He looked at me with disdain, and two words I’d never heard directed at me came flying out. “Fuck you,” he said, his normally loving voice tainted with the severity of his words. I was speechless – in the four years of our relationship, he had never said those words to me. Strong words, yes, but never those words.
I felt my body shutting down. My mind felt like a gong right after it’s been hit – it was vibrating, and I couldn’t make it stop. I had no words. I had been attacked, and I felt unarmed. As a child, being verbally or emotionally attacked was the final straw, the final word, there was no coming back from it. You’d reached the end.
I felt myself shaking. This was it. I thought. I am alone now. There’s no coming back from this. I’m pregnant, and exhausted, and I have nowhere to go. But I have to go somewhere, anywhere other than this. I must retreat, I must retreat, I must retreat.
But in a marriage – a marriage you care about and want to be successful – you can’t retreat. And you really can’t attack back. You have to build bridges. So how do you do that when your whole body is telling you to retreat? In that moment, how do you find what you need in order to build anything?
A huge part of finding freedom as people – hardy or highly sensitive – is knowing what our needs are so we can have them met. But something I find time and again working with highly sensitive people is that it can actually be ridiculously challenging to know what we need.
Well, for a few reasons, probably. First is the tendency we have as hsps to automatically fall into the habit of meeting other people’s needs before our own. Because our nervous systems are so good at picking up information around us, and because things like criticism and conflict feel so painful to our very open systems, we tend to get in the habit early on of serving the needs and desires of others.
There is a beauty and a kindness to this tendency. It can make us excellent caregivers, friends and therapists. Further, it can allow us to be great artists, seeing just what needs to appear on the canvas, in the design of a room, where the next note goes.
It can also create a situation in which we have no idea what we need or want. It can create a situation where we are completely separate from our own sense of desire.
Second, if your primary caretakers were more interested in you serving their needs than them honoring yours, you might have learned at a very young age (pre-verbal, perhaps), that your desires were not safe or worthy of consideration. You may have subconsciously removed or disassociated with them. This can show up later in life when you enter into relationships and start to mold yourself around the other person rather than standing in who you are.
This was my theme from my first serious boyfriend until the end of my first marriage. It was such a subconscious pattern on my part that I didn’t know I was doing it until I sought the counsel of a wise mentor when my first marriage was falling apart.
The theme basically looked like this – girl meets boy. Girl learns as much as she can about the boy. Girl falls in love with boy, and likes being loved back by the boy. Girl conforms as much as possible to the needs and desires of the boy so that the boy won’t leave.
And in my world, the “needs and desires of the boy” meant things like moving across the country, taking a year off of school, taking a second-choice graduate school to make space for his career, quitting a great job because of his career, making dinner when it was expected, cleaning the house because it was expected, dressing in ways pleasing to the partner, ditching my friends and only hanging out with his because that’s what he wanted to do, losing touch with my spirituality because it made him uncomfortable, eating meat because it made him comfortable and healing from debilitating injury alone because he didn’t want his daily routine to be messed up.
I was not attuned to what my needs were – specifically, what needs were negotiable (for example, sometimes I like making dinner) and which were non-negotiable (like hiding my spirituality). Hell, I didn’t even understand that I had needs until my mentor starting prodding me to figure out what they were.
It’s common for us hsps to not know what we need or want, to be separated from our sense of desire. When this separation becomes severe, our physical body might also be affected, resulting in a lack of sexual desire or arousal, which we can think of as the root of all need and desire.
So how do we get in touch with our own desire?
That’s a big question, and a lot of it boils down to taking the time to follow sensation and ask yourself question after question in order to dig deeper to the heart of what’s there. I’ll give an example of that in a minute, but it might first be helpful to have a general understanding of some of our base needs and desires.
Motivation/Opportunity to fill that need
|Transcendence Needs||Understanding our larger story as spirit, spirituality, being.||Guidance to look beyond the human story, higher levels of information, space to be quiet and know the Self.|
|Self-Actualization Needs||Embodying truth of the self, reaching our potential, realizing our talent||Challenging projects, opportunities to create and innovate. Higher learning.|
|Aesthetic Needs||Beauty, peace and balance in perception||Opportunities to find and create beauty|
|Cognitive Needs||Freedom in speech, need to feel heard||Recognition of voice, freedom to speak personal truth, opportunities to be heard|
|Esteem Needs||Self-esteem, feeling valued||Recognition of strength and intelligence, prestige, important projects|
|Love and Belonging Needs||Love, connection||Acceptance, association with successful team, love and affection|
|Safety Needs||Safety, Trust||Physical safety, economic security. Freedom, comfort, peace.|
|Physiological Needs||Warmth, food, basic survival||Water, food, sleep, warmth, healthy, exercise, sex|
An indicator that a need is not being met usually starts with a situation that feels uncomfortable, unbearable, scattered, spacey or “off.” The situation might bring up strong emotions or confusing sensations. It might confuse us, make us freeze or cause us to retreat into a shell. Because we feel things so, so deeply, sometimes our natural sensations overwhelm us.
We often think that it is our mind that provides us with information, and while that’s partially true, the actual mechanism for information starts before the mind with the nervous system. It is the nervous system that is in charge of taking in sensory information, be those dense sensations like feeling someone touch you, hearing music or tasting food, or subtle sensations like sensing the emotional content of someone’s communication or picking up on a vibe in the room.
It is in these moments that our systems are providing us information. This information is neutral, meaning that it doesn’t have any attachments or stories that come with it. It’s just information.
But we are creatures that learn and grow, and early on our complex minds will start to create stories along with certain sensations, whether or not those stories are accurate descriptors or indicators of the meaning of that sensation.
For example, say I was a highly sensitive toddler whose parents were made uncomfortable by tantrums and crying. Perhaps the extent of my crying felt illogical or wrong to them, or embarrassing. Every time my sensitive system became overwhelmed, either from hunger and exhaustion or the too-bright lights of the department store, I would cry. And every time I cried, I would be shushed as quickly as possible, asked not to cry, perhaps even told I would be punished if I didn’t stop crying this instant! Perhaps I learned to hold my breath in order to not cry.
This could create a subconscious story in my mind that crying leads to punishment, to a withdrawal of love and affection. Further, this could lead me to believe that any strong emotion leads to some form of punishment.
In these moments as a child, my needs for love, connection, understanding and value were not met. I simply needed someone to understand my sensitive pain, to allow me to be upset, and to gently soothe me. Instead, what I may have been handed is a deeply-seated program that emotions are inappropriate, scary or wrong. So as an adult, I work to stop my emotions.
But emotions are a natural part of being human. They are neutral energy that needs to pass through the body; they don’t come with an inherent story, it is our experience (usually as tiny humans) that create the story. And so in this way, the mind can learn to thwart the natural process of the body, shutting down our sensation.
If we don’t allow sensation, if we don’t allow for what is in any moment, we have effectually cut off our main source of information leading to what our systems need.
The first key in learning to identify what we need is to start to allow sensation to happen without the story in the mind that comes along with it. We must learn to allow for what is without falling into our old story that wants to automatically tell us what it means. We must allow for what is to tell us what is.
The old story might look something like this – I get triggered from a conversation in which someone implies I’m doing something wrong. My body tingles and freezes up, and I immediately feel shame. The story in my head is, I’m doing it wrong, I’m doing it wrong. And the story behind that story is, If I’m doing it wrong then I’m a failure, and if I’m a failure, then I’m not good enough and no one will love me.
If I stay stuck in that story, there’s no real getting out. I’ll pretty much just feel shitty for the rest of the day. The story will keep me stuck. Instead, I can learn to separate sensation from emotion, and emotion from story.
Allowing for sensation and separating from the story looks something like this. During an experience in which you become triggered or overwhelmed, allow yourself to focus on the sensations in your body rather than the story being played in your mind. In the above scenario, then, rather than focusing on the words in my head, I take a deep breath and focus instead on the sensations in my body. It can be helpful to scan the body from the top down, with eyes closed and breathe easy.
I notice the back of my skull becoming tight, as well as my jaw. My teeth want to clench. My neck and shoulders are tightening up, and my breathing feels compressed. My body seems to want to pull forward, toward a fetal position. My hands are turning to fists. My low back feels tight. I can’t really feel my legs anymore.
Whatever you sense is fine. Whatever is there, is there. Allow yourself to be with what’s there.
Next, you can ask yourself, What is the story my mind is automatically telling me? If the mind is telling you that you failed, ask, What does it mean to me that I failed? Dig into the meaning behind the story, especially if it comes with a strong emotion. Usually, we often get to a place of, and then I’m not good enough and no one will love me.
Next, notice what emotions come up for you. The emotions that are present are important, they help connect us to this ancient mental story and can indicate where we’ve been holding onto grief or pain. If you can, allow those emotions to flow. If you are sad, allow yourself to grieve. If you are angry, allow yourself to express that anger. Emotions are just neutral energy stored in the body, asking to be released. It is the story, not the emotion, that will harm you.
Finally, when the emotion has cleared, you can ask yourself, What is it that I need in this situation? If the crux of my story was that failure was related to withdrawal of love and affection, then perhaps my need is to feel like I am loved and valued, no matter how I perform. With this identified, I can start to meet this need myself, by choosing to love and value myself regardless of my performance. I can seek out partners that love and value me for who I am, rather than what I do. I can look for situations with others who value connection and love over competition and performance.
Learning to figure out and meet our own needs takes time and practice, but it’s ultimately so freeing. In those moments following those two terrible words from my husband, all of my programming was telling me to retreat, to get out, to run, to move on. Those were my old programs – they didn’t represent my current goals or values, just the old stories.
I thought about retreating. I put my shoes on and I left the house. I didn’t know where I was going. Maybe I’ll drive to Idaho and stay with my sister. Maybe I’ll rent a hotel. Instead, I walked to a park and sit down under a huge tree.
Then I cried. I cried, and I cried and I cried. I noticed the sensations in my body – my head was spinning, my mind was a mess, my heart felt empty and my stomach had this hopeless sinking feeling in it. So I kept crying until the sensation changed, moved, transformed. And then I asked, what do I need now?
I realized I needed to know that I was valued and loved, even though I might have messed up somewhere in this argument. I needed to know that things weren’t over. And I realized that he probably needed those things just as much as I did.
In my home as a child, I would have retreated and gone silent, maybe for days. But now, I stood back up and walked back to the house. And I started the hard labor of building a bridge.