What Do You Want? What Do You Need?

I’ll never forget the first time this exercise was introduced to me as a fresh, baby therapist. I was just beginning the second semester of my master’s degree and, having made it through the preliminary coarse work, I was now able to enter into my practicum and begin to see real live clients. There was a group of eight of us that sat in a small room at the back end of the counselling centre, along with our clinical supervisors. We spent much time in that room practicing our skills, learning from each other, and relying on our supervisors for reassurance.

Along with our clinical experience we also had opportunity to explore personal growth (an important element in becoming a therapist). As we sat in this small room our supervisor demonstrated an exercise to us called “What do you want? What do you need?” The instructions were simple. Pair off, with one partner acting as therapist and the other acting as client. The therapist was only allowed to ask these two questions, back and forth, back and forth. The client then would answer genuinely, from whatever they interpreted these questions to mean for them at the time. I believe this exercise was first posed almost like a game, and so all of us practicum newbies paired off, giggling, imagining how silly and ridiculous this was going to be. For some partners it was, as they struggled with the limited questions and seeming repetition of answers. But for others the “game” quickly became more serious, as the clients began to access deep awareness about their desires and yearnings at that moment in their lives. Emotions arose, and the therapists who only had two questions in their arsenal found themselves holding space for their clients to process deeply these seemingly hidden wants and needs. It was powerful, and moving, and precious, as I myself was one of these clients.

It is from this experience that I learned how potentially quick the access can be to these parts of ourselves when we are asked simple, yet fundamental questions about our core needs and desires. It is also from this experience that I became aware of how seldom we ask and are asked these questions. What are we afraid we might find if we do?

I don’t know about you, but I, to some extent, have prided myself on being self-reliant, self-sufficient, and independent. These qualities are praised in a culture so focused on the individual that dependence almost sounds like a dirty word, but I would pose to you that to need is to be human. The reality is that we are all interconnected, but this truth can be distorted when we so highly prize self-sufficiency and independence that they become code for “I don’t need anyone” or the expectation, “I shouldn’t need anyone”. These messages leave us deeply confused when our needs do arise, as they inevitably will, and our deep yearning for healthy dependence comes up. We end up feeling weak, or “needy”, or worse, telling ourselves that something is wrong with us and to suck it up.

The truth, however, is that we all need one another. We need love, acceptance, belonging, connection, protection, comfort etc. These are what we call in the therapy world, “universal yearnings” because they are common amongst all people, from all backgrounds, from all over the world. You may know this intrinsically, and perhaps see these exhibited in children who often show their needs more readily and unabashedly. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t grow out of these needs and yearnings. It’s not like there is a time limit on them and when we hit a certain age or stage of adulthood they suddenly disappear. In fact, it is our ability or inability to reveal our needs and wants vulnerably that will determine our level of closeness and connection to those with whom we’re in relationship.

This process of asking ourselves what we truly need can surely be scary. We may fear that level of vulnerability, or fear having knowledge of these deep parts of ourselves. What happens if we become aware of our needs but perceive it impossible to get them met? Much better, we reason, to distract from, ignore, or suppress our needs than to listen to what they really might be saying. But at what cost?

When was the last time you were asked what you truly need?

What would your soul say if asked what you really want?

The answer may come in a whisper, or a shout, or pregnant silence. Perhaps this is part of the fear…that if we ask what we want for ourselves, for our families, for our life, that we may not have an answer. Can “I don’t know” be okay? What would it mean for you not to know at this point in time? The beauty of these simple questions is that they may evoke a different response each day we are asked. What you need or want now may be different than what you once did. And what you need or want in the future could be different than your now.

There are also different parts of us that perhaps want different things than one another. If this sounds too complicated, just imagine a new Mom who never wants to be away from her baby, but desperately wants a reprieve and perhaps a night out with the girls. Or a new couple where part of each needs closeness and connection, while another part is needing independence and autonomy. We all have many parts that make up our messy, complex, beautiful selves.

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It is also my deep belief as a therapist (and a human) that we are all on a journey towards becoming better acquainted with these needs, wants, and parts, as cliché as that may sound. I recently was on a retreat in which the speaker gave an illustration about a person lost in a deep forest with no idea about how to get out. Along came a fellow traveller who recognized they were lost and so gave them a map, and a compass, and wished them good luck. The lost individual now had tools designed for navigation, but these were inevitably rendered useless given the individual’s lack of orientation. The point of the story is this: we can only know where we’re going if we first know where we are.

The process of accessing our inner parts, and discovering the answer to what we truly need and want may feel at first like entering a deep forest without any sweet clue about where we are or where we want to go. The good news, however, is that therapy can be a place where it is safe to explore these parts, and ask these hard questions without the need for immediate answers. There is the opportunity to be asked “What do you need? What do you want?” by a patient, non- judgmental other, and to be aware of whatever arises (even if it is scary or ambiguous). The therapist is luckily not like the fellow traveller in the story, and instead will walk along the path with you of developing insight, self-awareness, and contemplation. This process is like finding one’s orientation in the forest. The next step is moving towards where you want to end up, with potential guide posts of self-trust, value assessment, priority making, boundary setting, vision casting and more. It is a noble journey, perhaps not for the faint of heart, but the potential prize is that you will know yourself more fully on the other side of the forest, and maybe even discover that you knew more than you thought.

Kara Phelan MAMFT