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The Shaming of Our Needs

How shame impacts the expression of our needs and relationships.

People regularly come to my office for therapy saying, “I’m too needy. It’s upsetting. It’s derailing my relationships. Why am I like this?

They believe they talk too much or ask for too much or expect too much from their partners. They likely believe they are a burden.

pixaby/no attribution required
Source: pixaby/no attribution required

They view their behavior, or even deeper, their psychology or personality, as something that needs to be adjusted or corrected. They have internalized the viewpoint, “I am too needy.”

They believe that if they didn’t need so much, they would have healthier and more sustainable relationships.

These clients all have something in common: They not only have totally legitimate needs but are actively suppressing them—meaning, they are antagonistic toward their own needs. They’re critical of themselves; they dislike themselves; they may even hate themselves for having needs.

Their legitimate needs are wrapped in a veil of shame, a shame that can poison them with the belief that these needs arise because something is wrong with them.

How do we come to see our needs as problems, as objects of shame, as feelings to heal or to banish, instead of as natural and normal?

Have you heard of self-fulfilling prophecies? When we are ashamed of our needs, we believe they must arise from a fault or a psychological pathology. We believe our needs make us unacceptable to our partner. And so, we suppress them, forcing us to deny the need, further foreclosing any possibility of the need’s eventual fulfillment.

However, regardless of the effort we make to suppress our needs, they are never totally quieted or stilled. Instead, they subside, transforming into a kind of unconscious time bomb in which two antagonistic forces—expression and suppression—only appear to be static. At their meeting point, these two forces build up pressure over time.

When the pressure grows too great to be contained, we explode and express suppressed needs in disturbing or violent ways, confirming our adopted belief that our needs are indeed irrational, too much, necessitating correction, management, or “healing.”

The original shame we were made to feel for having a need becomes empowered; our suppression of the need, fiercer; and the disturbing nature of the need’s expression, more extreme.

This self-fulfilling prophecy—we are ashamed of our needs, leading to their suppression and expression in discordant ways, “proving” they are indeed shameful—cycles into an ever-tightening knot, distorting the expression of our legitimate psychological and emotional needs and convincing us that something is wrong with us.

It can be useful to think of our needs as fundamental, primal, like breathing. Thinking of them in this way allows us to take our needs as givens—natural and organic, necessities that don’t go away.

Like breathing, our needs cannot be extinguished; instead, the energy around suppressed needs builds when we are deprived of the oxygen that would satisfy them. Eventually, the force of the need overpowers the force of suppression, and the breath doesn’t simply return in a smooth, flowing cycle of inhale and exhale. Instead, we gasp in a desperate and disturbed fashion.

Someone watching would see the gasping, the grasping, the heaving and choking as disturbing, unnatural. They might readily conclude, “Something is wrong with that person. They must have asthma, a pulmonary problem, or some other illness.”

They would see the forceful expression of a need suppressed for too long as a sign of something wrong, again fulfilling the prophecy, when in fact this act of communication is the very natural outcome of revealing a legitimate need that’s been buried over time.

Just as with breath held for too long, our suppressed needs build in desperation and power until they erupt through shame’s suppressive prison. People might think there is something wrong with us. Worse, we, too, since childhood might look upon expression of our needs as something wrong with us.

We internalize the mantra, “There is something wrong with me”—the hallmark of being ashamed of our needs. But here’s the truth: The disturbing nature of a need’s expression after long suppression is not because we are “too needy” but because a certain level of violence is required for our true nature to break free of shame’s incarceration.

Shame, not the nature of our needs, is the illness.

Physical Health: Somatic Manifestations

This “breaking-free” problem is not the only cost of shaming and suppressing our needs.

Allow me to employ a new metaphor to help you envision the process of psyche becoming soma, in this case, a psychological need becoming a somatic, or body, discomfort or disorder.

Imagine a hungry infant reaches for her mother’s breast, but her mother only brusquely and with great annoyance feeds the child. Perhaps this particular mother didn’t want children, doesn’t have the needed support of a partner or her culture, or has her own unresolved childhood trauma that arises in response to her child. Accordingly, the mother may respond unlovingly, with a measure of hostility, to her child.

The child, being open and having relatively weak or absent boundaries and no capacity to defend herself, senses the hostility. In response, the child might recoil, become tense, or cower. Over time, if this request for care and food—basic, normal needs—is met regularly with hostility, the child associates these needs with hostility, and her body becomes conditioned to become tense and recoil in anticipation of these needs arising.

Over time, the child’s body manifests these tensions as cramping. It is easy to imagine abdominal cramps as a somatic, or physical, expression of the clash between the child’s needs and the antagonistic force of the child’s conditioned tension.

This same process happens when we as adults internalize shame about our needs. The need arises and is instantly met with the suppressive force of shame, producing an internal tension that often manifests somatically. Essentially, the body’s protective intelligence works against the satisfaction of the need, this tension appears in the body, and physical symptoms result.
Thus, when my clients complain of cramps, tightness, and tension, I always explore the protective power of the tightness (suppressed expressions of power also regularly manifest somatically) and the potential of whether a suppressed need underlies that protective power.

Relationship Health: Communication Manifestations

Shamed needs result not only in somatic difficulties but also in relationship difficulties. As outlined above, a shamed and suppressed need does not show up directly but incongruently or even violently in its “breakthrough.”

When this happens, our partners no longer respond to the need itself but to the additional communication signals related to the need’s suppression. These signals show up in our body language, tone of voice, passive-aggressive language, and moods and they can confuse or irritate our partners because they obscure the real issue of unmet needs.

Our partners may even experience defensiveness or disinterest in response to our breakthrough behavior. This dynamic can create direct forms of conflict or block the bridge to intimacy that effective communication and satisfaction of needs naturally lead to. In a way, when needs are shamed and then suppressed, both parties are set up for failure: The one with the need is set up to not get it met; the one being asked to meet the need does not know what they are being asked for and so cannot provide.

One common expression my clients with shamed and suppressed needs convey is the expectation that their partners surely must know what they need, even if they have not directly expressed it.

Often, they are confident they have communicated their needs effectively, and they believe their partners should know exactly what they are asking for. Regularly, I hear people say, “If I have to tell my partner directly what I need, then their response will not be true or authentic.”

This belief prevents us from realizing three things: that we are ashamed of our needs, that we are not communicating our needs directly, and that there is little reason for our partners to be aware of our needs. Worse, this belief prevents us from experiencing the intimacy fostered by authentic and vulnerable dialogue.

A Hopeful Note: The Need for Intimacy

When needs are suppressed, the prognosis for our bodies and our relationships is clearly not a good one, but there is good news, news that defies the metaphors of breath and hunger that I used above.

You can readily assume that our needs are seeking satisfaction, and they are. But I have made an empirical yet counterintuitive observation when it comes to psychological and emotional needs: Even when our needs are not met, we experience a profound satisfaction simply by directly and authentically expressing them.

Removing the veil of shame, and subsequent suppression of the need, allows us to feel more well in our body and in our relationships.

Why is that? Because when we see our needs as enemies, we are aligned with the shaming of them. Removing that shame brings a measure of self-acceptance, self-love, and wellness.

So, when we say to our partner, “I really need an ear tonight. Can you take some time to just listen to what is on my mind and in my heart?” And our partner says, “I wish I could, but I have been so full today and really need some quiet time. Can we do it another time?”

That psychological system is shameless and feels well, our body is happier, and our relationship is happier. Genuine intimacy is likely to result.

pixaby/no attribution required
Source: pixaby/no attribution required

Perhaps intimate connection is the primal need that underlies all other psychological and emotional needs. Perhaps that is why we experience a kind of satisfaction even when a particular surface need is not met but expressed.

When the expression of our need is authentically and congruently presented, we feel more like ourselves, our communities have a better understanding of who we are and what we need, and the likelihood of our needs being met increases as the shame so many of us live within is removed. Love and freedom become more of the air we breathe.

More from David Bedrick J.D., Dipl. PW
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