Relationships, Uncategorized

A friend of mine recently asked me for my thoughts about the process of recovering relationships after a particularly disruptive and emotionally demanding situation. Specifically, how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together after a crisis has demanded all of our time and energy and focus and resources to be focused on something other than the “us”? In the aftermath of the storm, what happens then? How do we process who we’ve become on the other side while still holding the relationship together?

The answer to this question is a little complicated in that “recovery” as a process is largely contingent on two principle factors: the crisis context, and the individual resiliency of the relationship members. (I’m going to deliberately leave aside the issue of recovering from infidelity; in my not-so-humble opinion, the definitive work on recovering from that particular crisis is Janis Abram-Spring‘s book, “After the Affair”.)

Context is difficult to address as a general factor. One partner losing a job or dealing with an extended period of unemployment is a very different kind of crisis than, say, the death of a child or the diagnosis of a debilitating or fatal illness in a child or a partner. Different contexts paired with differing resiliencies (which will determine our coping strategies) often define what kinds of support we NEED to navigate both crisis and recovery… but don’t tell us what happens when we lack those resources.

Relationships are, ideally, organic and evolutionary things, in that they are meant to change over time (individual resistances to change notwithstanding). What a crisis situation does, potentially, is to force some kind of emotionally intense change on the relationship in a relatively short period of time; it often happens without warning, and therefore with little or no preparation (emotional or otherwise). The speed and degree of crisis will strain even strong and healthy relationships; in dysfunctional ones, crisis exacerbates whatever weaknesses already exist and strains what little tolerance we have for upheaval to, and sometimes past, breaking points.

Navigating recovery also looks different when the precipitating crisis was about something internal the relationship that disrupted or threatened default expectations about the attachment (discovering a partner is a drug user or alcoholic, spent all your joint savings on a questionable investment without consulting you, or is not-so-closeted Trump Supporter, for example), versus something that happened external to the relationship that managed to impact all members of the relationship to some degree (losing a job or being required to uproot and move across the continent for a job, or sudden issues with extended family members, for example).

It’s a common thing to hear people describe how their relational communication either saves or burns them in crisis situations. We already know that our communication skills are generally only as good as our ability to know what it is we’re trying to communicate in the first place, so there’s no way to know if in a crisis we’ll magically transcend our general day-to-day patterns or not. Therefore, in the post-crisis-recovery stage, it’s a reasonable assumption that whatever we were able to do under extreme circumstances will revert to whatever our baseline interactive styles were, after the fact.

Sometimes, having seen how we can band together and work well in crisis, makes that post-crisis reversion a lot harder to bear. Sometimes, if we don’t navigate the crisis itself terribly well, it really drives home the parts of the relationship that don’t work effectively in ways that we can no longer easily ignore. Either way, afterwards, things are often different, and many people don’t know what to do when confronting differences that don’t point towards the relationship being “better, stronger, faster” for having survived the storm.

There are some really important things to remember or consider from a relational standpoint when we’re confronting the aftermath of a storm:

Everybody’s wrung out and exhausted. This means very few of us are at cognitive functioning’s peak capacity. After any kind of exertion, bodies and brains need a break. There may be day-to-day necessities that must be addressed, but no-one’s going to be doing them gracefully in the aftermath. Cut yourself and your partner(s) some slack for a while to be less than “on”.

Recovery times vary. Just because you and your partner(s) are ostensibly in the same relationship, that’s never going to guarantee we all process events, crisis and otherwise, the same way to the same degree or in the same time frame. You may be ready and raring to go with a good night’s sleep; someone else may be weeks in the recovery trough before they can poke their heads back up. Make sure you check your assumptions that other crisis parties will be working “just like you” in the aftermath.

“Recovery” may mean different things to different people. Even if you came through the same set of circumstances together, everyone may see the situation differently, and there may be differences in how each of you responds to the crisis. It’s safe, therefore, to assume that recovery will look and play out differently to all involved. In the counselling room we see a variety of responses to crisis, from utter emotional chaos to absolute emotional disconnection–sometimes in the same relationship. Sometimes one party falls apart while another steps up to deal with the logistical details to pull everyone through the crisis; in the aftermath, one party may need therapy, and the other needs an equal opportunity to fall apart in a delayed emotional response. Maybe they both need therapy. Maybe there’s a grief or health-recovery process involved (how many of us catch a cold or other transient sickness once a period of stress eases off?) Some partners need to keep talking to process what happened, while others just want to forget or let go and move on, leaving the turmoil of crisis times in the rearview as quickly as possible.

Even if crisis brought us closer together in the moment, recovery might not keep us there afterward. Tied to the idea that recovery might mean different things, is the idea that who we are in crisis does not always indicate who we are, or might become, in the aftermath. If partners have differing tolerance for emotional intensity, for example, then what they are willing to handle during a crisis might be far more intensity and vulnerability afterwards, so they retreat; it’s safer, it demands less, it’s familiar and predictable than trying to integrate and sustain what we managed to handle during the storm. We perhaps communicated with great purpose and clarity when the situation demanded our full attention, but left to our own devices we see that as being too much work, too much vulnerability, too much of something we don’t want to face even without the pressure of a crisis.

Navigation in the aftermath is, obviously, not going to be an easy thing.

As with any kind of change process introduced into a relationship framework, there are some strategies that might ease the strain change will introduce.

Offer your partner(s) opportunity to reflect with you on what happened: what went well through the crisis, what you would all want to do differently in future, what you might need to do to improve resilience as individuals or as a relationship.

Discuss what each of you needs for recovery, and how best to go about getting those needs addressed effectively. This is especially crucial if you discover you need different things. If one of you needs to talk and the other just needs to forget, for example, then clearly there won’t be a lot of comfort, and possibly a lack of consent, to force “talk processing” on unwilling or unavailable partners.

Discuss expectations. Once you have all articulated recovery needs, make a plan for what meeting those needs can look like, so that everyone knows what part they can or need to play, what costs might affect the relationship, what kinds of interactions might be required (especially if they are different from pre-crisis norms). This is a negotiation process; we all have expectations for ourselves and those around us, but those around us may not always be aware of those expectations, which makes it challenging for them to meet us in them. Maybe they can help us address our underlying needs but NOT in the way we expect. It’s most useful if we can allow openness to how our needs get addressed as a collaborative process; a partner may not be able to meet our expectation exactly as expressed, but if they know what need we’re tying an expectation to, they may be able to suggest an alternative that works for everyone. And especially on the heels of a potentially resource-exhausting crisis, this negotiation process may be extra-challenging. Be patient and gentle all around. As you wouldn’t push someone in recovery from surgery to commit to doing too much too fast, don’t push anyone recovering from an emotional or relational crisis that way, either.

Recognize that intimacy and vulnerability are choices we make every day, sometimes moment-to-moment. If the crisis was something that introduced or increased distance in a relationship, then it can be hard to feel like we want to come back into connection afterward. If we feel unsupported or abandoned by our partners through a crisis situation, we’re going to have to find ways of articulating and addressing that hurt–even if we consciously choose to not make an issue of it ourselves and just “forgive and forget”–before we can focus on the relationship or reconnection. There may have to be some emotional work done to figure out why a partner wasn’t where we needed or expected them to be in crisis, and we may have to balance our own hurt/disappointment/frustration with understanding why they couldn’t be in the fire with us as we wanted them to be. At the end of the day, though, we each choose for ourselves whether we sustain the distance exacerbated by crisis, or introduce connection bids and repair attempts.

Crisis can introduce a lot of upheaval in a very short period of time; crisis recovery by design happens at a slower pace, allowing for reflection and redefinition, and retooling of current process where necessary. Knowing whether all parties involved are even starting from the same place in defining what is or is not a crisis is the first step in determining how best to get clear of stormy waters and into a calmer state. Give yourselves time, then work out what directions you need to go, individually and as a relationship, at a pace you can each sustain. Don’t allow crisis recovery processes to become the trigger for another round of crisis!

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-Development

This morning I’m thinking about the term “midlife crisis”, both in terms of the ambiguity of the term “midlife”, and, well, I guess, the nature of “crisis”. Since Tuesday mornings often roll around before I’ve actually figured out what the weekly blog topic is going to be, my “creative process”, such as it is, involves sitting down in my independent downtown favourite coffee shop and staring out the big front windows while I reflect on any developing themes from the past or previous weeks while pretending I can absorb scandalous amounts of coffee through osmosis. On a whim, I googled the term “midlife crisis”, in part because of a couple of lingering experiences this past week, in part because, hey, *I’m* fifty and my own life has been something of a challenge for the past five years, many of my friends are sliding slowly into (or through, or just edging out of) this age range, and because it’s Tuesday and I need to write about SOMETHING.

Imagine my surprise when a hefty percentage of the search results come back with variations on the theme of the myth of midlife crisis”. “Myth??” I thought to myself. “I don’t freaking think so.” [Character point: Our Humble Narrator may be a little tightly-wound and emotionally reactive before she’s had coffee.]

Less surprisingly, it starts to make a kind of sense when I come back to consider the readings from the perspective of last week’s post: it’s all in the definitions of the words we use. For one thing, “midlife” is a VERY broadly-defined age range; while it has settled through common social usage to be “in one’s 40s”, different studies of social mental health and happiness have encompassed participants from their late 20s to their mid-70s:

“More than a quarter said they had experienced a midlife crisis, a term they were free to define for themselves. The average age of crisis was 46. Some said their crisis was because they realized time was slipping away from them. Others blamed it on a divorce. Others said it was prompted by losing a job.

“Most boiled down to ‘something happened that made me re-evalute my life,’ ” Wethington says. “That’s a pretty minimal definition.” She considers herself in the camp of sociologists who believe the midlife crisis is a myth.”

— as reported here.

Sooooo… okay. I’m definitely in the camp that believes, as much from a professional perspective as a personal one, that something(s) happens one day that makes us re-evaluate our lives. For me it was a separation/divorce coupled with struggling through a protracted career transition; for many, it’s the onset of “empty nest syndrome”, or the challenge of confronting own mortality through dealing with aging or dying parents. The definition of “crisis” itself is open to some debate; sometimes it’s the difference between a swift, singular stroke (death, sudden relationship endings, job loss) versus the “death by a thousand cuts” of slow, progressive unhappiness and dissatisfaction that one day simply hits a breaking point. This past week I had two new clients in this latter category that underlined the idea that a singular crisis event and a crisis point are not exactly the same things, but can provoke the same kind of provocative, potentially catastrophic, drive to change SOMETHING.

Why change?

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who among other things coined the phrases “identity crisis” and “generativity.” Erikson described generativity as, “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, “Can I make my life count?” and the psychosocial crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation.” “

as reported here.

The kinds of change that we have culturally connected to this notion of the “midlife crisis” encompass a number of different plausible needs: the knee-jerk reaction to getting old, or to not being where our cultural narratives told us we SHOULD be by our mid-40s; the knee-jerk reactions to discovering we did everything we were told we SHOULD do, so why don’t we feel happy? The reaction to having invested 18-22 years in raising children to be independent people, without having invested the same work into our partnered relationships and, in the echoing stillness of that now-empty nest, wondering “Why don’t we ever talk to each other? What do we still have in common? WHO IS THIS STRANGER IN MY BED??” The reaction to struggling to find personal fulfillment through the external validation of work or volunteer or extended family involvements, and confronting dissatisfaction with one or more of those facets suddenly failing us, or the slow recognition that they have NEVER fulfilled us…

The list of agents provocateurs goes on, but the gist is, essentially something points out to us that we’re not where we thought we coulda/shoulda/woulda been by now when we followed the script like we were expected to. The two clients I saw last week who started this train of thought for me were both women in a slightly-later-than-midlife state who were finally dealing with similar issues as they and their partners cruised roughly into retirement–another life state-change that often provokes major adjustments and realizations for many. So we recognize, possibly for the first time, that we’re not happy with where we’re at, and for many who make it into therapy at this stage, it’s the first time they may have given themselves permission to ADMIT aloud that they are not happy. But because our culture is still very much geared toward a capitalist-heavy “pursuit of happiness” mindset in which individual happiness is, paradoxically, both the be all and end all of our existence and yet the thing we are most expected to sacrifice in pursuit of being a Good Partner, Good Family, Good Employee, yadda yadda yadda… we thrash around trying to find a reasonable path out of the conundrum of trying to recognize our own happiness and contentment and peace of mind as distinct from the weight of internalized cultural baggage. This moment of awakening, especially when it provokes a path of awakening change, is what Chogyam Trungpa refers to as “recovering the sanity we are born with”.

Many things happen with clients who are coming to a therapist at this point in their lives. Often, we have to start in the short term with shoring them up in the face of a precipitating crisis event–death, divorce, departures, dissastisfaction. Then we begin the deeper work of making some kind of meaning of the events and their responses, perhaps deconstructing some of their internalized, potentially-inherited narratives and values that have been shaken by these events. This part is like doing a structural assessment on a building after an earthquake: we need to figure out what part of the foundation is still solid, and what parts of the remaining structure need to be replaced with something better-designed to handle what’s happening, or what’s to come. This work is often a split between narrative therapy, and reconstructuring self-identity through deliberate work around identifying and articulating individual needs and wants. We’ll often do some ongoing work around rebuilding self-esteem, especially in situations where the crisis (as a singular event or ongoing progression) has eroded the client’s confidence in Self or personal agency. And above all, we normalize that many of these crises, regardless of when in the life cycle they happen, are GOING TO BE traumatic for many people. Catastrophic adjustments are the ones we never see coming and generally don’t prepare for, assuming we knew HOW to prepare effectively in the first place.

There definitely is a sense of life transitions for many of us, right around now; regardless of how or why we awaken to this sense, and how well we process the sense of urgency that drives that from “awareness” to “crisis” on a seeming-moment’s notice, most of us will face some kind of critical thrashing experience that brings an opportunity to assess and evaluate ourselves. We’re not always going to be receptive to the goad, nor graceful in how we weather the adjustments to come. But there are resources to get us through these changes that can be more helpful than the cliched responses popularized in mass media. Not all of us can afford red sports cars or traipsing off to Thailand to discover ourselves, but there are always ways to connect with support and resources to help steer us through the worst of the thrashing. Self-peace is a worthy goal when we find effective ways of weathering the storms, even if we need a helping hand to get through them.

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, self-perception

The more I work with adult clients raised in environments where parental or caretaker love was NOT present, or was inconsistent at best, the more I come to recognize a stance in many of my clients in which they have learned to substitute “being needed” for authentic love. Substituting need for love can manifest in many different ways, but often embodies a significant portion of care-taking for others as a core practice, as if to say, “If I can prove my value to you through taking care of you, you’ll just love me, right?”

What happens instead, however, is a slippery slope of enablement and reinforcing potential entitlements. How this plays out in a lot of relational dynamics (at least insofar as we therapists see it in the counselling office) looks like this:

A caretaker personality is often hyper-attentive, or hyper-vigilant, to the moods of a partner. At the earliest signs of partner distress, the care-taker is *right in there*, sometimes asking explicitly, “What can I do for you? How can I help you? What do you need from me?” More commonly, however, the care-taker often guesses or tries to anticipate what needs are going unaddressed, to take care of them BEFORE the distressed partner can increase distress (either internally at themselves or outwardly at the care-taker or other vulnerable others). While this care-taking practice seems a noble gesture, the problems it introduces are manifold.

First, it removes responsibility for practicing emotional self awareness and self-regulation from the distressed party; they never learn how to manage themselves or their own needs. Secondly, it creates undue stress on the care-taker, not only because they’ve taken on emotional labour that, truthfully, isn’t theirs to manage, but also because it generally encourages care-takers to compartmentalize or bury their OWN needs, anxieties, or distresses without effectively addressing them. Third, it reinforces the codependent fusion by reinforcing the notion that neither can effectively exist without the other, since a care-taker by definitions must have others to care for in order to feel validated, and they believe the Other cannot exist without them to manage every little detail for them (something those Others may often be too willing to accept if it means less work for them to handle on some front or other).

It may be true that very few of us *LIKE* seeing our partners in distress, but there’s a massive difference between being ready to assist, or simply bearing witness, and moving in to “fix” things for another. When I was a teenager taking swimming lessons up to and including training as a lifeguard, the VERY FIRST lesson they teach us about rescuing drowning swimmers is that it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to get close enough to the drowning swimmer to make contact. The swimmer in their panic will grab on to the rescue attempt and completely overwhelm the rescuer… and they both drown. So lifeguards are trained to use a “reverse and ready” position that lets them push a flotation device to the swimmer and instruct them to grab and hang on until they are calm enough to be assisted back to safety. This analogy is one of the most powerful ones I can give to care-takers who insist on swimming in after distressed partners, then wonder why they always feel so overwhelmed by their efforts, almost to the point of drowning themselves.

This state of emotional enmeshment, where care-takers deflect or defer their own anxiety by hyper-attentively managing others’ distress is something Murray Bowen identified in (family) systems as “fusion”:

“Fusion or lack of differentiation is where individual choices are set aside in service of achieving harmony in the system” (Brown, 1999)

Fusion is where “people form intense relationships with others and their actions depend largely on the condition of the relationships at any given time…Decisions depend on what others think and whether the decision will disturb the fusion of the existing relationships.” (Papero, 2000)

Care-takers come by this fusion through their early training; they learn that they cannot be emotional safe, acknowledged and validated for any reason other than a service they can provide. Parentified children, for example, or displaced children, often internalize early on a strong sense that they are valuable for what they DO, rather than simply for being lovable and worthwhile people in their own right. (The displacement may happen within the family system for a variety of reasons, such as parental preference for a first-born or male child over a female child; or one child is perceived as a “problem” child while other children might be left to manage on their own or manage the family while the parents cope with the “problem”; children may also feel ostracized in a variety of ways by their care-takers for not conforming to or complying with both explicit and implicit systemic values.) They learn to fear what happens if they do NOT provide the service they believe is expected of them. Seeing loved ones in emotional distress may trigger intense surges in their own anxiety; perhaps their own early care-takers tended to act out with violence in distress, so any emotional distress in the adult client is intolerable, for fear of such violences returning. Or the adult client may simply not recognize the value of anything other than performing service; if they themselves have no memorable experience of being loved for themselves, they may be unable to distinguish a difference between “being needed” and “being loved”, and the idea of not being needed to take care of someone threatens their very self-definition and sense of self-worth.

It’s a tricky thing to suss out what’s happening with clients who fall into the category of “substituting need for love”, because the patterns are hard to verify in the light of things like Gary Chapman’s Love Languages identifying “acts of service” as a bone fide love language. Where we start to see the substitution becoming problematic is when the underlying attachments themselves become a struggle to manage; care-takers doing this kind of substitution often have anxious attachments in which any failure of the partner to validate the care-takers efforts become a source of significant distress in the care-taker themselves. There is no healthy sense of differentiation between the care-taker and the target when the smallest bump in this “transference of care” can send one or both parties into distress. It’s too easy for the receiving partner to simply become complacent with being cared for, especially if it means they never have to learn to self-manage their own distress when someone else is always there to take care of things for them. And it certainly seems a common social pattern for individuals to gravitate into relationships with complimentary, familiar care-taking patterns. The patterns in and of themselves may not be problematic, but they bring with them a weighty potential for invisible expectations and unspoken needs around reflecting validation. Care-takers will sometimes chase target recipients even if the relationship as a whole is one they recognize on some level as unhealthy for them; that’s certainly a Big Red Flag in the therapy room that we’re dealing with someone who is potentially chasing validation for being needed, and a historical or Family of Origin snapshot will tell us in very short order whether or not the client recognizes the experience of being loved, or if they respond more to being needed.

To be clear, in healthy intimate relationships, there is generally a balance of love and need, and sometimes there is less need than love. When need overshadows love, however, or subsumes it completely, we stand at high risk for having less stable, less satisfactory relationships overall. In therapy we might find that care-takers who only (or predominantly) identify with meeting needs more than recognizing love as their primary avenue of attachment are insecure not only in their relationships, but in themselves. We see a lot of co-morbid symptoms tied to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and profound exhaustion, with a potential raft of physical/health issues that often come along for the ride with ANY of these mental health challenges. Unraveling this convoluted self-identity can be a lengthy process; there are no “silver bullet solutions” when countering a lifetime’s worth of programming around a person’s sense of intrinsic sense of worth. We start with the basics of Human Worth, and look at how those lessons may have been twisted early on, reinforced by a lifetime’s worth of relationship practices, and how the errant substitution of need for love is probably sabotaging self and self-in-relationship in the client’s current situations. We can unravel understandings and begin the work of creating a new sense of self, but as with all things, it takes time and patience, and a willingness to self-love that can sometimes be every bit as challenging as loving others

But the work is worthwhile, however difficult. We are all worthy of love, not just because of what we DO for others, but simply because as people we have a value all our own. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that fact, and taught (as we maybe weren’t in early life) to see that in and for ourselves.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

Sometimes when people approach the process of “trying to get their lives in order”, either as a choice for general improvement or in the aftermath of some kind of major upheaval, they may find themselves flummoxed at the scope of change, and unable to pinpoint a place to start. When clients come into my office for help with this kind of reconstruction work, we often start with the Needs and Wants work discussed in previous posts, so that we know what kinds of needs the client is seeking to address, going forward from this moment in their lives. After we know what port they’re trying to make for, we create a roadmap, something that gives them a framework to approach changing important aspects of their lives by adjusting how they express and boundary the needs and wants attached to those aspect. A roadmap identifies specific goals the individual wants to meet, and a reasonable, realistic plan for attaining them as best they can.

When creating a personal roadmap, these kinds of general goals are a second or third step in the process. They help define things we feel are needful, but they don’t address the very important question, “why?” Why are these kinds of changes necessary? What are they intended to move a person towards? What needs are they intended to meet?

The purpose of a roadmap, generally speaking, is to help define and prioritize meeting an individual’s needs and wants. By defining a high-level need in one’s life, then defining all the intermediary needs that make up that culminating purpose, then defining all the goals the individual feels they need to achieve to meet those needs, a person creates a customized list of short-term checklist goals that are congruent both with the larger needs, and the overall purpose. Employing the map analogy to full effect, it’s like charting a high-level, low-detail map of the globe, then zooming in until, at the most detailed level, you have a street map of your own neighbourhood. Each level of the roadmap is designed to refine the goals at that particular level, the needs that goal meets, and/or the actions or changes required to address the needs that meet the goals.

Many people struggle to communicate their own needs, for two main reasons:

  1. They don’t know their own needs, and
  2. They don’t trust that communicating them will get them met.

A roadmap is a tool for better understanding your own needs. It may be that your needs are not being met because you’re unclear or inconsistent in their presentation, or you frequently downplay their priority when presenting them to others. This exercise is going to be most difficult for people who lack a willingness to be honestly introspective, or who have difficulty finding their own voice in relationships, but if you’re willing to tough it out, you’ll have the start of a improved, more consistent understanding of yourself, and that can help ease communicating this material to people around you.

Grab pencil and paper; I’ll wait.

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll start with a familiar, reasonably common goal. For most people (at least in our own culture) the overall goal in life is to be happy. If this is true for you, pick up your pencils and write that in the middle at the top of your paper: “I want to be more consistently happy”. If happiness isn’t the be-all and end-all of your life’s purpose, write a more appropriate mission statement – where “appropriate” means “applicable to yourself, personally” – and leave me a comment to tell me what you chose, because I’ll be curious to see how the process works out for other goals. For the purpose of documenting the exercise (and partly because I’ll be using myself as an example), I’m going to continue with increasing happiness as this particular roadmap’s destination point. As the highest priority,  everything else on your roadmap should be pointing at this goal, and giving you something to which you can align your decision processes.

Creating a Personal Mission Statement

When you look at that statement, “I want to be more consistently happy”, what does that mean to you? When you consider happiness in the in the big picture of your life overall, what contributes to your happiness? For many, if not most, of us, the answer to this question will amount to something that feels like a personal mission statement, such as “I want to improve the quality of my life such that I am secure, comfortable; my needs are met and I have some degree of luxury”. If this assessment doesn’t fit for you, insert your own mission statement, one that encompasses your highest-priority need(s). Yes, these statements may seem banal and obvious at this stage of the game, but you’d be amazed at how many people have *never* thought to make these intentions for their lives explicit – and not clarifying the overall intent makes it difficult in both the long and short term, to do the evaluative assessments in situ that tell them whether or not they are behaving congruently, moving towards their priority need(s). Remember the Seneca quote from last week: “When you don’t know what port you’re making for, no wind is the right wind.”

Applying the Needs Framework

Now look at that mission statement and ask yourself, what needs must you meet in yourself to achieve your definition happiness, your priority need as you have defined it? These are the overall life needs or goals that you will strive to attain over the term of your life, the larger motivators that will help you shape decisions that make you happy, or move you towards your priority need. List everything that comes to mind on a second line under “I want to be more consistently happy”, in a column of its own.

For myself, this second line contains the following column headers:

  1. Good Physical Health
  2. Good Mental Health
  3. Financial Stability
  4. Strong & Healthy Relationships
  5. Comfortable Home

You can re-arrange the items on this line according to priority, if they are not all valued equally in your personal roadmap. For my roadmap, I value all five of my entries on this line equally. If any *one* of these items slides sufficiently off-kilter, it will pull all the rest of the items on this line out of balance fairly quickly.

Next, draw lines on your paper to form columns for each of these secondary-level needs. In this stage of the exercise, I want to document the core personal needs, the emotionally-invested requirements you have for each of the categories of life needs defined in the column headings. For some of you, this section may be the most difficult, because it requires you to look inside and become aware of, and give name to, some fairly intimate needs. In many cases, you may not know what some or all of these needs are, and that’s okay – a roadmap is a lifelong project-in-progress; you can come back and fill in the blanks (or adjust previous content) later as you become more aware of your own core needs.

Breaking Down the Emotional Needs

The importance of this exercise comes from knowing what sub-level, emotional needs are likely to skew your attempts to meet your high-level life needs. If you find you are consistently not achieving some degree of success with the need identified in the column heading (such as “Financial Stability”), look at the emotional needs you’ve connected with that life need. For example, my map has “Meaningful Work” tied to “Financial Stability”, because when I don’t have work I find meaningful, my own unhappiness jeopardizes my willingness to stay in unsatisfying jobs, which has incredible impact on my financial stability. Honestly assess whether your emotional requirements are being fulfilled. If what you’ve written on paper here doesn’t feel like it’s the issue, perhaps there’s another emotional need you haven’t yet identified but are responding to as it goes unmet below surface-level consciousness. Or perhaps one of the needs in another category is sliding, and pulling everything else with it (as when pervasive job dissatisfaction starts to manifest as conflict or struggles in relationships). Knowing the emotional needs as well as the life goals becomes an excellent diagnostic tool when you become frustrated at a perceived lack of progress in any one area, because you can come back to your roadmap for reference to see where an identified, prioritized need is sliding.

Being aware of your emotional needs, and how they map to your life goals and global need, also makes the whole deal a hell of a lot easier to communicate clearly, and with relevant priority, to those people with whom you share your life.

For myself, mapping emotional needs for my life goals looks like this:

  1. Good physical health: I need to feel attractive (in my own eyes, at least), and physically capable, strong enough to be (by and large) physically independent.
  2. Good mental health: I need to feel like I’m doing more than coping from one day to the next, that I’m actively resolving, or at least working on, my own issues.
  3. Financial stability: I need to feel like I’m responsibly managing my resources so that I can both cover my basic expenses, and allow for a reasonable degree of discretionary luxury, and am planning adequately for future/retirement necessities.
  4. Strong & healthy relationships: I need to feel like a respected and respectful equal; I need to feel desired and desirable; I need to feel I am trusted enough to have some degree of decision-making autonomy; I need to communicate effectively, and be communicated with likewise; I need to be able to continue with intimate (invested/emotionally engaged), non-primary relationships, both sexual and non-sexual in nature.
  5. Comfortable home: I need to feel secure in my home; I need to feel it is a place of peace and comfort. I *want* to be surrounded by items of beauty and quality; I *want* to be able to have at least adequate space for all my myriad hobbies.

The Action Plan

Now we come to the portion of the exercise with which people have the least amount of difficulty producing, if a harder time maintaining. In this stage, you’re going to list what you’re doing, not doing, and planning to do, to address the emotional needs that drive the life needs that direct you towards your priority need. (Are you seeing how this all starts to hang together now?)

You may have to go to a second sheet of paper somewhere around here; I often do.

Keeping your *emotional needs* firmly at the forefront of your mind, look at everything you have written in each column, and under that information, I want you to outline the definitive actions you are doing to meet those needs. Try to word things in the positive if you can; it helps clarify forward focus when we define plans by what we’re doing rather than what we’re NOT doing. For example, instead of saying “stop eating junk food”, say instead, “eat more balanced meals, more healthy snacks”. Working in the positive gives you actual goals to move towards; working in the negative declines only a small number of possible options for your actions, which leaves you with unclear goals and a harder time measuring congruency in meeting or moving towards your stated global and personal needs. Think positive!

Next, list the things you aren’t doing but WILL do to help meet that need. These are going to be the larger milestones on your roadmap, goals that may take some work to manage, but real, achievable things you can reach either immediately or with some degree of short- or long-term directed planning.

My milestones-in-progress:

  1. Good Physical Health: a. rebuild spinal integrity as much as possible; b. rebuild general fitness level (aquafit/swimming, cycling); c. moderate food intake to reasonable portion sizes; d. reduce the carbs-content of that intake (not necessarily to Atkins-level, but down); e. eat more home-cooked meals and less fast food & junk.
  2. Good Mental Health: a. continue my own therapy; b. address/resolve known outstanding fears of feeling undervalued or minimized in my intimate relationships; c. continue to practice and evaluate and refine my risk assessment processes.
  3. Financial Stability: a. redo the monthly budgets and see how much money I actually have when all the bills and standard personal and professional expenses are paid each month; b. move investment portfolio to a better-managed, higher-yield program; c. determine whether I can safely increase monthly contributions to that portfolio base, or increase loan payments; d. create list of high-want items, and look at short- and long-term budget options for planned purchasing.
  4. Strong & Healthy Relationships: a. clarify relationship structures and expectations tied to those structures; b. re-evaluate and clarify any changes to the Relationship Framework & Needs; c. apply improved tools and techniques as developed via counselling, evaluate and tweak as needed; d. continue to evaluate and improve communications (especially where prioritized needs and wants are concerned); e. invest more time in discovering the things we enjoy doing together
  5. Comfortable Home: a. improve chore and general maintenance schedule; b. ask for more help when necessary; c. check the budget to see if hiring even occasional professional help is possible; d. rearrange space to make sure prioritized activities have priority access.

Evaluating Obstacle Risk

Now we’re getting to the closing sections of the roadmap.

You have now defined, or at least begun sketching in, your needs: global, life, personal. You’ve developed some milestones that set you on the path of meeting those identified needs, achievable goals that are not out of your reach (even if they may take some planning and effort to attain). But any pragmatic planning requires a degree of Risk Evaluation: you have to know what hurdles stand between you and your milestones, what dependencies you must factor in (either things you have to do in a specific order, or factors that may be beyond your control), and your contingency plan for managing your way over those hurdles. You’ll need to know which hurdles can be surpassed in the short term or with relatively minimal effort, and which ones require mini-roadmaps of their own to circumvent.

You can make separate lists of these as needed. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, because this is the stage where it becomes easy to become bogged down in the details, or dismayed by the hurdles. The purpose of this part of the roadmap is awareness, not obsession. You’re not documenting the known hurdles in order to throw them up as excuses to step off the roadmap and slide into despondency – to do so defeats the work and purpose of the roadmap exercise itself. This part of the roadmap simply lists the known challenges, like a topographical map might list mountains (take *THIS* pass through them), or rivers (detour to *THIS* shallow ford), or simply, “Here Be Dragons, avoid at all costs”.

And here we come to what should for all of us be the battle cry for this work: “Don’t let the fact that the work is hard become your excuse for not doing the work”.

I suspect most people won’t be able to pull a detailed roadmap together in one sitting, certainly not without some degree of mental stressing. It took me several sittings to write this post, with several revisions over the years since it first appeared, and now multiple attempts to prep it for this release—and the roadmap concept is one I’ve been actively working with now for *years*. I’ve had to go back rooting through some of the more introspective relationship-building posts I’ve written over the years to find places where I’ve already done some of the work, or explained some of the concepts. Trying to distill the process proved to be a hard exercise in and of itself, but it has proven to be a useful tool for myself and my clients over the years as we try to shape a frame of reference for their self-development.

When we ask question in session like, “What kind of person do you *WANT* to be?”, we have to know as much about the needs their answer is trying to address as we do about the obstacles they perceive getting in their way. Then we figure out what we need to do about the goals of meeting those needs and working around the obstacles. This roadmap is a good way of allowing people a means of thinking about those questions, then measuring their own progress along the route they’ve plotted.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

I know I promised last week that we’d get to roadmaps this week, but it occurs to me we may need to delve first into how to develop a framework understanding of our own needs and wants. In the course of my own early counselling sessions as a client, I framed in what I consider to be my five cornerstone principles of a good relationship (be it a friendship, a professional relationship, an intimate, emotionally-invested partnership, etc.). These principles represent a framework on which I later hung the needs and wants I identified as important to my ability and willingness to engage in relationships. This particular structure has subsequently become an intrinsic piece of the work I do with my own clients engaging in self-discovery. Most clients come into therapy looking to change or improve some aspect of themselves, and especially with couples I often hear statements like, “We want to improve our communications, and our intimacy.”

That’s all well and good, say I, but what do these words actually mean? What do they look like when they are being adequately addressed? What does it look like when they’re not? So we start with what I think of as big umbrella words, words that cover a lot of terrain and (frequently, as we discover) mean different things to different people. When we start with the big words, we can begin to drill down into expectations and values attached to those umbrella words, and often find a host of more detailed needs and wants lurking in the shade underneath. Sometimes it takes a therapist to figure out how to extract the name of the need from the broader discussion around these frameworks, but often we can get to them on our own by breaking down the umbrella-level lexicon with two particular questions: What’s important about [principle] to you? What need(s) do those important factors meet for you?

Note: Bear in mind, what I identified as foundational for myself may not look the same for everyone; for example, someone coming out of very different life experiences may identify “Safety” as a cornerstone principle. For some, the ambiguous term “intimacy” might be at the top of their list, if they feel they need those needs met first and foremost before committing to emotional engagement and investment. My personal list below also makes the implicit assumption that basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, employment, income, etc., are already being addressed and met. In the case where any of these baseline safety needs are NOT being met, we often must address those first; if you know your Maslow hierarchy of needs, you’ll know that an individual cannot proceed to self-actualization work (which is largely what I write about) while their basic existence is uncertain or threatened.

Most of the list below falls under the Maslow category of Love/Belonging or Actualization.

My five principles are: communication, consideration, responsibility, availability, and collaboration. Using this 5-point structure, I am now going to attempt the death-defying feat of mapping these five cornerstone principles to a host of specific relationship needs. As this remains an organic work-in-progress for myself, some of these principles and needs remain general, and deliberately so; I also didn’t want to get distracted by the trap of trying to define my needs as they might pertain to *specific* relationships.

Principle: Communication

Needs: create time and space to talk and listen; create a shared lexicon of important terms; be willing to inform each other when needs/wants/expectations/plans/etc change, and stay present to create a solution (see Availability); question for clarity and understanding when one of us doesn’t understand something; don’t make assumptions or draw conclusion in the absence of information/answers from the other party–if the only reason you don’t know something for sure is because *you* failed to ask the questions, the responsibility for those possibly erroneous conclusions is all yours.

Principle: Consideration

Needs: treat me as you want me to treat you (compassion); take those wants/needs/expectations of mine that you are aware of into consideration before making or acting on a decision that affects me or us, and let me know when your decided outcome runs contrary to what you know of my stance; be respectful of how you represent me to other people (whether I’m present or not); be supportive when I’m stressing; don’t deliberately risk the physical or emotional health and stability of the relationship (this is a catch-all for many things, best translated as, “Think many times before you introduce anything with a potentially negative influence or impact to our relationship”; tell me respectfully and in a timely manner if I’m being inconsiderate of you and your needs/wants/etc.; understand (and help me understand) that we are two distinct entities with two distinct purposes, two distinct perspectives, two distinct drives, two distinct methods of interacting with our respective worlds; help find a means of making those differences work for us, rather than drive us apart.

Principle: Responsibility

Needs: be willing to recognize, understand, and accept ownership for your actions, and the consequences thereof; don’t expect me to solve all your problems for you (trust that while I’m here to help, I am not your personal Quixotic hero, nor do I expect you to be mine); drive the process for resolving any issues you bring up that require such action (I don’t read minds, so if you have a need or expectation that isn’t met, it’s your responsibility to make that known to me, not mine to guess) – WHO HAS THE NEED, DRIVES THE SOLUTION; help me avoid known patterns like passive-aggressive “blamestorming” and skittering away from tense topics, and be cool when I call your patterns to attention in return; don’t assume that because I’ve asked for your input, that I’m expecting you to solve all my problems for me: DON’T OWN MY SHIT, DON’T EXPECT ME TO OWN YOURS.

[A recurring lessons originally phrased by a good friend as, “Don’t be complicit in your own subjugation”, also falls into this area of responsibility and owning your own actions, but as it wasn’t really something I could tie to a specific relationship *need*, per se, I didn’t initially include it. Maybe for future blog fodder, I might ponder a list of “lessons learned” that have been important steps on the path to that fifth Maslow tier of self-actualization– but not today.]

Principle: Availabilty

Needs: stay present when we’re talking about serious stuff, or, if you can’t stay present, tell me that you can’t (and preferably why), and let me know when you *will* be available; make time for me in your life, in your social circles and activities (let me discover and decide for myself which ones I’ll join you in, and which I won’t); make time for a physical relationship (sex, snuggles, touches, showers, play, whatever); provide timely information about your schedule so we can make joint or solo plans accordingly; be honest about your interest in any plans that come up (if you think you’re going to hate it, we can almost always find ways around requiring your attendance)

Principle: Collaboration

Needs: jointly establish mutual/shared goals and plans for achieving those goals; communicate interest and desire for collaborative projects (generally and specifically), along with identified degree of prioritization; be honest about your interest in collaborations, and communicate any influencing factors you are aware of that will impact joint efforts; if I explicitly ask for help with a challenge, work with me to determine what kind of help I’m asking for, and determining what kind of solution/resolution process I’m seeing help with; be willing to bounce ideas around together without assuming there’s any pressure on you personally to come up with the Ultimate Right Answer To Fix Everything.


Intrepid readers may note, “Intimacy” is not listed here as one of my foundational principles. For myself, I find intimacy is a reasonably natural by-product of these needs being met effectively within relationship. Intimacy is a willingness to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is something that develops in an environment where people feel safe and respected. If meeting these needs results in my feeling securely attached, then increased vulnerability and intimacy are the result, rather than needing to be a core principle themselves. If intimacy is NOT present in my relationships, however, you can be sure I’ll take that as a barometric measurement that one or more core needs are not being adequately addressed.

This list doesn’t even begin to cover my wants, because for many of us, “wants” are things that can change on an almost hourly basis some days. I have learned a few very important lessons about wants, though: first, if there’s something I want, I stand a better chance of getting it if I *ask* for it directly, rather than hint about it or approach the topic obliquely – or worse, say nothing and just assume people will figure me out. Just because something is a high-priority want in my mind, doesn’t mean that want will be clear and prioritized for anyone outside my own head. If it’s important, ask explicitly.

Second, it’s OK to take risks with wants. Wants are (almost) never going to be deal-breakers in a relationship, because if they are, then chances are *very* high you’re dealing with a mislabeled or misunderstood need. Therefore, ask for everything – you never know what you *can* have, until you ask for it. By the same token, however – and I cannot stress how critical this understanding will be – don’t *expect* that just because you’ve asked for something that you’re now entitled to have what you’ve asked for, because sooner or later, someone’s going to say No. In the vein of not counting chickens before hatching, don’t get emotionally invested in your wants until you’ve got the *thing* in your hands (metaphorically or literally), because again, sooner or later you won’t get what you want. And if you’re even moderately invested in getting that want met, it’s going to feel like a crushing defeat. Anticipate, sure – but don’t expect. There’s a whole other topic around wants & needs and outcome attachment, but I’m now getting several weeks worth of blog topics ahead of myself.

Next week we’ll finally get to looking at how to work all of this into an actual roadmap, I promise (assuming I don’t remember any other process steps between here and there…)

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

Something that comes up a LOT with both my individual and couple clients tends to be a sometimes-surprising lack of self-awareness around our own needs and wants. I suspect this tendency to not know, or not admit, to what we need and want comes from a couple of different places, starting with cultural messaging around how “wanting things” = “being selfish”, and reinforced by a million small disappointments throughout life that inevitably instill in us a message that there’s no point in wanting what we want because “we’re only going to be disappointed anyway”, either by not achieving what we want, or by achieving it and finding out it’s not what we thought it would be (see an earlier post on achieving our dreams). I used to think that women are doubly-hampered in that many of us are culturally-conditioned on the basis of gender to be silent, or to be nurturers putting other people’s needs ahead of our own. I don’t think it’s so obviously-gender-biased a phenomenon any more, however. I see an increasing number of men in my office who are, for many similar reasons, also adopting the kind of care-giver roles that have kept them so reactively bound to meeting a partner’s needs that these men haven’t had any more time to observe and develop their own needs than many women have.

This kind of cultural messaging is something we internalize from an early age, starting from the first time we as toddlers throw a tempter-tantrum in the toy aisle and get told we can’t have what we want. Maybe we grow up in financially-constrained environments where we can’t have what we want for economic reasons. The lucky and privileged ones grow up in environments where they learn they can have what they want without potentially asking for it at all. Many of us get into relationships as young (or even older) adults in which we attempt to attune to what our partners want so quickly that we put our own self-identifying desires on hold to be everything (or even just something) to our partners, risking a situation in which we create a pattern of back-burnering our own needs for so long that we forget we even have them. A long-time friend of mine refered to this many years ago as “becoming complicit in our own subjugation” — complictly enabling someone else’s needs to take such priority over our own for so long that we create a significant disturbance in the Force when one day those needs begin to reassert themselves.

For the purposes of perhaps gross-oversimplification, I define needs and wants as different things based on our abilities to flex where and how these needs are met, especially in relationship, and even *whether* these needs are addressed in specific relationships. In my lexicon, needs are generally the deal-breaker, gotta-have-them requirements one identifies as crucial foundations for secure attachment, for feeling content over the longer terms, for feeling like there is room to flourish and grow. Some of these may be tied to a basic Maslovian structure of needs, and some of them may be refinements of concepts like social belonging, esteem, or self-actualization. Wants, then, are those “nice to have” elements on which we are likely to be more willing to alter our expectations, or even voluntarily sacrifice them outright. (Note: Needs and wants are inherently different from values we hold, but for many people are intrinsically tied to those internal values. We’ll explore that idea in more depth in a futre post as well.)

There are two recurring issues I see time and again in the counselling office:
(1) people don’t know how to identify their own wants and needs at all, or
(2) people can’t tell the difference between needs and wants because they have allowed their needs to have as much of a transient nature and permeable boundaries as their wants have.

It’s a remarkably telling moment when I ask someone, “What exactly are your *needs* in this relationship?”, and receive back a blank stare. It’s common that people can tell me what they DON’T want to have happening (usually the exact set of factors that drive them to seek therapy in the first place). While defining by negative space is a good place to start, it doesn’t tell us much about what they know in a more positive way what needs they are driving toward. A Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, wrote, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Most of us can tell when our needs are not being met, and if we’re happy in a situation, we simply assume that our needs for that situation ARE being met. But ask someone to identify WHAT needs are being met, and we’re most commonly met with silence. When we don’t know what needs we’re trying to meet in relationship, how do we know for sure when those needs are adequately met? Equally important, if we don’t know what needs we require to have met in relationship, how do we explicitly negotiate those needs with our partners such that our partners can explicitly consent to be part of the need-meeting process, or adequately negotiate what they *can* be available for??

(The topic of consent in relationships is a whole other ball of fish I’ll be writing about in a near-future blog post; stay tuned.)

At the very least, defining by negative space gives us a place to start by providing quick and convenient opposites we can use as a basis for explorations. If I know I don’t want sarcasm and mockery from a partner (for example), what would the opposite of that look like in my worldview, and do I want that instead? Or do I want something *like* that, but different? How would I describe or label that adjacent idea?

Sometimes it’s easier to step away from the framework of known don’t-wants (it can be difficult to convince people to let go of their anger over finally acknowledging their disappointments and frustrations) and challenge people to think in blue-sky terms about what they DO want. I like to refer to this process as “reinventing Self 2.0”. It’s largely predicated on one deceptively-simple question: “What kind of person do you CHOOSE to be?”, because when people can articulate the kind of person they wish they could be, they are often unconsciously speaking to their own internal needs; this gives us a very strong place to start a discussion about what gets in the way of meeting those needs, and how do we tackle those obstructions both real and perceived? It also sneakily inserts the concept of agency, based in the power of self-directed choice, into the lexicon of someone who may have a history of subsuming their own relational needs, resulting in an additional layer of disempowerment or disenfranchisement within their relationships.

Next week, I’ll offer some suggestions on how to build a “road map” to provide some direction when refining our self-knowledge about needs and wants, both in terms of building a lexicon and in terms of uncovering obstacles. Until then, consider the question of “WHAT KIND OF PERSON DO YOU choose to be?”, as a way of opening the internal exploration around identifying the kinds of needs that being that sort of person would meet for you.