This is a reprise of a piece I wrote back in 2017.
The lady who lives a few doors down is hurrying out to her car with one of her young children in tow. He, failing to pick up on the apparent need for urgency, has found a stick and is tapping it against the bin, entranced by its peculiarly musical sound.
“Hurry up, you’re wasting time,” his mother shouts as she slams the boot having piled armfuls of stuff into it moments before.
The little boy reluctantly drops his stick on the ground and trudges to the car without looking at his mother.
Witnessing this episode from the very spot I am sitting in right now reminded me of two experiences with my children when they were still young and hadn’t yet been challenged to let go of the freedom to express themselves by hitting sticks on the side of bins.
My son once told me that his headmaster had cut short the final day of term for his year group who were about to leave their schooldays behind.
He’d decided to curtail the high jinks of the boys who tended to celebrate the point of their freedom by gaffer-taping Year 8 pupils upside down to the rugby posts, or rearranging all the furniture from the library outside in the courtyard and turfing the library. You know, harmless stuff.
“Ho doesn’t like Christmas either and delights in telling us all about it. He’s so cynical” my son added in an observation wise beyond his years.
It certainly wasn’t what I’d describe as a model for self-expression and creative freedom.
My daughter, some years earlier, had been taking part in the last day assembly at her primary school, the point at which all those young friendships are torn asunder and children move away to different schools.
Inevitably, as the final few bars of the last song rang from the slightly out-of-tune upright piano, the children were in floods of tears at the impending loss of one another.
Fifteen minutes later, we’re all in the park and the children are running around laughing and shouting as if nothing of significance has happened.
When we’re small, we have no problem moving from one emotion to another, no difficulty in expressing whatever it is that we’re feeling at any given moment. It’s later that we start to be told what’s appropriate, what’s important, and when we’re wasting time, and it’s usually being defined by someone else.
I had an exchange this week about the reasons people insist they’re “OK” and don’t need anything when they palpably do or fear that they’d better defer to the needs of someone else in case they are seen as “making a fuss”.
We do this because we learned it. Somewhere along the line, we were taught or perceived that other people’s needs are always more important than ours, or we were not taught that they aren’t.
For example, you might be someone who, when asked, “What do you want for dinner?” always says, “I don’t mind. What do you want?” There’s a reason you don’t express a preference and it isn’t always that you don’t have a preference.
Maybe you worry that the person asking will be disappointed and you’ll feel bad. If so, why are their needs more important than yours?
What happens over time is that we become resentful of repressing our real needs and feelings. We find ourselves in a destructive loop that begins with wanting other people to telepathically know what we need and continues with us resisting their attempts to help us if they should happen to guess that something is wrong, thereby increasing our bitterness and resentment which can cause us to conclude that nobody cares about us anyway but wishing they did.
If there’s one thing that humans like it’s being right even if proving it means finding the evidence to fit the already arrived at conclusion.
As a child, I decided early on that being a peacemaker was more important than having my needs met.
So now, when people in my house leave the dishcloth in the washing up water until morning they probably don’t know that I swear at them because I don’t want to put my hand in cold dishwater to wring out the soaking wet cloth.
Yes, I know I could make it clear, but that means putting my needs first and I only learned to do that for myself in the second half of my life so expecting anyone else to do it is still often a challenge.
In a moment of clarity, the like of which don’t come along as often as we’d like in therapy, my own therapist recently told me,
“You’re hard to care for.”
This was not an expression of her feelings toward me but a statement of fact. What she meant was that I don’t let people “in” because I don’t trust anyone much other than myself.
I learned to deprioritise the expression of my needs and it’s a life’s work unpicking it.
Thankfully, we seem to have mitigated the impact of this debilitating lesson for our children who, as far as I can see, are pretty good at putting themselves first.
They are home this weekend and, as always, it’s a joy to see them.
I assumed they’d both be staying for dinner but when I asked my daughter she said she was coming for a haircut and going straight back to University, spending as little time at home as is humanly possible (I assumed that last bit).
I’m more proud of her ability to express her true needs than I am disappointed that she won’t be with us for long, and it means we can have fish for dinner which she doesn’t like anyway, so it’s not all bad news.
So I’ll be busying myself in the kitchen for most of the afternoon and nobody will be helping me because they won’t know that I’m feeling under pressure and, if they should ask, I’ll tell them that I’m fine.