Life always changes”
–Gorbachev, Vogue April 2013


You have to use your words often.

There’s a reason “Expressing needs and feelings” is a major milestone in toddler development.  Communication is vital to getting needs fulfilled. And having our basic needs met does tend to calm us down.

Not having needs met incites rage. Hating the pain (or the traffic!) and being enraged by its inconvenience or impediment to fulfilling my needs feels valid to me. But it isn’t what helps me manage my pain. The contraction of hatred is bad for the muscles.  What’s needed is relaxation.  It’s counter-intuitive to turn towards pain with acceptance, and it means choosing against resistance to what is, in its mildest form, or rage when we’re aggravated.  The less resistance as a habit we have, the easier it is to turn toward the unwanted with acceptance, until relaxation becomes almost a reflex.  And this reduces my pain.“The Tao used to be called the Way of Water because that’s the element to emulate,” my occupational therapist Doug Olmstead counsels today.  “Water flows with gravity, finding the path of least resistance.  Its energy is downward, yin, effortlessly conforming to what it encounters.” 

I’m exhausted.  Stressed.  Pain level way high. After getting home last night from work, and doing one more phone call to plan the next month’s trip, I finally settle down to watch tv just as my roommate Dan goes to bed.  He knocks, which almost never happens, and comes in to the spare bedroom next to his, asking me to stop watching tv so he can sleep.  It takes me a minute to acquiesce, which is what I should immediately do under the terms of our agreement that rest must be the primary value of our household. We’re both doing pretty hard jobs.  I turn off the movie, its unbalanced soundtrack annoying me anyway and Helen Mirren unbelievable as a blowsy, careless, Edwardian widow. I realize my bones are finally settled in comfort, and I don’t move for a long time there in the dark, raging against being asked to move and refusing to.  Until I realize he wasn’t asking me to move, just to turn off the noise, that I can rest there as long as I wish. I watch my rage settle into sleep, rise, brush teeth, to bed.Now tonight, I want the play room off the kitchen facing the garden in the setting sun (where he usually watches tv) all to myself for writing and research and yoga and dinner.  I bring it up as a concern and tell him I’m thinking about what if we moved his tv station into his bedroom and ask him if he has any ideas.  He suggests that he watch my tv in the spare, or girls’ bedroom, where I was before.  They’re not spending the night tonight.  It works just fine, so fine that on top of it all, I have the energy and time to write this.

Granted, I have a willing partner in the arrangement.  My roommate and longtime friend Dan and I agree that simply communicating our state and needs in words to the other is a revelation in terms of how peacefully we can live together.  It took us both until we were in our 50s (and perhaps, living with someone who was not also a romantic partner) to realize this.  The reason it works is also lovely: usually the other person wants to help get your needs met, once s/he knows what they are.

It takes courage and skill to take a deep breath and say, “I’m really fragged by the day and just want . . .” or “Would you please lift . . .” And then we must trust the person to hear that and leave them free to respond as they wish. From there we can find the win-win way.

Trust that the other person will be open to helping must be built on lots of experiences of that person helping or at least wishing us well.  If we could only invite people into our lives who somehow psychically know what we want — or are perfectly matched to us in our preferences!  But I’ve met very few mind-readers.  The perfect match is a theoretically impossible scenario if you believe in the uniqueness of the individual. The only option left to us is to prepare the people in our lives to hear what we need, and to deliver our message in a respectful way.

It’s easiest for me to listen to others express their needs when they state them simply and openly.  If they’re calm, I’m not afraid it’s a criticism.  I hear lots better when I’m not afraid. Your listeners will too!   If you’re confident, rather than afraid, it helps them to be confident, too.

It helps to set this up with them beforehand, by the way, lightly, in a conversation, not at some time when you don’t have a need or feeling to express.

Good luck and let us know how it goes,