“No worries! :)” I texted back.
The guy I had been seeing for the past few weeks had just texted to let me know he was going to have to reschedule our plans for that afternoon.
This is the third time this week, I thought as I started to feel the familiar knot form at the base of my stomach. How long am I going to have to do this?
As a good Southern woman, I was raised on the bread of selflessness, the butter of martyrdom. But beyond my societal designation as a female in the South, somewhere along the way, I learned as Hannah, a particular individual, that being loved is entirely proportional to the amount I am willing to give up.
I could postulate for days about where this dangerous set of ideas came from, but the origins of my harmful selflessness are much less important than addressing these shackles here and now.
A turning point in my self-growth came a few weeks ago when my mentor Florence asked me point blank, “Do you have needs, Hannah?”
I answered quickly, “Yes.”
I could think of all the affection I craved. I could think of wanting someone to go to my work events with. I could think of the days when I come home from a hard day in the world and could use support and love and encouragement. I could think of the times when I need a particular and regular someone to remind me that I am loved and have value, a truth I’m learning to store in my bones. (But we can all use reminding.)
But the harder question came later that week when my therapist pushed me even further:
Are you deserving of having your needs met, Hannah?
Her words stopped me short.
Deserving? I thought. What does deserving feel like?
My whole life I’ve struggled with
- knowing my own needs,
- expressing them, and
- not dismissing them as unimportant once they are recognized.
I’ve inhabited a caretaker role from a young age and felt comfortable there.
My mom likes to recount the story of 4-year-old Hannah holding her hand as we went down the front steps of our house on the way to the hospital for the birth of my baby brother.
Even at the age of 4, I was already consumed by the needs of others.
I don’t say that as a proud statement. I say that as a physical truth: Caretaking has been a pattern of behavior I’ve inhabited for as long as I can remember.
And I did it because it feels good.
My “selfless” behavior of putting others first has always been praised: Oh, Hannah, you’re so thoughtful. Oh, Hannah, you always know exactly what I need. Oh, Hannah, I never have to worry about anything when you’re around.
As a child, we are in survival mode – “I have to make it in this world!” – and so we do the things that feel good.
As a precocious child with a swift mind, I learned early on that caretaking earned me the approval and love and social acceptance that I desperately craved.
And we all want that. We all are craving for people to tell us, “Hey, I like you. Yes, you, Hannah. I love all the parts of you with no exceptions!”
As I got older, I continued this pattern of caring for others and anticipating needs, regardless of how taxing the interaction became.
I sacrificed my needs on the altar of serving others, all in hopes that one day down the line, someone would care for me in turn.
My notions of the link between sacrifice and unconditional love led me to some terrible relationships. Relationships where I was a tool, a means. Relationships where I was never even seen.
Don’t get me wrong, I take full responsibility for the actions of younger Hannah. I participated in my own mistreatment by allowing myself to be with people who ultimately didn’t care for me or have any capacity to meet my needs.
But I also have empathy for that Hannah. Looking back on so many of my relationships, I can clearly see small, childlike Hannah at work, giving and giving, all the time wondering, “How much longer do I have to give before it will be my turn to be loved and cared for?”
What no one told me, or what I wasn’t at a place to hear until now, was that, while caretaking is sometimes pleasurable and rewarding, it does not lead to having your own needs met.
Let me say that in a different way.
Taking care of others at the expense of yourself will not make you happy.
Having your needs met is a truly simple process. Simple, but not easy.
1. Know them.
If you don’t know your needs, start the work of finding them out. What brings you joy? What hurts? What are your idiosyncrasies that show up in your everyday? Taking the time to know yourself is not wasteful or narcissistic. Because only when you have the knowledge of how you work and what you need can you then go into the world with a clear, unembittered head to gladly and wholly meet other healthy people where they are.
2. Say them.
This has always been the hardest part for me. Somewhere in my immature mind I believed, “Well, if I’m a super low maintenance partner, then the person I love will stick around! I won’t put anything hard in front of them, like helping me meet my needs, so that I won’t scare them off!”
This is bullshit. Let’s recognize that right now.
Embedded in the notion of being “low maintenance” and in my fear of being too “needy” is the idea that partnering with me is inherently burdensome.
I’m a burden.
That’s the message I had been telling myself for years as a result of dating unsafe partners, who, yes, were incapable of helping me meet my needs.
But that is a fucking lie. I am not a burden. I am a light. I am a piece of this Universe. I am thoughtful and kind. I am loving and considerate. I’m not perfect, but I do have Good to offer.
What’s more, being in a relationship with a partner is a joyous thing when both partners are ready.
But that last part is key: when both partners are ready.
Having so desperately craved love in the past, I compromised my needs and convinced myself partners were willing to care for me when red flags of their emotional unavailability were whipping me in the face. I became hyper-unneedy in the process and convinced myself I was totally happy being neglected.
Furthermore, what I didn’t know then was that in staying silent about my needs, I was handicapping the people around me from loving me. Everyone thought, “Oh, Hannah doesn’t need anyone. She’s really independent. I guess I really don’t have anything to offer her.”
My lack of communication about my needs and how much I needed the people around me made everyone feel less. Watch this Soul Pancake video to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
Because value of self breeds value in others.
By being at a healthy place of knowing my needs and sharing them with the people around me who are capable of helping me meet them, that is how community is born. Open communication, vulnerable honesty about needs, and a shared vision to meet everyone’s needs.
3. Don’t be dismissive.
This goes back to the notion of deserving. Until recently, I turned all of my energy outwards and reserved none of it for myself. To this, I’ll repeat something I’ve said before:
My deep empathy and care for the world begins with empathizing and caring for myself.
I often cringe when I think back to that throwaway text I sent.
“No worries! :)”
How much self-dismissal was held in those two words. And the knot in my stomach was pointing to that.
But lately, that text has reminded me to hold that small, childlike Hannah close. It’s okay that she wanted to be loved. There’s no shame in that.
But there are more efficient and healthy ways of finding that care.
And it starts with knowing I deserve it.