhood and adolescence. It includes the recognition of and appropriate responses to age-appropriate needs of the child and the influences and distortions of needs, not only by mothers, but fathers, siblings, other family members and anyone else who could affect the child. The answers to who’s need got met can unlock the mystery of why you are defining your needs in negative terms as well as being caught in not being able to get your needs met.

 It is important to not label parents as necessarily “bad guys”. The parent who, as a child, existed in a confusing and/or dysfunctional world can create subsequent distortions in their child’s understanding of what it means to have one’s need met. For example, in Part Two of this series, I wrote about the confusion in meaning between responsibility and burden. A parent, who as a child, was expected to assume unreasonable responsibilities can distort the meaning of “responsibility” and define it as “burden.” This distortion can convey a feeling to his or her child that the child is a burden. The child then experiences himself as consistently being “needy” and not having legitimate needs.

 Another example is the woman who, when I asked her how she would define her sense of “need” laughingly answered: “Don’t know – I never thought about it – My needs just weren’t on the list.” It was easy to see why she had difficulty in even recognizing that she had needs, let alone what they might be -- they just weren’t on her list of things that required her attention.

(Note: I found it interesting that when I checked the meaning of “need” in my dictionary, the reader is referred to “lack” as a synonym, indicating that need to and want to imply being without something, especially something that is necessary or desirable.)

 Narcissism is a particularly powerful force that is almost guaranteed to create a corresponding reaction in children. Characteristics that are usually associated with narcissism include: a grandiose sense of self-importance; an expectation of and demand for special treatment; a belief that his or her problems are unique and a lack of empathy for others. Fearing any loss of their specialness, narcissists are easily injured and outraged when they feel they are not understood or valued. Thus the narcissism of a parent, stepparent, grandparent, sibling or other significant family member traps the child in the other’s obsession of self. The child’s sense of self becomes distorted and any need that might represent or reflect that self is quickly extinguished for fear of being experienced as “A Narcissist.”

Begin a new understanding of your childhood and it’s long reach by remembering and observing the people with whom you shared that environment. Certainly anyone who fits a narcissistic profile would have been a key player in distorting your definition of need. It can be helpful to imagine that you are a character in a movie: How does the plot play as it relates to needs, and whose needs drove the action? In what “role” had you been cast – a hero or heroine with few demanding needs or a “needy” villain? Is the movie a mystery, comedy, tragedy or war-picture, each offering a corresponding picture of what and how needs get met in such differing worlds. Looking at your life this way gives you more objectivity and a better chance of understanding your misunderstandings of the general subject of needs and how your needs were met/unmet.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope the words you’ve brought from childhood allow you to get your needs met.

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Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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