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How to understand and vocalise your own needs - 3 simple steps

Vocalising your own needs is one of the most difficult and life-changing subjects for counsellors to work with clients on.

First of all, it’s worth mentioning that meeting your needs is a crucial element of self-care. Self-care is more than just meeting your needs ‘in the moment’ - it’s about taking action that benefits you both in the moment you are in, as well as your future self. Ask yourself, what do I want things to be like in the future? If you want to feel happier or less stressed, or be able to communicate better with others in your life, then it is important to consider how you could make that happen.

To start with, you need to understand what your needs actually are. Maybe work or childcare is really stressful and you don’t feel as though your family understands how tough that is for you. Then break this down more specifically; for example, I want my partner to help out more at home, I want to be able to share about my day and have someone listen, I want to feel appreciated for what I do. Once you understand what you need, then you can look at how to vocalise this.

1. Passive, assertive or aggressive?

When it comes to communicating with others, we tend to fall into one of three categories; passive, assertive, or aggressive. Assertiveness isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us, but you can practice and learn this skill, which in the long term will help with your communication with others as well as increased confidence and self-esteem.

Being assertive means vocalising what you need and feel in a way that stands up for yourself without being aggressive towards others. When you meet people in an assertive way, both sides leave feeling valued and respected.

So why does assertiveness feel so difficult?

Assertive communication can often make us feel selfish, or even vulnerable, and so it can be really difficult to do this. However, neither passive nor aggressive communication feels good for us or for the other person involved.

If you tend to meet people from a passive standpoint, you may feel that the other person’s needs are more important than your own; it feels selfish to be assertive and it feels good to help others. However, it is important to know that being assertive is actually saying we are both valuable. Communicating with people passively, even though the intention is good, often leaves the other person feeling guilty or frustrated; they do not know where you stand and do not know what you want.

If you tend to communicate with people aggressively, it may come from a place of fear or vulnerability. The idea of not having your needs met leads you to communicate in a way that is very direct and often tactless in its honesty. You don’t want to be walked over and want your goals to be achieved. However, this can often leave others feeling humiliated, defensive, or hurt.

2. Using the ‘I’

The easiest way to practice communicating assertively is using something that is known as the unselfish ‘I’. This basically means vocalising your needs using the word ‘I’ instead of ‘you’. For example, ‘I feel really stressed when I’m trying to get everything done at home at the moment because I don’t feel like I have time to do it all. I feel like I really need some help with things at home’ as opposed to ‘You are making me feel stressed because you are not doing enough to help at home’.

If you use the word ‘you’ it often creates defensive feelings; the other person feels to blame and so responds in a way that defends them from attack. This totally takes away from meeting your needs and often turns the conversation into an argument. When you use the word ‘I’, it vocalises what you need as an individual. It is respectful, not selfish, and creates a much more open atmosphere for discussing an issue. The other person hears that you have a need, and can think about how to meet that, as opposed to feeling that they have caused a problem.

3. Other people are not mind-readers

You may assume that those closest to you should know what you need. However, this is a risky assumption; you are the expert on you, you know what feels good and what doesn’t. If you really want others to meet your needs, you need to vocalise them.

First, notice what you need (a hug and a chat), and then vocalise this (‘I’ve had an awful day today, I really need a cuddle’). If you feel something isn’t quite right, don’t assume the other person knows – tell them what needs to be different (‘I know you’re trying to fix this for me, but actually I just want to let off steam and have a hug’). It sounds simple but this kind of stuff can be life-changing.

If you feel you are struggling to be assertive in a situation, just remember these basic steps:

  • Am I being passive, assertive or aggressive?
  • Am I using the unselfish I?
  • Am I vocalising my needs?

Basically: “I feel..., when..., because...”

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