“I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
- Fellowship of the Ring
We have a deep need to practice the discipline of articulating and vocalizing our needs, desires, and challenges to others.
I want to flesh out more of what was discussed in the last post, and give more examples of how these principles impact our real life situations, day to day. But before that, I want to address maybe the biggest question of all:
How Do We Learn to Do This?
What enables us to know our needs and desires? How do we learn to vocalize them to others and take appropriate responsibility? What gets in the way of our ability to do this?
The answer is not to “just suck it up,” or “get your act together.” Sometimes as we begin to learn to do some of these things, we may have a tendency to become overly eager to do things well or perfectly, or our expectations for other people may rise. That’s not a bad thing, but we do have to remember that we are all in process, and these are not easy things to do.
I believe we can only truly learn to do these things as we grow, in relationships with others and with God. Growth is key: if we are not growing and letting people and God into that process, we can’t expect to learn to do these things. Dr. Henry Cloud, in his Changes That Heal and How People Grow, outlines three key ingredients of growth — grace, truth, and time.
It takes time to grow and to learn to know our needs and desires, and to express them to others. When we burst into this world as helpless babies, we are naked and utterly vulnerable. We have countless needs and desires, whether it’s eating food, getting changed, staying warm, being soothed to sleep, or having the attention and care of a parent. But in the very beginning of their existence, babies only know one way to communicate… scream!
It’s the job of adults to “read” their kids’ behaviors, and figure out what they need and want. Part of parenting is to help children gradually be able to identify their needs and desires, and express them clearly to other people.
By the time we are adults, most of us have learned to do this in many areas of our lives. We are able to know that we are hungry or thirsty, and feed ourselves. We know when we are tired, and how much sleep we need. We understand that nobody can know better than us when we have these needs. We have grown over the process of time, and with the help of our parents who have given us both grace and truth.
Cultural and Familial Influences
However, as we grow older, our needs and desires have become more complex — and a multitude of challenges stand in the way. Some people have grown up in households that weren’t so healthy, and didn’t model unconditional love or appropriate boundaries. Some grew up in cultures that didn’t encourage the sharing of emotions, or saw “neediness” as weakness. Some grew up with parents who took care of everything for them, so they never learned to do such simple chores as washing dishes or doing laundry themselves; they never had to initiate or be direct in communication, because all of their needs and desires had already been anticipated.
Still others were abused or neglected, or faced negative societal messages regarding ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic class, and never believed in their own worth. All these influences and experiences are challenges that should never be minimized!
This was the case with Will Hunting. It wasn’t an accident that he became a closed-off young man with so many fears and insecurities — we learn in the movie that he was an orphan, and abused as he moved around from one foster family to another. It takes time for him to come to grips with this, and vocalize these hurts to Sean.
But time is not enough. Growth also involves grace and truth in relationships. Without Sean’s honesty, compassion, and desire to know Will as he truly is, who knows how much longer Will might have remained in his defensive shell? Without Skylar’s love and his friends from Boston, Will would never have taken the step to go after what he really wanted in life.
All three of these ingredients (grace, truth, and time) are key for authentic growth to happen. Dr. Cloud writes (original source here):
For God’s system to work, you have to have all three. Grace and time together, without truth, will make you comfortable in your stuckness. Truth and time together, without grace, will discourage and break you. Grace and truth together without time will give you a vision and then not have you reach the completion of that vision. They must go together.
We need to always be growing, to be able to do the things we are describing in this series. What gets in the way is that we sometimes neglect to see our need for continued growth. We can assume we already know enough, or that we don’t need help. Or perhaps we don’t pursue relationships that will give us the appropriate amount of grace and truth.
Fortunately, we can do something about this! We can start to build these kinds of relationships by starting to express some of our challenges to people in our lives, and asking for honest feedback. We can start this off by talking with people who are more mature, who know us, and who we know will tell us the truth in love.
How to Apply These Principles in Many Contexts
So along those lines, here are some ideas for how to apply some of the principles we’ve been discussing in this series within practical contexts we may face:
1) First, write down what it is that you want and need. For example, say you are organizing a conference, and realize you can’t do it all by yourself. Make a list of the areas that you need help in, and what would make your experience a good one. Even if you don’t like writing, it is a great step that requires us to think about our needs and desires, before we bring anybody else into the process. Plus, it gives us a written record that we can use in later conversations and projects.
2) Next, write down the 2-3 biggest challenges that make the process hard. For instance, maybe you’re not used to asking for help, or there is a shortage of manpower, so you feel like you’re being a burden. Or perhaps you are a perfectionist, and it’s hard for you to give control to others. Be honest, but don’t get carried away here. The top 2-3 challenges will give yourself and others a good picture of what you’re dealing with, without becoming overwhelming.
3) Next, make a list of what you think you personally can do to meet your needs and desires (in 1 and 2).
4) Finally, make a list of what you think others might be able to do to help meet your needs and desires (in 1 and 2).
Then, it’s a matter of communicating these things honestly to the appropriate people. In some cases, that’s an organized e-mail to your coworkers. In other cases, it’s a phone call to a family member before a vacation. My wife and I usually have multiple conversations about our needs and desires before traveling, so that we can both do our best to make the experience as good as possible for one another.
One note here: I believe all of these principles and steps are crucial, no matter what our personality or cultural background is. It may look different how we choose to take these steps, but I don’t believe it’s right to avoid taking these steps at all simply because “introverts or internal processors are not as expressive” or “Asian Americans are indirect communicators.” I do believe these principles are fundamental to healthy human functioning and interaction, across the board. “How things are done” is open to cultural diversity, but “whether or not they should be done” is not a question in my mind. I know there are a variety of perspectives and angles on this topic, though, so feel free to weigh in with your own!
It’s About Honest Communication, Not About Always Getting What We Want
I want to acknowledge here that expressing ourselves does not mean we will always get the totality of what we want and need. We often have to sacrifice and compromise in life. However, the key is our ability to identify and vocalize what we do want up front, and also what our challenges and honest hesitations are. What is hard for us? What are we sacrificing to make this decision or choice? When we can articulate and vocalize these things early on, it brings invaluable clarity to ourselves and to other people.
The point here is that we can’t expect other people to know all of the challenges we face, internally and externally. How could they know the whole picture? Ultimately, we are most responsible to do our best to sort some of this out, and make our realities known to others.
For many of us, the source of our challenges may run deep, and we may have to make a sober assessment of the challenges we face — whether it’s acknowledging our familial or cultural upbringing, or the unjust systems of society that marginalize certain groups of people or perspectives… and so on.
For some situations, it won’t necessarily be too difficult or complex. Sometimes honestly communicating our challenges and realities is just telling somebody that we are tired, busy, stressed, or even lacking motivation! It could be as simple as your husband asking you to cook dinner one night because he is craving a particular dish, and you responding:
“I really would love to make that dish for you. But the kids got sick today and I’m exhausted, and don’t think I’d be in good shape if I cooked tonight. Why don’t we pick up food instead at one of your favorite restaurants, and then I’ll mark it down to cook that dish you want sometime next week? What do you think?”
Empowering Others With Upfront Clarity
One truth that can’t be overlooked in the process above, is that we are doing it not just for ourselves, but for the people we love and want to serve! We are helping them to know us and our unique challenges better. We are letting them know how they can love and care for us, as we do the same for them. We are creating mutuality.
Some people will look at the process outlined above and think, “Why be so ‘needy’? We just have to serve without complaining as we do things. We need to be humble enough to think of ourselves less, and be strong enough to be okay if our needs and desires are not known or understood.” Often, this attitude is associated with being a self-sacrificing servant.
However, I think it actually takes more humility and inner strength to let people in to our needs and challenges. It actually empowers people more to let others know they can play a role in helping us where we are vulnerable.
I once led a project where I wasn’t clear up front with the help I needed, or the challenges I was facing. I decided to take it on alone. However, when things started to get overwhelming and difficult, I took out my frustration by wondering, “Why isn’t anybody seeing what I’m going through? Why isn’t anybody offering to help or stepping up?” When the people in my life heard me express some of these things to them, they actually felt confused and resentful. That’s the last thing I was expecting to hear from them!
But I slowly came to realize: they did not know what I really wanted or needed, and I even put up a front of being “strong enough” and wanting to do things on my own. But then when things got hard, I turned around and was blaming other people for not knowing or offering to help more. I realized that whether consciously or not, my behavior was actually passive-aggressive. I wanted it both ways — to get the praise and control for doing the project by myself, and to have help when I needed it.
I saw how unreasonable it was to expect other people to “read” into my situation and be available precisely when I needed help… all without my asking for it! I expected them to anticipate my needs, without taking responsibility for knowing them myself, and making them clear to others. It was an impossible task for my friends, and it wasn’t helpful or empowering to them at all.
A coworker of mine passed on a nugget of wisdom from a counselor-writer, who said that when there is an excessive amount of “blame” in a person’s heart, there are usually also many unexpressed needs. If we are not upfront and clear, not only will we likely become resentful when we don’t get what we were hoping for, but we may take out our blame on other people.
That’s why the principles and process outlined above are so important not only for ourselves, but for the sake of the people we are working with.
It’s Not on Us to Do Everything
I want to make an important disclaimer, however. I’m not saying that all responsibility in every situation lies upon us. Especially when we are asking for something we should expect, but are not receiving from a group or organization, we have every right to expect that people check in with us. For instance, if we are working for an organization, we should expect our boss to ask us, “What do you need? How can we help you?”
If we are going on a family trip, we should expect the organizers to touch base with us before the trip. That’s why high quality customer service will check in with you, before and after your massage appointment, hotel stay, dining experience, major purchase… even videoconferencing call! How ridiculous would it be for an organization to expect you, the paying customer, to be fully responsible for this kind of communication? No, instead they ask: “What can we do now to make your experience excellent? What can we do next time to improve your experience?”
Of course, even in these situations, we have some part of the responsibility, too. We have the choice and ability to call ahead to let them know we will need a crib or refrigerator in the hotel room. We can let the managers know that the noise level is too high for us to get decent sleep, and ask them to speak to the guests in the room next door. So, there should be ownership and responsibility on both sides of a situation like this.
There are things we cannot control, and when we don’t experience the kind of leadership and support we should, it’s incredibly disappointing. Feelings of blame are sometimes justified, in the sense that we should be upset or disappointed when we experience bad leadership.
But when we do what we can control, and make our needs, desires, and challenges clearly known to others, it can bring a certain level of acceptance and peace. And it puts the onus on the “other side” to respond appropriately!
In closing, it’s important to remember that learning to take responsibility for our choices and lives is not an easy thing to do. It takes time, and it takes grace and truth in relationships with others and with God.
It’s hard to share our wishes and needs with other people, rather than keeping them to ourselves. Letting others into our souls makes us vulnerable, and that takes risk and trust.
These are all significant challenges, and we are all still growing in figuring out how to best handle these things, and express ourselves better. There is grace for those of us in this process… none of us have arrived!
When I think about my life, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that I’ve faced challenges that others cannot understand or relate to, and some that people will never know. However, I’ve also had to wrestle with the reality that these challenges do not rob me of my God-given ability to choose ownership of my decisions and life. In fact, they can help me to grow even more when I do take the appropriate steps towards maturity and choice.
The first step is to know ourselves deeply. The second step is to grow in making ourselves known to others. We have a deep need to practice the discipline of articulating and vocalizing our needs, desires, and challenges to others.
This won’t happen overnight, and I will have to keep learning to do these things, through mistakes and failures… and that is part of growth. But what gives me hope that I’m on my way? I am committed to pursuing growth in my life, because I know how much I need to grow! And I think that’s a good place for anybody to start.