As a person who’s been part of several dysfunctional relationships in the past, I’ve had to do a lot of work to filter out the bad habits I acquired through them. It took some time to reconcile the part of me that wanted my needs met and the part of me that felt too needy and would rather keep quiet.
This is a common problem in all kinds of relationships, and it’s a difficult pattern to break once it becomes ingrained. Our personality type, genes, upbringing and environment can also have an impact on how we deal with our relationships.
I often found myself vacillating between voicing my needs and feeling guilty about them, or letting them build up until I was profoundly unhappy. Neither option is a long-term solution, and neither had a positive influence on my mental health.
With therapy, personal reflection, a supportive community of friends and family, and a lot of work, I’ve learned how to set boundaries and have my needs met without guilt. This has changed the way I view important relationships and has made it easier for me to acknowledge when something is right for me (or not).
Below are five of the most significant steps I’ve taken on my journey towards having my needs met—in a healthy manner—within relationships.
Reflect, retrace, analyze
I couldn’t have begun to identify what needs were mine, and what needs were placed on me by others if I hadn’t taken a step back to reflect on my previous toxic relationships. This part was and continues to be the most difficult step when identifying any need in my life.
In order to determine what you require to live and function happily in any situation, you must first know why you require certain things. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to experience living without something essential (as you may in a negative relationship), but in my case, the evidence was right there—I just had to find it.
Looking back on relationships gone bad can give you valuable information about yourself and what standards you must set for the future. It also helps separate the “Well, maybe I could do without that” from the “This is a must for me,” which can often be hard to determine in the moment.
In past relationships, I was constantly being swayed by my partner’s reaction towards my honest requests for comfort or validation, so I began to doubt my own needs. Being able to reflect on and analyze past situations is the first crucial step in outlining your personal needs.
Establish your needs
This might sound straightforward and simple, and maybe to some it is, but the process can often be blurred by other aspects of your life.
Here are three helpful questions you can ask yourself when trying to determine a personal need:
- How would your mental and physical health be impacted by a certain choice?
- What about your values and goals—would they be pushed aside?
- Outside of your relationships with others, what do you require for yourself?
We often take on the needs or values of our partners or loved ones, which can be a beautiful thing, but it can also become destructive if it means abandoning our own.
Yes, there are always compromises in any relationship, but none should come at the expense of silencing an integral part of who you are. The more confident you are in what you need, the easier it becomes to make healthy compromises and negotiate changes within a relationship.
Communicate with confidence
Sometimes it feels as though we shouldn’t have to assert ourselves, that our partners should be able to know instinctively. Unless they’re mind-readers, though, this isn’t fair and won’t produce the outcome you’re hoping for.
We need to voice our needs and feelings in a way that can’t be misinterpreted or brushed aside. This isn’t about accusations or demonizing the other person; it’s about stating your feelings in a direct way. Avoid using “you should” or “you shouldn’t” and focus on “I need” or “I don’t want.”
Another common issue with expressing our needs is the urge to back down once the initial conversation begins. We go in with a strong idea and a clear request, but gradually, we start to pull back from that initial goal.
To avoid this problem, practicing the conversation ahead of time is important. Run through exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, then imagine yourself handling potential questions or challenges with confidence.
Reinforce your standards
Your responsibility in having your needs met doesn’t end after you’ve communicated them. In fact, the bulk of the work comes afterwards, in continuing to hold yourself and your loved one to the standards you’ve set.
We’re human and mistakes are expected, so you’ll have to be willing to give reminders when setbacks occur. This can be as simple as stating the outcome when a need isn’t met, or just making your initial request again in the same confident and calm manner.
Be willing to give positive feedback when your need is met. Showing gratitude towards someone who has listened to and respected your needs is what keeps a healthy relationship going. You’ve done your job by identifying your need, and they did theirs by listening and reacting appropriately. Both sides should be celebrated!
Check in with your progress
Whether or not things turn out the way you originally hoped, checking in with the whole confrontation process is a must.
Just as the first step involves retracing and analyzing, your last step is really an ongoing cycle in which you’ll reflect on why things went the way they went and pinpoint anything you might do differently the next time.
If the work paid off, this’ll be a form of positive reinforcement for yourself, knowing you put time and effort into something important. If, on the other hand, things didn’t improve and you still aren’t receiving what you asked for, you’ll have something to go back to and reassess.
Reassessing could mean looking at the situation from another angle, discussing potential alternatives and solutions with your loved one, or seeking outside help. It may also mean considering ending the relationship if your needs are consistently being ignored and your requests aren’t being heard.
Check-ins are key to determining where you are in the relationship and whether you need to make a move.
The 5 steps are like points of a circle
These five steps above can be used to address any important issue within any relationship. If you see them as points on a circle, you’ll notice how reflecting, communicating and reinforcing are an ongoing process that we should all be aware of. The more often you consciously recruit these skills, the easier it’ll become to use them in everyday situations.
As difficult as it can be to express your feelings and be an advocate for your own needs, this is an important part of creating healthy, strong relationships. As your level of confidence and self-awareness increases, so will the quality of your relationships!