Individuation is the process by which we become our unique selves in the world. Part of being an individual, of being uniquely who we are, is knowing what we want and need. If we are not comfortable with wanting and needing from others, we could be limiting our lives and our relationships. What we want and need are not just material things. As humans, we have needs for emotional connection, recognition, warmth, empathy, appreciation, love, friendship. Sometimes we are lucky that our needs and wants are met without our having to ask another person for what we want. But, if we have to ask and don’t because we are not comfortable asking, we may deprive ourselves of emotionally gratifying relationships.
When we become aware of our discomfort about asking for what we want, it would be useful to reflect on our relationship to wanting and needing. We might discover that we have needs (sometimes hardly in awareness), but we don’t allow ourselves to think about them. We might also discover that we provide most things for ourselves because we get uncomfortable with the idea of asking others to fulfill some of our needs. We may learn that we are not allowing ourselves to feel what we want in order to protect ourselves from uncomfortable feelings. In all cases, when we don’t attend to our needs, we may be limiting the emotional satisfaction we could be enjoying from our interpersonal relationships.
Sheila is a person who has difficulties with wanting and needing. She proudly told me that when she was kid she never wanted anything in particular for Christmas or her birthday. If she got a gift, that was okay. If she didn’t it was no big deal. Today, Sheila is no longer a child. She is a successful executive in a public relations firm. She is well thought of by her colleagues and is well compensated. But Sheila is an unhappy 41 year old woman with few friends. She has a close attachment to her elderly parents who are very admiring of Sheila’s competence, success and self reliance. Sheila also feels good about these attributes. She shared how her parents always talk about what a good, compliant baby she was. With pride, she tells the family story of how quickly she learned at the age of 3 to stop crying in the mornings when her parents didn’t want to get up. She learned to get her own breakfast and let her parents sleep as late as they wished. Sheila’s experience in the world is that she wants for nothing. Yet, at the same time, Sheila finds life to be unsatisfying.
I thought about Sheila when I was considering the relationship between Individuation and wanting. To be comfortable with wanting means to be comfortable with having needs. Our attitudes about our needs develop in childhood. Usually children make demands on their parents which parents respond to in a variety of ways. If we think of responses on a continuum, parents can always, sometimes, never, give a child what the child wants. So first, the child learns, in a general sense, whether or not they can expect their needs to be responded to. But whether a need is met is not the only thing the child is reacting to. More subtly, parents convey their attitudes about the child having needs and about what those needs are. For example, parents may respond but feel annoyed by the demand. They may respond in an unpredictable manner, confusing and often frustrating the child. They may respond positively only to needs they approve of, making the child’s separate desires unacceptable. They may always respond positively making it difficult for the child to develop a sense of limitations. If we always get what we want, we don’t have the opportunity to learn what is appropriate or how to deal with frustration. We may also come to feel out of control or greedy. The point is, the way parents respond has a serious effect on the way children come to think about their own needs.
In therapy, Sheila and I explore her thoughts and feelings about wanting. It becomes clear that Sheila is proud of her self sufficiency and her lack of want. At the same time, she is aware that the idea of wanting or needing is unacceptable to her. She associates wanting with the risk that someone else might be necessary to provide what she needs. She has a vague memory of how angry her parents got when she woke them early in the morning and how they talked so much about what a good little girl she was and so smart to get her own breakfast. Sheila believes that it would be risky to become dependent on someone to respond to her desires. She worries that there would be a price to pay. Needing could have some negative impact: someone could be angry or upset with what she asked for. She fears that she would have to give up being in charge of her life and would have to give in to the influence of anyone she came to rely on. As Sheila became more conscious of these beliefs, she began to consider that the lack of close relationships in her life, which she both longed for and dreaded, was connected to worries about the strings attached to having someone else meet your needs.
The process of Individuation allows us to develop into people who are more or less comfortable with who we are and what we want. It also allows us to tolerate and get comfortable with the wide variety of positive and negative feelings we encounter as we put ourselves out into the world. The more we can get comfortable with asking for what we want, the more likely we are to have the kinds of relationships we desire. This means that we have to be willing to be comfortable with the negative responses that are always possible when we ask for something. It is usually helpful to understand that a “no” to our asking for something we want or need does not have to be experienced as a personal rejection of who we are. It is simply a “no” to a request. The more we can tolerate the “no’s”, the more we will be in a position to ask and hear “yes”.
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