By Jennifer Jordan, L.M.F.T
As the holidays approach, we often focus on gift ideas for family and friends. We hope to find just the right present, and if we don’t, we worry about letting loved ones down in some way. Missing the mark may leave a recipient feeling unknown and hurt, and the giver feeling equally disappointed. Ever get someone a wool sweater when they’re allergic? A wallet when they already have two? A toy they’ve outgrown? Or a basket of sweets when they don’t eat sugar?
How grateful we are when loved ones tell us exactly what they need! When they take the guesswork and stresswork out of giving — and set us up for success! We can enjoy a win-win exchange, where giver and getter feel gratified.
Spoiler: This isn’t really a piece about gift-giving. It’s about the importance of identifying what we need from each other in our relationships, and asking for it. Gift-giving is an apt metaphor: if we really know, explicitly, what we need from each other over the holidays, we have a much better chance of meeting those needs and connecting in fulfilling ways.
During the pandemic, many families in lockdown reported how stressful it was to spend so much time together without a framework for understanding or respecting each other’s needs. The holidays can present similar challenges, as many family members come together, bringing their own unique perspectives and expectations. This uniqueness within the family context is healthy and appropriate, although at times it can feel like a conflict waiting to happen.
So, just as you might take inventory of your wardrobe and ask for a new hoodie or slippers, stop and think about what you need this holiday season. Alone time to rest and recharge? Help with food prep or decorating? Clarity around family Covid protocols? More play, less politics? Perhaps you need meaningful connection after a prolonged period of isolation. Or emotional support after a difficult stretch of stress. Getting what you need starts with knowing what you need.
And then, it’s your responsibility to ask for it. According to world-renowned relationship experts John and Julie Gottman, the notion that loved ones should be able to read each other’s minds is an unfortunate myth, one that leads to disappointment and resentment. Clearly and respectfully expressing needs takes practice, but it is worth the effort, setting up those win-win exchanges and reducing conflict.
Rather than saying, “You never help around here! Get off the couch!” you’re more apt to get a positive response from, “When you’re done with the game, I need help in the kitchen.” Similarly, saying, “I need to feel like I have some say in what we watch on TV,” will lead to more productive problem-solving than, “You always hog the controller!” When a teen is routinely talked over by older siblings, she may be tempted to curse and storm off; but she will likely get better results with, “Can you stop interrupting me? I need to feel heard and taken seriously in this family.
When we nicely and proactively let others know what we need, they’re not only more likely to respect our wishes, they’re also less likely to be confused or hurt. If Grandma knows you need to eliminate gluten from your diet, she won’t feel insulted when you pass up her stuffing. If parents know their daughter visiting from out of town needs to reconnect with friends, they won’t feel disappointed when she goes out for the night. If a college freshman needs to feel taken care of after a long semester on their own, a parent in the know can be present and attentive rather than assume they want space.
It’s equally important to tell people what you don’t need. Just as you might say, “Please don’t get me jewelry this year,” or “I don’t need more flannel shirts,” it is helpful to let people know your boundaries: “Please don’t comment on my weight, even if you think it’s a compliment.” Or, “I’m not comfortable talking about college applications right now.” When sharing about fertility or career challenges, feel free to specify: “I don’t need advice. Just a listening ear and support.”
Sometimes in relationships, needs are in conflict. This, too, becomes an opportunity for growth and understanding. When Mom says she needs help wrapping presents, she may learn that her environmentally-conscious adult kids would prefer less wrapping paper. Imagine the brainstorming and new traditions that could emerge! Perhaps a different kind of rap session, in which elders share family stories with the younger generation.
Sometimes, needs are personal rather than relational. When you look at your Christmas list, you’ll likely notice a few things that you should really pick out for yourself. Make-up, fitted clothing and other personal items come to mind. Similarly, if you need to exercise more, or drink less, or remember to breathe and meditate over the holidays, no one else can give you that. Be good to yourself and meet these needs on your own.
For some family members, learning to express needs directly can feel awkward at first. So, prompt them. Just as you would ask what gifts they want for Hanukkah, ask them what they’re hoping to get from the holidays and what they need from you. With practice, you can create a new way of being together, more attuned and responsive, with less chance for misunderstanding. And this is a gift that keeps on giving all year.
If responding to one another’s needs continues to prove difficult, there may be obstacles that should be explored more fully. Relational therapy for families and couples can help uncover and address these obstacles, creating new pathways for relational attunement and satisfaction. Call the Counseling Center at (914)793-3388 if you’d like to make an appointment.