Why Is It So Hard To Ask For What We Want?
Because we are trained to caretake for our parent’s emotions
Like a lot of married men, I used to have a problem with Valentine’s Day. Every February would come around and my wife and I would do some kind of a strange dance called “Prove how much you love me.”
The way that dance works, I’m supposed to show her how well I know and care for her by getting her the perfect gift and creating the perfect experience for her entertainment, without asking her outright what would please her, or expecting her to tell me what she wants.
It might sound ridiculous, but it probably also sounds familiar.
After about ten years of miserable failures on my part, we dispensed with the notion of testing my meager powers of romantic telepathy, and changed the pattern of heightened, Hallmark-driven expectations followed by disappointment to something more realistic.
I said, “Honey, please just tell me what you’d like for Valentine’s Day.”
“But if I do,” she said, “Then it won’t count.”
Her point was well taken. Since Valentine’s Day is a relationship exam for Men, if the Woman just tells her Man the right answer before the test, then that’s like cheating and he shouldn’t get credit.
The funny thing was, she did start to tell me, as an experiment, to see how it might work.
Maybe she said she’d like flowers, because February is a long month and it’s nice to be reminded of the promise of Spring. So I’d get daffodils and crocuses and the kinds of flowers that might pop up out of the snow in the middle of March.
Or maybe she’d like to have a babysitter and a nice dinner alone just the two of us. So I’d make reservations, but not on Valentine’s Day (because that’s such a pain in the ass) but the night before so we could stay up until midnight and do a Valentine’s Day countdown like it was New Year’s Eve.
Instead of a high stakes, standardized test, our communication turned Valentine’s Day into something more like an open book exam, and she was giving me her crib sheet with all the equations I needed. It’s no wonder my grades improved.
Although my wife was never able to convince her sisters and girlfriends that it wasn’t cheating, Valentine’s Day got better for both of us.
Things broke apart later in my marriage, but I salvaged an important lesson from the Valentine’s Day exchange. It was this:
Asking for what you want is hard.
The question is, “Why?”
Esther Perel gives us some insight into the difficulty that is desire.
According to Perel, children are born with the capacity to communicate desire. It makes sense to me that expression of wanting is an innate characteristic of newborn babies. How else could they survive? Something must happen to human beings as they grow up that teaches them to filter, inhibit, and suppress expression of desire.
This is probably a really useful thing for a species that is attempting to have a civilization. Perel is a sex and relationships researcher who counsels, writes, and lectures on infidelity. Those adults that emerge from puberty without the self-regulatory mechanisms in place to curb innate desires fail to function in society. They commit crimes, go to jail, and get diagnosed with narcissism, sociopathy, or psychopathy or worse.
So what could Perel possibly mean by “a healthy sense of entitlement?”
In the countries where Perel typically works — the United States, and northwestern Europe — she recognizes that both Men and Women have been taught to suppress, repress, or otherwise hide emotions connected with desire. She’s trying to help adults unlearn the lessons of their childhoods.
Our repression training started when we were little children, and our parents were confronted with the emotional difficulty of disappointing us. Because parents are empathically connected to their children, the feelings the child has will be shared by the parent. So when the child is sad, the parent is sad. When the child is happy, the parent is happy… and so on. Parents share in their children’s emotions.
To regulate their own negative emotions, parents have two choices:
- Sever the empathetic connection to the child — i.e., allow the child to feel bad without that causing bad feelings in the parent, or
- Control the child’s emotions.
My wife’s Father chose the latter.
Imagine a scene from my wife’s childhood in which she, as a young girl, is disappointed, frustrated, and sad by some interaction with a playmate, or a sibling, or some minor injury, unmet expectation, broken promise, mistake, or criticism. These kinds of things happen to young children all the time.
So, as a young girl, she begins to cry — which was exactly the right response when she was a breastfeeding infant. How else could she have communicated her needs to her Mother, except by crying?
But now, she is older. And when she cries (which she believes she can’t help but do), her Father shares in her sadness and disappointment.
He does not enjoy feeling sad, and he wants to change this feeling. But rather than sever his emotional connection to his daughter (whom he does adore), he opts to control her behavior and emotions instead.
So he says, “What are you cryin’ at? You wanna cry? I’ll give you something to cry about!”
My wife never had the courage to say what she was thinking, which was, “No Dad. I don’t want you to give me something else to cry about. I’m already crying.”
What she learned instead was that some emotions are not OK to express to her Father.
The list of scenes from childhood that illustrate the emotional control parents (and others) exert over children is inexhaustible.
“Oh no, you don’t want that one. They’re too expensive.”
“Those are only for girls.”
“Ewwwwww! You still like that? Nobody plays with those anymore.”
Few of us have the courage to walk away when those who supervise us tell us what we (are supposed to) want.
When the child is in the toy store, and tells his Mother, “Mommy, I want that!” it is the rare Mother who can praise her son for being curious, for being observant, for expressing his desire… and still refuse to purchase for him the toy.
As a consequence, some of us grow up to believe that the only way we can regulate our emotions is by manipulating other’s behaviors. Because our parents or other caregivers teach us that we do not control our own emotional state. When we learn this lesson as a child, we will seek adult romantic relationships with people who remind us of our parents, but might be subject to our control, because our emotions depend on their behavior.
When two people indulge in a relationship in which they use manipulation of the other to regulate their own negative emotions, the word for the relationship is co-dependent.
Think about my Valentine’s Day experiences again. The position that my wife put herself in made her mood that day depend on my behavior. If I behaved “right,” then she was happy (if not delighted). But if I behaved “wrong,” then she was angry, sad, or even afraid. Because her emotions depended on my behavior, her energy was directed towards controlling my behavior, so that she can feel good.
The adaptive habits we form in childhood can become maladaptive in adulthood. The old solutions become the new problems, because our circumstances change.
Except we’re still stuck with the childish habits, and that doesn’t work when we accept leadership responsibilities.
Imagine how difficult it would be to work for a manager or an executive incapable of telling you what they want. Your employment would become a shitshow of passive-aggressive, co-dependent guesswork in a game of emotional Russian Roulette. How much more effective would it be if your boss would just tell you what was expected of you at work?
There is another lesson we learn in childhood from the kind of exchange that my wife had with her Father, and that is this:
Our emotions can control other’s behavior.
In codependent relationships, not only do we recognize that other’s behaviors control our emotions, but we come to learn that we can conjure emotions to control other’s behaviors. For example, we can fabricate or exaggerate our own anger or sadness in an attempt to manipulate our Lover into behaving in ways that will make us feel happy.
The codependent feedback loop is a bit of an ironic paradox, because you’d think that once we recognize that we can fabricate our own emotions, we wouldn’t have to rely on others to behave in certain ways that will make us feel good. We would just conjure happiness.
Although most people are convinced that happiness doesn’t work that way, I suspect that there is something else going on in the codependent feedback loop — control. Negative emotions (e.g., fear) may be much more effective than positive emotions for controlling others’ behavior. This is the opposite of the lesson in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. in which the monsters discover that laughter has ten times the power of fear. In my experience, it may be the other way around — or at least that’s what we learn as kids.
There is extraordinary power in being able to ask for what we want. And with great power comes great responsibility. In Communicate Like a Leader I describe the importance of and the protocols for making offerings, invitations, requests, and commands that I use in my organizations.
What I need to emphasize here is the importance of emotional detachment from the requests. That is, when we exercise our power to tell people what we want, we must ensure that we are not resorting to emotional blackmail or extortion. We must be emotionally independent of the outcome, which is not the same as saying that we don’t care.
The oldest emotional defense mechanism in my memory is “I don’t care!”
When we’re kids, and we’re insulted, or robbed, or bullied, our emotional defense mechanism is to declare so that all the other children can here “I don’t care!” The display of emotional detachment is an attempt to remain independent of our persecutors (which is a good idea). But every child knows that it’s not really true.
Of course we care.
Nonetheless, it is possible to achieve true emotional independence, and it is essential to the construction of mutually inter-dependent (compared with co- or in- dependent) relationships. One way to do this is to recognize that we may communicate what we want to the Universe, without depending on any specific individual to provide it for us.
When we realize that we don’t rely on any one particular soulmate to give us what we want, our emotional state becomes independent of what any one person chooses, and we are free to get what we want from others who also want the same as we do. When we are children, this is impossible, because we were never free to choose our parents, or our teachers, or our classmates. We depended upon those around us to meet our needs or gratify our desires, without recourse to the Universe for alternatives.
The price we pay for emotional independence is loss of the opportunity to relive all those childhood traumas from a position of control, thereby releasing the experiences from their negative emotions. It is akin to admitting that we will never get that long-awaited apology, or that expression of unconditional love, or the romantic promise of undying fealty from our one true soulmate.
It’s a difficult dream to let go of. Yet, unlearning the emotional lessons of our youth is the key to becoming emotionally independent of other’s behaviors, without descending into apathy.