Are you good at denying your needs? Many of us deny what we need and want so other people will approve and support us. I think its fair to say that self-denial is a basic tenet of codependency.
When I was young, I tried to be a “good girl” on dates by picking the most inexpensive option on the menu instead of what I wanted to eat. I also martyred myself years later through endless chores and to-do lists instead of spending time contemplating what would bring me the most joy and growth.
So it was a revelation when my therapist asked me what my needs were many years ago. Mildly irritated at his question, I also experienced shock when I realized I didn’t know what I needed. In fact, I was angry I had needs at all. Needs! Who needed that?
In 1590, Edmund Spencer explored the tension between self-denial and self-indulgence in his epic poem The Faerie Queene. The epic’s second book and twelfth canto introduces us to Guyon-the-knight, a man who prides himself on his virtue, chastity, and temperance. When he happens upon a fairy bower brimming with beauty, art, and other nourishing treats, he wonders at the “faire aspect” of the bower “yet suffred no delight.”
Instead of accepting the faeries’ invitation to join them in their ecstasies, Guyon crashes through the fairy bower like an Elizabethan Godzilla, destroying everything in his wake. He not only denies himself the respite the bower offers him, but destroys the bower so no one else can enjoy it either. Guyon does delight, but in his own priggishness and belief in how he thinks life should be.
Delight and suffering seem to be opposites, but perhaps many of us who pride ourselves on our ability to sacrifice for the sake of others take a strange pleasure in suffering and self-abnegation. Our stories become narratives of dreams deferred, like that of Capra’s hapless George Bailey, instead of narratives resplendent with creativity and self-awareness. It could be we reject delight because experiencing our capacity to feel pleasure can also create guilt, anxiety, and even fear.
Through taking care of our physical, social, spiritual, and intellectual needs, we initiate ourselves into the state of contemplative consciousness necessary before making significant changes in our lives. And change, being what it is, can feel threatening and uncomfortable. At least suffering is a known quantity for many of us, but delight might seem suspect.
When we are on the merry-go-round of validation seeking from others through self-denial and being “good,” we focus outwardly on the deficits and needs of others instead of focusing inwardly on what our hearts delight in. And by by externalizing our feelings and thoughts instead of taking ownership for our needs, we find it easier to continue patterns of behavior that keep us stuck in unhappiness, depression, addiction, and isolation. We become either unwilling or unable to hear the wise and measured voice of intuition.
Putting our needs first and connecting with who we are settles us into the hear and now—a blissed-out state of mindful acceptance and soul listening. It becomes much harder to indulge in frustrating pursuits like fixing and controlling others when we hold a nurturing space for ourselves. How can we have compassion for others if we don’t allow ourselves to experience it? Isn’t it impossible to give something we don’t also possess?
By allowing ourselves to suffer through moments of delight, we connect our hearts to what is sacred and necessary for us, which in turn helps us gain awareness of what is sacred and necessary for others.
Again, nothing wrong with wanting to care for others! But by listening to and taking care of our own needs we develop accurate awareness and empathy for those we love and support. Showing ourselves deep self-compassion makes it possible for us to show compassion for our loved ones in a way that transcends the “problem-solving” and “fix-it” mode typical of a codependent way of thinking and being.
Researcher Dr. Kristin Neff explains the importance of paying attention to self-care and having compassion for ourselves,
“Rather than wandering around in problem-solving mode all day, thinking mainly of what you want to fix about yourself or your life, you can pause for a few moments throughout the day to marvel at what’s not broken. You.”
I like that: Be still and know that you are. And that’s enough.