I walked through the New England forest, feeling partly miserable, partly ashamed, and partly relieved, as I left my 10-day silent meditation retreat a day early. I lived very close to the retreat center, so I could shoulder my small bag with a few retreat necessities, and hike back home.
I was leaving the retreat early because my resources were outflanked by the behemoth of my suffering. I had had it up to my eyeballs with suffering. In the solitude of a 100-person silent retreat, old unmet needs were cropping up, needs I didn’t even realize had collapsed, uncaught. Longings that I couldn’t even see as longings because they were so overwhelming. And knowing no way to soothe myself during a retreat, all I could do was white-knuckle it through, until my husband could catch me at the other end. This was no way to love myself.
As I walked the familiar forest path, out of nowhere I heard an inner voice reveal to me, “He can’t help you either.” I knew the “he” was referring to my beloved man, waiting home for me to melt into his arms and tell him how bad I felt. As considerate and attentive and non-judgmental and wonderful as he is, He can’t help you either.
This was a pivotal point in my understanding about unmet needs, a moment etched in my memory. I can’t look to anyone else to meet my needs. Even those needs that have been unmet for many years, that are so important that surely the right person will come along and tend to them because I have deserved this for so long. The reality: I am the only one who can sustainably and reliably meet my needs.
What I truly want is to not feel what I am feeling, and my instinct is to go and seek out comfort from the person I’ve just dissed so that I can avoid feeling so bad.
Fast forward many years and I’m sitting on the deck of our little home, once again feeling miserable. I’ve just acted quickly in an unwelcoming manner toward my man, and he’s taken the hint and left me alone. This has triggered old familiar feelings of abandonment. I watch my inner landscape as I search for a remedy. What I truly want is to not feel what I am feeling, and my instinct is to go and seek out comfort from the person I’ve just dissed so that I can avoid feeling so bad. But from my self-compassion practice and from previous discoveries that avoiding my feelings in this way is not an empowering or reliable tactic, I continue to sit and wait for another solution.
After waiting patiently, painfully, lovingly, I hear another voice, “What do you need right now?” and the answer, “To be loved.” And then, unbidden, I feel a welling up of maternal strength, a sense of growing in stature, a confidence and wisdom that I know is also mine. “I love you,” I say to myself, and I make sure that I mean it. Even as my confidence shakes a little – an inner critic is always there to say things like, “Well where were you when such-and-such happened,” or, “But you tick off after a while. You’re not reliable.” – I keep bringing my awareness back to my resolve. “I love you.”
I continue to sit on the deck, but the longing to be held by another has dissipated. I sit and I hold myself. I am simultaneously the one who is in need and the one who is meeting that need. And gradually the part of me who is meeting my need is clearly the stronger energy I feel, moving me from a sense of fragmentation to a sense of togetherness. My work here is done.
Then we imagine what we might say to a dear friend if they told us that they felt this way, and direct that same love and compassion toward ourselves.
In the MSC program, we do an exercise that teaches this skill. It’s called “Meeting Unmet Needs.” First we explore ways that we have been hurt, and we validate that hurt. Then we look for the unmet needs that lie underneath that hurt, like the need to be seen, heard, safe, connected, special, and loved. Then we imagine what we might say to a dear friend if they told us that they felt this way, and direct that same love and compassion toward ourselves. And finally, if we feel we can meet our unmet need directly, we do that. If we feel unseen we tell ourselves, “I see you.” If we feel unheard we tell ourselves, “I hear you.” If we feel unloved we tell ourselves, “I love you.” We give to ourselves what we have been longing for others to give to us, maybe for a very long time.
Brene Brown talks about the transformation potential in moving from expecting others to change to meet out needs, to taking personal responsibility for changing so that we can meet our needs directly. Chris Germer says that our difficult emotions generally come from being in relationship, and so they can be soothed through relationship – including relationship with ourselves. That victimhood or downtrodden persona we hang on to for dear life can be very comforting because it is so familiar, and we get to blame someone else for how we are feeling. It saves us from having to change. But if we truly want to life a life fully, and we want to let go of the old so that we can welcome the new, we need to tap into that inner strength, that inner voice that tells us what we want to hear, that one who gives us what we dearly want.
What do you need? Can you offer that to yourself? How can you make sure you mean it? Can you support even that voice in being imperfect? Even our inner voices are just human. No-one is perfect, and that goes for all our parts as well. Can we hold it all in a loving embrace?