How do I ask for what I need/want without guilt-tripping people?
September 4, 2015 11:33 AM   Subscribe

In the aftermath of a pretty fulfilling relationship that lasted almost a year, I've come to realize that I have never learned how to ask people for what I need in relationships without making people feel guilty for saying no. This might be a long one. Does anyone know of good books on how to do this or any suggestions/advice?

I had a mother who would make a great show of asking me what I wanted for Christmas or birthdays, or on innumerable other occasions, then going out of her way not to honor them, instead buying me what she thought I should have or outright telling me what I wanted was stupid. (Let me emphasize that I don't expect gifts at all, and that the things I asked for weren't outsized or anything. I wasn't asking for ponies, treehouses, trips to the moon or other things my parents couldn't afford.) Over time, I learned to just stop asking. It was just easier: 'No one wants to meet your needs. Why bother asking anyway?'

I was already afraid of my mother for this and other reasons, but after I left home that fear extended to other people. When my first real boyfriend in college asked me what I wanted, I was shocked. No one had ever asked me that before and actually cared about my answer. I realized then that I had to ask, or my needs wouldn't be met at all. The trouble is...I still expect that they won't be met, so asking is panic-inducing. It's hard for me to ask for what I want without bringing all my past hurt and fear of rejection into a question, and it apparently makes people feel guilty (as my now-ex hinted and another of my exes said outright). I've been guilt-tripped like this before by past partners, and it doesn't feel good, but I didn't realize that I was doing it myself. I'm 33, I'm just now learning this lesson, and I'm exhausted.

At the moment, I'm not seeking another relationship (even though I got asked out on a date a week after my now-ex broke up with me. Don't know how to handle this one either). If it helps, I'm on the autistic spectrum (as, I believe, is my ex), I only rarely experience sexual attraction to people, and I already have issues with anxiety and depression. Any advice would be helpful. Thanks!
posted by oogenesis to Human Relations (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wait, do you have any objective criteria by which you're determining that you are, in fact, actually making people feel guilty? Because exes are not exactly the best source for objective commentary on challenges you might have with making your needs known. My first thought would be that it's more likely that your asks were reasonable and they felt guilty because you were asking them to... meet your needs.

What about your friends? What do they say?
posted by canine epigram at 11:37 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh man. It sounds like your mom is similar to mine. She still does that with gifts, food ("what do you want for dinner?" me: "let's make a big salad" mom: "we're having fish sticks"), holiday plans, pretty much everything. It sucks. What has been helpful was seeing a therapist and emphasizing my need to re-parent myself so that I don't constantly hear my mother's voice in my head invalidating my preferences. Re-framing a lot of my worldview through that process, really.

On a practical level, in relationships, I think the best thing is to be direct. If you get pushback, that's a) not cool and b) you can explain to them how you explained this to AskMe, and they should understand.

Some good sentence-starters for asking are things like
- "It's important to me that ____"
- "I would like it if you'd _______"
- "I tend to dislike ______"
- "[verb] my [body part]" (good in sexual situations)
- "It'd be better if _________"
posted by witchen at 11:42 AM on September 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Something I saw here on metafilter years ago was asking for things 100%. Of course I can't find the comment now and that sentence as a lead-in makes no sense. But basically it was the idea that you ask each other for things in terms of what would make you 100% happy, with the mutual understanding that no one gets 100% of the things they ask for all the time, but you can definitely get part of it, so might as well say what's on your mind.

Like, "what do you want to do for dinner on Friday?"
"My 100% would be a candlelight dinner and a movie."
"We're both working pretty late that night...how about I pick up some thai food on the way home and we eat takeout by candlelight instead?"

or

"My 100% would be having the house to myself all day Sunday so I can sleep in and read."
"Can't do all day but I can take the kids to a museum and get them out of your hair for at least a few hours, how's that?"

Needs and wants are still being voiced but with an opening for compromise so no one feels put upon if they can't give you everything.
posted by phunniemee at 11:57 AM on September 4, 2015 [28 favorites]


My guess is, it sounds like when you ask for things it has an "emotional charge" to it. It's intense because of your past experience. And it's difficult to ask for something that has a lot of meaning to you without that charge. It's the emotional charge that can make people feel guilty or put on the spot. So until you fully make peace with and get rid of the emotional charge, you can at least face and acknowledge the emotional charge that you exude to others. For example you could say something like, "I don't mean to get too intense about this but this is something that is very important for me. So what I would like is…" that way you've at least opened up the conversation about how you might come across while asking for what you want.

To actually get rid of the emotional charge, you need to go back and feel the original hurt and release the original pain of not being acknowledged by your mom. You need to break the association between asking for what you want now, and not getting what you wanted then. Therapy can help with this. In the ideal, you would ask for what you want without being attached to getting it so much. You would simply be asking for what you want and open to getting it or not getting it, but not feeling this deep intense pressure that the other person must give you what you need now in order to acknowledge and make up for all the hurt you've experienced before. That can also be just sheer experience – ask for lots of things, and keep a tally: sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't. That way you don't put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. You can get somethings sometimes and accept not getting other things other times. Think of it like a numbers game. Now get asking!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:28 PM on September 4, 2015 [16 favorites]


This might seem like a weird recommendation, but check out Parent Effectiveness Training. It's all about how two people with different (and potentially conflicting) needs can figure out creative ways to get both their needs met. It's basically phunniemee's example writ large, with lots of examples and explanations.
posted by clawsoon at 12:30 PM on September 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


http://ask.metafilter.com/137148/What-clever-relationship-hacks-have-you-come-up-with#1960336

This is the comment referred to above, about asking for your 100%. Loved it, too!
posted by M. at 12:35 PM on September 4, 2015


Congratulations for recognizing this and doing something about it now. I am rather farther along in life and only recently noticed this about myself. About a year ago I decided to just be up front with people about sucking at asking for things/help. In fact, not only do I suck at asking, I suck at accepting. I am ungracious start to finish.

So now I say so. I say "you know, I am unskilled at this sort of thing so bear with me." and then they're forewarned. And sometimes I say "that felt like it came off kind of shrill, did it?"

This approach is actually a form of asking for something too. I'm asking them to help me learn a new way of communicating. And people really do want to help. People are very cool. From a partner to my own kid to a colleague and etc. If you say "I'm not really sure how to ask this" - then any tension that was building just dissipates, and they're on your side in trying to figure it out.

Importantly, I am totally open to hearing constructive criticism without cringing. But because of the way I framed it, the feedback is always constructive, never critical. It's really been a revelation.
posted by headnsouth at 12:44 PM on September 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's hard for me to ask for what I want without bringing all my past hurt and fear of rejection into a question, and it apparently makes people feel guilty (as my now-ex hinted and another of my exes said outright).

It might help to find some situations where asking for something does not have this kind of baggage. Ordering food at an eatery is asking for something you want. It shouldn't have tons of baggage associated with it. If it does make you uncomfortable, it is a low risk way to practice asking.

Another approach is to work on stating what you need instead of asking. It might help by starting that process privately, perhaps in a journal. If you can voice what your needs are privately, you may be able to get past a lot of your emotional baggage so that you can more easily discuss your needs with other people. Stating your needs feels different than asking. There is no implied burden on the listener of having to meet those needs, so it is less problematic to be able to state your needs than to try to ask.
posted by Michele in California at 1:24 PM on September 4, 2015


I agree with St. Peepsburg. This has roots back to your childhood with your mother, as you have acknowledged. This probably affects/has affected you in a few ways. First, having a parent not merely disregard your needs, but specifically solicit you to express them and intentionally denying them, is unbelievably cruel and hurtful. Sends a message to a child that not only are your needs not valuable, but you are not valuable. You internalized that your needs are a source of pain and that is the kernel that provokes the panic and anxiety feelings around this in your adult relationships. I don't know exactly the best way to get there (therapy might be a place for help), but I think you have to get to a place where you fundamentally relate to your needs, and a core feeling of self worth, in a more peaceful way. That they are not dangerous things that inevitably will hurt you, but they are extensions of you as a person; they are opportunities for others in your life to honor how beautiful and valuable you are at your core. When others overlook or neglect our needs, it naturally hurts, but it is not a reflection of our worth as people.

I'll also put this theory out there (it may completely not fit you; I bring it up just for thought provoking): Through romantic attachments as adults, many who have had some serious hurts or dysfunction in relationships with their parents, by some mechanism recreate the conditions of their childhood in an attempt to repair or surpass them. Could you have been more attracted to partners that are kindhearted but slightly aloof to your needs? (On the contrary, do you think you would be turned off by someone who displayed a high degree of attention to your needs early on?) Another possibility: Are you loving others in the manner that your mother loved you (ie your mother's actions made you feel guilty about having your own wants and needs and so now you find yourself inducing guilt in your loved ones as simply the example that you have been shown). And finally: If you did guilt trip your partner and they responded by redoubling their efforts to focus on you and learn and attend to all your needs- in a way your mother always refused to do- would that make you feel incredible? Would that seem like it would rectify the past? Because if you are really striving for that, it is something that will never happen. Only you can make sense of your past cognitively and emotionally- it will never come from without.

One last comment: Have you been diagnosed on the autism spectrum? Unless you've been told by a medical professional, I don't think you necessarily are autistic given what you have described. An absence of sexual attraction makes perfect sense for the background that you highlighted. Sex is all about needs- opening up to show someone your needs (physical, emotional) and trusting they will respect and value those needs. We are all pretty vulnerable in that context. Your psyche may be suppressing your sexuality in a kind of protection/caution mode. This can be reversed given coming to terms with your past and making therapeutic breakthroughs.

For what it is worth, my source on this: I used to date woman with, what sounds like, the exact same parental upbringing. She exhibited exactly the feelings and behaviors you described. I thought long and hard about what was going on and read quite a bit of psychology from that experience. She was a wonderful person underneath all that.
posted by incolorinred at 1:34 PM on September 4, 2015 [13 favorites]


It's really hard to ask for things - I've struggled with that too. It helps if you already have good, direct communication with the person you are asking. The asker's job is to (politely/respectfully) communicate what they want, and the askee's job is to (politely/respectfully) communicate an answer. Then, both work together to come up with a solution. It can be really hard to do, especially if the subject is fraught in the first place.

Here are some examples of good, healthy interactions, where person B asks for what they want, no one is guilt tripped, and everyone is reasonable. This kind of conversation could happen about anything, from "could you clean the _______" to "will you go with me to this event" to "it really bugs me when you ______."

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: Sure, let's do it.

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: I had pizza for lunch, is there something else you'd like to order?
B: Sure, how about ordering Thai or Chinese?

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: I had pizza for lunch, is there something else you'd like to order?
B: Not really, I want pizza! How about we go out to a restaurant where I can get pizza and you can get something else?
A: Let's do it!

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: I had pizza for lunch, is there something else you'd like to order?
B: I really want pizza. How about we go out to a restaurant where I can get pizza and you can get something else?
A: You know, I'd really rather not go out. Why don't we order pizza for you, and I'll make myself a salad and maybe have just one slice.

Here are some examples of not-so-great interactions.

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: I had pizza for lunch, is there something else you'd like to order?
B: Whatever, you decide.(But B really wants pizza, so B feels bad)

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: I had pizza for lunch, is there something else you'd like to order?
B: Not really, I want pizza! Please???
A: No. (now A feels guilty since B isn't getting pizza)

A: What do you want to do tonight?
B: I have been craving pizza, I'd like to order in. Would that work for you?
A: I had pizza for lunch, is there something else you'd like to order?
B: Not really, I want pizza! Please???
A: Fine, go ahead and order. (now A feels pressured/ bad, and B feels kind of guilty for forcing it)

It really takes two people to have a good interaction, and it can be hard, but it is possible. Each person has to trust the other to honestly assert their needs. I personally have found therapy really helpful to figure out how to do this, but ymmv. Reading about direct communication (as opposed to passive aggressive or just plain aggressive) may be helpful.
posted by insectosaurus at 1:44 PM on September 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


I think this page might be useful, since it does a good job of describing what assertive communication looks like. It also describes what less healthy styles of communication look like, so maybe that will give you some insight into the communication styles of partners you've had (though it sounds like you have a lot of awareness of this already).

There's also this page from that same site, which contains the gem, "You can’t set a boundary and take care of someone else’s feelings at the same time."

Also, sometimes when you're brought up in a dynamic like that, you don't always have a clear understanding of what your own needs are, since you're taught that having them and expressing them results in pain. So you avoid defining them. Some people who have this issue wind up picking partners who do a lot of the decision-making in the relationship, who can be so entitled that they push back when their partner finally expresses a need, even if that need is reasonable. I hope that you've explored whether that's what's going on, because I could see how this scenario might appear to the person experiencing it in the way that you framed your question.

Also, are you avoiding expressing smaller needs and only speaking up in big cases?

Also, do you truly own that you're entitled to an equal stake in these partnerships?

I agree with headnsouth's advice above to be open with people about this as you work to address it.
posted by alphanerd at 2:01 PM on September 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


Hi, I am going to give you a somewhat unconventional answer.

I actually don't recommend asking for what you need. Especially from male S.O.s. That may work really well for some people who are not me. What does work for me is describing the problem I am experiencing. For whatever reason, my boyfriend loves this approach.

It's like this: Instead of "honey could you get the mail?" I say, "Oh, I forgot that important thing was coming in the mail but I have to go to the store! Right now!"

I think this may just be a trick of human psychology but the former is far more likely to be ignored while the latter almost immediately gets a "Can I help?" Perhaps because it allows the helper to feel they have usefully and creatively solved the problem, I dunno.

The other thing to do is to say "I would like it if..." Or "I want ..." Or "I would be so happy if..."

Some people may think this is less direct but I actually think it's more direct, in a way, because it answers the "why?" of the thing they're doing in advance.
posted by quincunx at 2:25 PM on September 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


If you really want to go deeper into this question, check out nonviolent communication (nvc). NVC can help you recognize your own needs (which can be surprisingly hard to do if your needs never seem to matter), recognize other people have needs too and then communicate with the other person about all these needs in a way that is respectful and compassionate (not guilt-inducing, self-denying). I haven't gone very far into it myself but the people that I know that have invested in learning it, found it really helpful for exactly the problems you are talking about.
posted by metahawk at 4:42 PM on September 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Hi all,

Just wanted to say thank you for all the suggestions, and to respond to a few:

@quincunx: My ex would just offer to help out a lot, so I didn't have to ask for his help most of the time. We broke up in the middle of one of my anxious periods and his need for space, and all my anxiety just...came out because I was terrified of losing him. I want to try your suggestion with him if we ever get back together, or with someone else whenever that happens, as I've not gotten great results from male SOs either by just asking 'Hey, this is important to me (with explanation about stuff that happened in the past that I'm afraid of). Could I have this?'

@incolorinred: You've asked a lot of good questions...
Could you have been more attracted to partners that are kindhearted but slightly aloof to your needs? (On the contrary, do you think you would be turned off by someone who displayed a high degree of attention to your needs early on?)
Yes to both. I want to be with someone who can give me space, as I need a lot of it, and I am immediately turned off by what feels like fawning attention or worship especially early on. I've been burned by too many people who were like this, and my mother was absolutely smothering.

Are you loving others in the manner that your mother loved you?
I hope not, because her love felt awful. I've tried not to; I give a lot more space in relationships than I used to and have never used guilt intentionally, but I realized I did it a couple of times for BIG needs related to sex after we broke up.

If you did guilt trip your partner and they responded by redoubling their efforts to focus on you and learn and attend to all your needs- in a way your mother always refused to do- would that make you feel incredible? Would that seem like it would rectify the past? No, it would scare the shit out of me. The kinder and more responsive people are to my needs, the more scared I am of losing them, but that would go overboard into worship/submissive territory. Nothing against that, it's just that I want something else.

Also, yeah, I'm autistic. I mentioned it in case anyone had ASD-specific advice.
posted by oogenesis at 4:57 PM on September 4, 2015


I can be like this, and I'm attracted to people who aren't good at saying no. I've found it much more fulfilling to actually try to spend more time around people who are great at setting boundaries in a kind way.

So maybe you should actively seek out people with good boundaries, who are able to say "I'm so sorry you feel bad about this, but the answer is no" instead of trying to work things out with guys who have said that they have a lot of problems with this particular skill.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:48 PM on September 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


it apparently makes people feel guilty

Just because someone felt guilty does not mean you were guilt tripping them, or that they even have a logical reason to feel guilty. Some people feel guilty very easily. I know someone who feels guilty for cutting the tags off clothes.
posted by yohko at 11:37 PM on September 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


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