Wednesday 5 June 2024

All the Things I Need to Hear You Say: An Exercise in Letting Go

What you want to hear from others is what you need to tell yourself.

— Pia Savannah

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with Fran. She told me about some issues she was having with a friend. She kept running things over in her mind and was finding it hard to find resolution or let things go. We’re similar in that way. We both need time to process things internally, especially if it involves connections with friends and loved ones. Fran said she was thinking of writing a letter to her friend; not to send, but to get things out of her head and onto paper. It reminded me of a situation I’d been in, years ago. I was having some difficulties at the time with a friend. The friendship was fundamentally sound, but I was frustrated about what was going on between us. Like Fran was doing, I found myself churning the same thoughts and feelings over and over without getting any clarity or being able to move past it.

I don’t remember all the details, but I do recall, precisely, what I did and how much it helped me. I was out walking near my home, frustrations running though my head as they had been doing for some time. I found myself thinking about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and how almost all our issues and difficulties can be traced to our unmet needs. What needs of mine were not being met in this friendship at that time? What would it take to meet those needs? NVC is based on a few key principles. First, we are motivated by our feelings and needs. Second, it’s not the responsibility of other people to meet our needs. And third, our needs can be met in different ways. The last one is especially relevant because we tend to assume that this person or that, this relationship or that, “should” be meeting our needs. (I put should in quotes because it’s a very judgment-loaded word. You can read more about my aversion to the word here.)

I realised that two key needs that were unmet in this friendship were my need for attention and my need for recognition. It wasn’t that I felt unappreciated. I knew I was. Nevertheless, these needs were going unmet because my friend wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge me in the way I needed them to. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t really about them at all. It was about me and, in particular, my expectations of what our friendship should be delivering.

In that moment, I knew what to do. I turned my phone’s voice recorder on and, as I continued walking, I recorded the words I needed to hear my friend say to me. It took five minutes, maybe ten. I played the recording back several times over the next few days. I may have copied the words into my journal, I can’t remember now. But I do remember that the exercise helped me. That might seem odd. How could telling myself the words I wanted to hear from my friend make a difference? It helped because although my friend would never have used those exact words, I don’t believe they would have disowned or contradicted them. I wasn’t making it up or fantasising. I was expressing what was there, in the terms I needed to hear. And this went further than just this one moment with this one friend. These were words I needed to hear, period. It didn’t matter who spoke them. Pia Savannah expressed it perfectly in the title of an article subtitled How to unlink your confidence from external validation. What you want to hear from others is what you need to tell yourself.

Getting back to my conversation with Fran, I described my “words I needed to hear from you” experience. She loved the idea, although she said she’d prefer to write it out as a letter to herself from her friend, rather than record it as I had. I suggested there are three letters she might write, representing different aspects of her relationship with her friend.

What I would like to say to my friend.

What I would like to hear from my friend.

What I think my friend would say to me.

Whether we write these letters or not, thinking about things in this way can help filter the turmoil of ideas, issues, and frustrations. Which of them are things we want to say to the other person but haven’t been able to? What needs of ours are going unmet in this relationship? How important is it that this person meets those needs? How might we have our needs met in other ways? What are my friend’s needs? Am I meeting those needs for them?

What about actually talking to the person, you might be thinking. Surely it would be better to tell them what you’re feeling, frustrations and unmet needs and all? How else is anything going to change if you don’t tell them? Don’t you and Fran talk about how important it is to be honest and open with each other? It’s true that NVC focuses on talking things over with the other person. The standard NVC conversation goes something like: “When you do or say [that], I feel [this], because my need for [such and such] isn’t being met.” This approach is legitimate where our boundaries aren’t being respected, or the other person is behaving — deliberately or otherwise — in ways that are hurtful or toxic. Telling them how you feel, and why, can be important for you, the other person, and the connection you share. I’m grateful to Fran and to other friends who’ve called me out when my behaviour has been disrespectful, unhelpful, or just plain inappropriate.

That’s not always what’s happening, though. Are they actually disrespecting us? Could it be that they’re doing their best, whilst also getting on with their own lives? It’s unhelpful — and unkind — to insist on our needs being met by someone when they’re too proccupied, exhausted, or poorly to take our issues on board. As my friend said to me on more than one occasion, “It’s not my job to make you feel good about yourself.” My frustration didn’t really have anything to do with them at all. I was projecting my expectations onto them, allowing myself to feel disregarded as a result when they didn’t provide what I wanted in the way I wanted it. It was a valuable experience in acceptance and letting go. I didn’t need my friend to say the words I needed to hear. Saying them to myself was enough. If anything, it was more valuable, because it allowed me to recognise my own worth, my own value. That was what I really needed.

Examining our expectations and needs, and looking for other ways to meet those needs, can go a long way to relieving the frustrations that can arise in any relationship. It allows us to celebrate the people in our lives and our connections with them for what they are, rather than stressing because they’re not something else.


Photo by Anastasiya Badun on Unsplash.


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