Want v. Need

When I was a kid, my parents would send my siblings and I outside to play. I didn’t really mind because I honestly loved being outside. As soon as it was nice enough, I was playing outdoors until the street lights came on. During the cooler months, they’d send us to our playroom – a room that evolved from something for small children (with endless toys) to something more appropriate for older kids (with a cool fold-out couch, TV, stereo, and many posters torn out from the pages of Teen Beat magazine).

I kinda loved having the separate spaces. My parents were often boring, annoying, or outright scary. But, also, they would tell us not to disturb them. Common phrases I heard were, “Don’t bother me unless you are dying” or “That scream better be because your arm was just cut off!”

Whether or not they meant that in the literal sense? Who knows. But I know my siblings and I certainly thought they were serious. And so my very difficult relationship with “needing” pretty much anything continued to develop.

My therapist and I have been having a deliberate conversation around boundaries. This is always the toughest subject for us in session. It just triggers such HUGE emotional pain for me. In a recent session, I asked her two questions that she interpreted as me “mocking the boundaries”. That statement felt very confusing to me because my intent was simply to try and open up a conversation about something that was really hard to talk about. I didn’t experience myself as consciously doing anything at all with the boundaries, but she clearly did.

When we talked about it later on, I realized that she felt that the tone I used and the way I asked is what caused the friction. In one case, I had asked her what she writes in her notebook (that she keeps on the end table next to her chair). She responded by saying, “I don’t have to tell you that.” Which, to be fair, is true. But it was really hurtful to have her respond to me with such sharpness. I felt very attacked and as though I had done something wrong simply by being curious about her thoughts and her process.

Later on in that session, we deduced that what I really wanted was reassurance that she is still wanting to work with me and perhaps more information about how I effect her and what she thinks of me (all true). But I didn’t have the language or awareness at the beginning of the session to just ask for reassurance, so I went about it in what ended up being “provocative.”

Then she told me that if perhaps I’d asked the question in a different way, she may have answered me, rather than responding by protecting herself and her space. I really struggled to understand this because it is a perfect example of the way she holds her boundaries in a very dynamic way. Few things are absolute or rigid. And she’s often talked about how the boundaries are flexible and shift with the needs of the relationship, but I never understand what that actually means.

But I think I have a better idea of what she’s getting at.

Which made me think of the last exchange between Zooey and myself. In short: she’d told me I could reach out to her once I had a therapist. I called her and left a voicemail. She emailed me and said I couldn’t reach out anymore (but in a vague way). I wrote her back, asking if she was explicitly saying I could not speak to her anymore. She responded by saying that since I had not followed some arbitrary rules (which I was completely unaware existed) that, yes, she was telling me to not reach out to her anymore.

She essentially gave me something and then took it away from me when I crossed a boundary that I did not even know was there. And that devastated me. I’ve worked so hard to understand this incident and I always end up blaming myself: If I hadn’t broken the rules, I wouldn’t have lost her.

(I mean, thank goodness I did though, right?)

But, really, that’s not what happened. Zooey had other options. She could have been more clear about the boundaries after termination to begin with. She could have responded with a simple “yes” (sans blaming). She could have said yes and then explained the purpose of boundaries in protecting us, rather than making it punitive and a shaming device (and I actually gave her an example of such a response in my final email to her). But she didn’t do any of that. So the result is that I reached for her, into a space I believed was open to me, only to be completely shut down. Ouch.

Which is part of why I am so careful and anxious around my current therapist’s boundaries. I want to know them and I want to anticipate any potential boundaries we haven’t yet come up against, so that this won’t happen again. I have been terrified of the idea that she could retroactively change her mind and then take something away from me right when I need it the most.

But it’s not that simple.

So I think the reason my therapist holds her boundaries as a living, breathing, changeable concept that can grow and evolve as we do is because sometimes what works early in the relationship doesn’t work later on.

Take my relationship with my “Mom” for example. I met her as a sophomore in high school. She was the school psychologist who was seeing me and paying attention to me. This meant the world and I clung to her as a source of support and love. Once I left school, we didn’t talk for several years. Then I started emailing her a few times a year. Then calling. Then I began to visit. And eventually started staying at her home. Up until recently, we would talk on the phone nearly every week because that’s what worked for us.

But now it doesn’t. Because as our relationship shifts and she is more like an equal/peer/friend than a mother-figure, she treats me less like the child she needs to protect and care for, and more like a container in which to pour all of her very intense emotions. I let things exist that way for a while, but I simply cannot do it anymore. I cannot have yet another parent that needs me to take care of them and absorb all of their emotional dysregulation.

So I don’t speak to her on the phone anymore. For a while I was just not communicating with her at all, but then I finally told her that I’m not comfortable speaking on the phone, but I’d love it if we could touch base via text or email. I know she prefers telephone because she’s inept with technology, but thus far we’ve been able to check-in a few times via text. I’ve been tempted to call because I know she needs it and does better in that medium, but I didn’t. Because what makes me comfortable and what works for me ALSO matters.

Which means that our boundaries have had to shift in order to preserve the relationship and make it work for us as we experience yet another relational transition. I don’t think it will always be this way, but it is helping us stay in contact when otherwise we wouldn’t speak at all.

With that in mind, if my therapist did retroactively shift our boundaries, I think that would be okay. It would hurt and startle me, due to my history, but as long as we were able to talk about it and I understood the way that change was being used to protect our work and help our time together be more productive, I would be okay.

So then I brought up how I’d emailed my therapist a few months ago. I’m not supposed to do that unless it’s about scheduling, but it was a rough evening and I needed her. We hadn’t really discussed it much since then. But when we did talk about it, she didn’t really commit to saying whether or not it was okay that I’d emailed her against our agreed boundaries.

What she said was, “Yes, that type of email goes against the way I use email. And I know you know that, which you mentioned in the email. But you came in and brought it up and talked about it. So it seemed to work for you here and I’m fine with it.”

Wait, what? This was so confusing to me! If I broke a boundary, how can she possibly be okay with it??! I said, “Ah this sucks! I wanted you to just tell me ‘Don’t do that again!'” and I pushed her until she finally said,

“Okay, Andi. Don’t do that again.”

Which, let’s be honest, felt a lot like being slapped across the face. Even though I had pushed her to set that line in the sand, having her actually do it felt horrible. But, also, I felt better because at least I knew the line was there and I knew I could never email her again.

But I think her point was that she doesn’t want (or need) the boundary to be that rigid. I think she sees value in moments like this – moments where I’m spontaneous and challenge the therapeutic space. It gives us a chance to explore new territory. So she’s hesitant to tell me to never do anything because, well, life is just not that straightforward (with the exception of things like dual relationships, etc).

Bringing this topic up again was hard and I started to get agitated. She said, “So, yeah, I think that you really need rigidity sometimes. Because when you see potential space, it makes you very anxious. You wonder what you could or should do with that space. I think you have an impulse to challenge it and see what will happen. So maybe right now, for you, it’s better if you don’t have access to the space.”

“True, but I also think that ‘space’ exists in lots of places!”

“What do you mean?”

“Well like with phone calls. You tell me I can call you, but you don’t say  ‘You can call a maximum of once per week’ or ‘You can call during *these* time frames’. So, in that way, there’s also a lot of questions around what you mean and what is allowed, etc.”

“Okay, sure. And I know that that makes you anxious as well. And, yeah, I could say ‘No more phone calls’ because it would make you less anxious, but I think something would be missing from the work because sometimes you need those calls.”

“Well I don’t ever really *need* them.”

“I think you do.”

“No. To me, it’s like ‘Will I die from this?’ I hear ‘need’ and I think life and death. So, no I don’t ‘need’ to talk to you, I just want to.”

“Well then maybe you should be bringing that into sessions in here. This is our space to work on those things, so they really shouldn’t be brought outside of that space.”

And then I started crying.

She asked me to try and give words to what I was feeling, but I couldn’t at first. I just needed to cry. Eventually I said,

“I just…I hear you say that and it really upsets me. I’m trying to talk to you about boundaries, but it seems like whenever I bring it up, this happens – things change or something bad happens. I didn’t bring this up because I wanted to change anything, I just wanted to be able to TALK about it…”

She paused and took a breath. Then she said,

“I know. And I continued to be impressed by how hard you work to talk about these things because I know it’s incredibly painful and scary for you. Nothing has changed. I feel the same way about things right now that I did yesterday…”

I continued to cry.

“Do you believe me?”

I looked up and just kinda shrugged.

“Not really? That’s okay. But let’s keep talking about this. This is so important and things really are okay. So maybe tomorrow we can explore it further?”

I think I responded, but I’m not sure. I know I smiled, because I really appreciated that she encouraged me to bring this discussion back into session, and that she specifically asked whether or not I believed her. Because, to me, that felt like an acknowledgement of how precarious this can feel for me.

She also asked me to try and do some thinking and writing about this (hence this blog post).

What I think is happening is that there is a disconnect between our ideas or “want” versus “need”. To me, “need” really does mean: If I don’t get this thing, I will die.

And, as I illustrated in the beginning of this post, my parents sent the message that I am only allowed to draw attention to myself or my wants or needs unless it is a LITERAL emergency. If I broke that rule, I was essentially obliterated. Needing or wanting anything became a source of absolute terror. And I eventually grew to value not needing anything, or needing very little (including, of course, food).

What has happened historically with therapists (including Zooey) is that I had many needs- big and small. Sometimes that need was a true crisis, such as feeling suicidal, but sometimes it was that I needed to connect with that person or clarify a misunderstanding. But since the message I received from both my parents and the mental health system in general, is that I cannot reach out or be seen/heard unless it is a crisis, I became really really good at being in crisis.

But my current therapist has a way of opening up space for me that signals e that I do not need to be in crisis in order to be allowed to connect with her. It’s one of the most effective parts of our work together, and what allows me to stay out of constant crisis. If I am allowed to be seen and heard and tended to simply because I feel like I need or want that attention, I won’t be tempted to “up the ante” to reach some critical threshold. I can get what I want without having to create an emergency.

But then the question, for me, becomes “Do I need this? Is this a real need? Do I really deserve to have this need met? Or do I just want it? Should I want it? Is it okay that I want it? What does it mean that I want it?” And if the answer is not, “Yes, I am dying and I need my therapist in order to not die” then I feel tremendous guilt about making the choice to reach out to her. Clearly my instinct is to delegitimize my own needs. What I “need”, short of to survive, is transformed into a mere “want” and I certainly don’t feel worthy or deserving of getting something simply because I want it.

Which is why the conversation around phone calls really activated me.

I suppose I’m not sure if connecting with her is what I want or what I need. I know that when I do call it’s because I feel distressed in a way that is specific to her or to something we’ve been working on. So, in that way, I don’t feel like I use reaching out as a default “I need someone to talk to” phone call. I only call her when I feel like she is the one person that I want to talk to, and that talking to her would help soothe some emotional discomfort I’m experiencing.

But, I don’t know…is that good enough? Is that a valid reason to call? I never seem to know.



12 thoughts on “Want v. Need

  1. Paper Doll says:

    Two things.

    – the loose ever changing boundary space would also drive me nuts. I’m not in any way saying it is wrong (so please don’t read it that way) but that I am so similar. I need that rigidity, and when A changed a boundary earlier this week I freaked. So I get it.

    When you wrote that since the message you received from both my parents and the mental health system was that you didn’t get attention unless you were in crisis you became very good at being in crisis – I heard so much recognition and insight in that statement – that’s a HUGE thing to recognize… and I also identify.

    For a long time I got attention by either being in legit crisis or pretending to be – so I totally hear where you are here.

    I don’t think you’re wrong to call when you need to connect, at all. And phone is the biggest boundary struggle I have with A too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Andi says:

      Yeah, I think the crisis piece is so important for those of us whose needs were neglected otherwise. I have always struggled with boundaries, especially phone calls. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kat says:

    boundaries are not meant to be that fluid, in my opinion. that would be impossible for me to work with any human being, but especially a therapist.

    and yes you are entitled to those phone calls and maybe even emails…even if it is not a deathly need or if it is a want. we all are deserving of having both needs and wants met.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Life in a Bind - BPD and me says:

    This is a wonderful post, so so instructive in so many ways, and it’s amazing to see the way you are growing and opening up to what she would like to show you, immensely painful though it is. You’re awesome….
    I am often struck by how similar our therapists sound -mine does and says very similar things to yours an for very similar reasons. We have often had conversations about boundaries as well, particularly when I am pushing them, and she has made the point that with me the boundaries have been very elastic. In the very early days of our therapy that fact concerned me, and I wondered what it said about her. But I came to see that it was her experience and her sense of self and her good boundaries, that enabled her to vary them and be flexible without ‘risk’ as it were. I really have come to see that there are very few ‘definitives’ and rights and wrongs when it comes to therapy, but the way we approach it and our therapist, and the ‘attitude’ we come with, makes the biggest difference both in terms of what we get out of it and how our therapist responds to us. Like you, sometimes I will ask a question and get one sort of response, because she has seen (though I haven’t), that I am trying to sabotage, or ‘trap her’, or manoeuvre the conversation into replaying a ‘past script’. And yet if I come at it in a completely different way, perhaps by being open about my ambivalence about the question and acknowledging that it may not be the best question but I feel a huge need to ask it, and this is why…..well, her response is often very different. I think it comes down to the difference between bringing something for discussion and what she calls ‘acting something out’. The latter is an unconscious way of showing our therapists something, and they have to help us see that. In the former case we already recognise the difficulty, and we want to work it through.
    The topic of touch used to be a really difficult one for us. In the past, when I used to try and push the subject, she would often respond by drawing attention to the fact that I tend to focus on what I don’t have rather than on what I do, and she would also often reinforce the point about boundaries and how this isn’t a part of a therapy. These days when I talk about touch, I bring it as a subject only because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, and if I’m in pain, and I want to feel better by talking it through. I’ve accepted this particular boundary even though it still makes me sad, and I also know that it’s not wrong for me to want to touch, and it’s okay to explore with her, why it hurts. Her response these days, to that subject, has a completely different emphasis – she talks about how, one day, the metaphorical ‘holding’ of the therapeutic environment will feel like enough, and I won’t be as sad about not having touch.
    Sorry that was a very long-winded comment, whereas actually I just wanted to make the point that I think there are many other therapists taking a similar approach and painful though it is, after a while it really does start to make sense and the ‘elastic’ nature of the relationship really can feel like a godsend, rather than horrendously tricky waters to navigate…..take care, thinking of you xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment! I relate to so much of what you said, especially about touch. And I love the idea of being able to talk about it without necessarily having the focus be on getting or changing something, but about just noticing your feelings around it. I definitely think my therapist has a unique and useful way of approaching boundaries, but it’s still incredibly jarring and frightening for me to feel reassured in that space. Hopefully that’s not permanent.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. e.Nice says:

    this is a really good post Andi. It has really gotten me thinking because its something I struggle with too. For example I feel pretty bad about calling the crisis line because I’m never sure if its crisis-y enough…. I guess the only way to figure out what is a need and what is a want (and if its okay to have either or both met?) is to practice. To try it out. To learn via experience and repetition. ugghhh. it sucks.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rachel says:

    I sort of think that in the therapy relationship, it pretty much is always a “need.” A need for her attention/care/validation/support/reassurance/warmth/protection/affection, specifically. I say that, because you have a wife, you have friends, your needs otherwise are met – you wouldn’t be reaching for something from your therapist if it wasn’t coming from one of those younger, therapy-related places. I just don’t think you would – why would you? You have excellent boundaries, you don’t just want a “hey therapist, how are you doing? Just calling to say hi because I was bored” call, right? Of course not. Even if you don’t KNOW what the need is (which most the time, in the moment, I don’t know the specific need, I just feel that sense I need contact), there is a need. And if she can help meet that need and help teach you to meet the need, the urges to reach out will be less and you will feel more secure inside and more regulated.
    What I hear you saying (to her, on on here) very clearly, is a need for more structure around outside contact. Not a “no calls, period” rule, but “once a week, or twice a week for 10 minutes each time,” etc. Something you can lean against securely to help with the vulnerability that comes up around asking – so you know when asking, that it is within structure she has already agreed to and offered. So you can learn that asking is okay and welcome, and you won’t be punished. So you can unlearn those messages but in a contained way, not in a “if I call, is it okay? Is it?” So you already know yes, it is okay, and the reaching within that framework can be so healing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andi says:

      Yes! That’s exactly what I need. I don’t understand why she’s so hesitant to offer that to me and it makes me nervous that she never really wants me to call but she’s let’s me because, thus far, I’ve been reasonable. But what if that changes? How will I know how to not do that? And if she suddenly changed the rules around contact as a reactive measure, I’d be so upset.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rachel says:

        Right, exactly. You need to have something solid to move fluidly within. At least that is how I see it. It can’t be entirely fluid, that is just too damn anxiety-provoking. That is akin to not having any structure or rules for a toddler; you can’t just let them go anywhere and do anything – they need parameters to explore the world safely within. We are emotional toddlers (infants, sometimes). We need guidance, but freedom within the guidance to learn.
        And yes, it can’t just be changed willy-nilly, that just doesn’t work with this type of therapy. It is too traumatizing/scary/confusing/painful. Brings out my rage like no other.

        Liked by 1 person

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