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If You Care about Me, You'll Read My Mind

by Elayne Savage, Ph.D.

Expectations and Disappointments

A surefire way to plummet into overwhelming disappointment is to expect too much from relationships. We're programmed to have unrealistic expectations from movies and TV, from romance stories all promising better than wonderful experiences with better than beautiful people who can anticipate our every wish. We want someone to be always caring, always considerate, always loveable, always giving. But these romantic illusions too often leave us feeling cheated and disillusioned -- betrayed by our own ideals.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that we don't know how to ask for what we want or need. Society has shown us that people who directly state their needs get labeled as pushy or needy, so we find other methods to try to get our needs met and we usually end up disappointed. We want others to read our minds or give us a specific sign that proves they care for us, so that we don't actually have to ask for anything. We imagine how a situation will turn out or how a person will act and are disappointed when things don't go as planned. We may even find ourselves repeating these patterns of expectation and disappointment.

One woman often found herself getting annoyed at her boyfriend because he didn't tell her how much he missed her when he was traveling on business. After all, isn't that what boyfriends were supposed to do when you'd been dating for over five months? She'd find herself fantasizing about things he might say to her on the phone -- how he loved her, how he thought about her. Although he'd call "just to say hello", the conversations were brief and words she wanted so desperately to hear never passed his lips. She'd tell herself that he really didn't care about her as much as she cared about him, because if he did he would tell her.

I'm reminded of another business-trip story. Claire and Andrew were seeing quite a bit of each other even though both were still dating others. They were still finding their way in the relationship, not quite knowing what to expect from the other. When Claire had to fly across country for a week of meetings, she told Andrew where she'd be staying, hoping he'd call. Meanwhile, he wanted to call her but held back, telling himself, "If she's thinking about me she'll call me". In fact, she missed him a lot but was waiting for him to call first because that would mean he was thinking about her. It turned into a waiting game, each one thinking the other one didn't care enough to call. If only one of them realized, "Wait a minute here. I care and I'm still not letting myself call first. Just maybe he (she) cares, too."

A woman I know would get irked because her teenage daughters would never ask what they could do around the house to help out. It's not that they wouldn't help out if she asked, but she really wanted them to read her mind and say something like, "Mom, is there anything we can do in the house for you today?" Or better yet, wouldn't it be wonderful if they would just change a light bulb or scrub the shower tiles of their own volition? This would be a sign that they cared about her.

Repeating Patterns Can Get Tiresome

"We're a perfect fit -- the rocks in my head match the holes in his head." A client made this comment as she recounted how she repeatedly gravitates toward people and situations that re-create childhood experiences. It's as if there's a powerful force that draws us to the same situations again and again. And our expectations that things will be different this time are simply setting us up for disappointment.

For example, someone who tends to be dependent on others will hook up with a person who needs to take over and control situations. Someone who has learned to think of himself or herself as a victim might become involved with a victimizer, either in work or personal relationships. 

What is the attraction here? Why do we repeat old behaviors again and again? What makes us unwittingly choose situations that deal with our old issues? There are two basic reasons, and they are not mutually exclusive. Both situations can exist at the same time, in the same situations, with the same people.

First, there is a familiarity about the situation. It is comfortable because it is known, even though rationally it may not be desirable. We think we know what to expect, so we kick off our shoes and settle in -- I guess you could say it feels like home -- maybe we even get a little homesick for it when it's not around. Something that is known feels more secure that something unknown. The unknown is scary.

Secondly, we tend to repeat our past in an effort to understand it, learn something from it, and overcome it. We tend to repeat an old pattern in an effort to come to terms with it. If we do it enough times, maybe we'll finally get it right. Each time we dance the same dance, we can get better and quicker at recognizing the dynamics.

You can choose to berate yourself for circling around the same predicament or getting involved in the same old kind of relationship for the second or third time, or maybe even the fourth or fifth time. Or you can pat yourself on the back, and say, "This time it only took me four months to notice what I was doing!" If you can look at it as a challenge and ask yourself, "What did I learn from this?" you can hopefully move on.

Scratch the Surface of Complaining & You Find?

While unfulfilled expectations can be a cause of disappointment, complaining is a sign of disappointment. Have you ever found yourself feeling disappointed about what someone did or didn't do, then getting on their case about seemingly insignificant things? Complaining can take may forms: nagging, grumbling, fussing, scolding, whining. Come to think of it, all these behaviors are a way of making contact with someone, aren't they? There's a good chance you'll get a reaction from that person -- maybe a negative one, but at least it's some attention. And if you've been feeling discounted or invalidated because someone disappointed you, any attention seems important.

Let's take a closer look at the complaining. If you scratch the surface, what would be under the protective covering? The harshness of complaining often hides the softness of yearning -- a hope or expectation that didn't get met, a need that didn't get fulfilled. Perhaps something you really wanted didn't happen. One way to get results is by saying, "This is what I need from you, this is how I'd like it to be next time." If you can eliminate the hard edge of complaining to the other person, he or she probably won't get defensive in return.

Do You Expect Too Much of Others?

We often set people up to be icons. We don't want to look at the real them -- we only want to look at our "pin-up". Disappointments result from having unreasonable expectations or too much anticipation; looking for "proof" of love; or having partners who can't say "no" but can't follow through on their promises either. Disappointments also develop from one-sided "secret contracts" that are based on a presumption that the other person will cooperate in a plan that was not discussed beforehand. And there certainly can be disappointments from misinterpretations or miscommunications.

Disappointments are related to needs -- needs that exist but don't get verbalized. Growing up we may have been told that our needs didn't count or we were selfish if we needed something. As a result, we never learned to put words to our needs. Instead we'd just cross our fingers and hope beyond hope that someone would read our minds. Most likely they didn't or they couldn't or they wouldn't, and we'd get disappointed. And we were slow learners, too -- we'd just keep crossing those fingers and keep getting disappointed.

Needs versus Neediness

Needs are a fact of life, whether we acknowledge them or not. The truth is, we all have them -- and it really is okay. The trouble is, many of us grew up not knowing this, and if we tried to express a want or need, we might have been told something like, "You're selfish" or "You're more trouble than you're worth." When I heard things like that, I'd tell myself I was too worthless to have any needs. Not only did my needs not count, but I managed to discount myself as well.

You may have been too busy during childhood taking care of everybody else, and there was no time for your own needs. Maybe you were the parentified child, the responsible one. You may have felt needed by others, but often didn't get what you needed from them. Perhaps you got the message that there was no space in your family to have needs. Maybe you were made to feel ashamed if you had needs, and now you're afraid you'll be ridiculed for having them. Somehow having needs was labeled bad or shameful, and got relegated to existing in an underground manner, with ploys and manipulations. If you couldn't put words to the need, there could be little clarity about it, creating a kind of desperateness about getting it met.

There was a big hole there that just wasn't getting filled. You felt needy, and that wasn't a good feeling, so you began to confuse having needs with neediness. How could you find words for something you weren't even supposed to have? How could you even begin to define your needs? And if you didn't have words for them, how could you ask for what you needed? You probably never learned how. "I don't remember anyone ever hugging me when I was a little girl," one woman recalls. "Sometimes I really want a hug from my boyfriend, but I don't know how to ask."

What do I want? What do I need?

So if you're one of the people who tends to say "I don't know" if someone asks you what you might need, what can you do about it? It's true that sometimes it is hard to be specific. You may only have a vague idea of what will make you feel better -- perhaps some kind of psychological chicken soup. But the more undefined the hole is, the harder it is to fill. It's pretty hard to let someone else in on your needs if you don't know them yourself. How could you know when the need is filled if you don't know what you're filling?

 "When you know what you want, 
    you'll know when you've found it." 
                -- Steve Bhaerman and Don McMillan

I give my clients the following questions to ask themselves each day upon awakening. For many, this is very difficult at first:

  • "What would make me feel good today?"
  • "What do I want? What do I need?"
  • "From whom?" (Yourself? Someone else?)
  • "In what way? What form would it take?"

You might also ask yourself how you would know your want or need is met. Defining these needs, putting words to them, may be a brand new experience for you because no one gave you permission to do it before. Don't be surprised if you struggle with it at first. Try to have patience and keep practicing. Doing this exercise regularly could change your perspective on life. Practice checking in with yourself throughout the day about how you feel and what would make you feel better. You will develop a more defined sense of yourself -- and new respect for both yourself and your needs.

Now that you are beginning to recognize your own wants and needs, how do you go about communicating them to another person? Here are some possible ways to phrase your request:

     Sometimes I find myself hinting around about something I want or need from you. I'd like to just tell you directly I need for you to _____________

     I have a request to make of you. It's important to me that you ____________  

Hearing yourself speak your needs out loud works wonders. Be aware that it's often much easier to say what you don't want from someone than what you do want. Negatives always seem to be on the tips of our tongues, don't they? For example, it's easier to say, "I don't want you to keep reading the paper when I'm talking about a problem." Instead, emphasize what you do want: "I would really like to make eye contact with you when we talk. Could you please put the paper down while we're speaking?"

You can practice doing this by standing in front of a mirror, making eye contact with yourself, and saying the words out loud. Start out with small, inconsequential requests; they can be real or hypothetical. Just listen to the sound of those words coming out of your mouth. You can practice with a therapist. If you can corral a friend or partner for a practice session it's even better. By practicing with someone else, you get the added bonus of hearing a "yes" or "no". You can take turns, too. Have the other person ask, and you can practice accepting or declining.

How many times have you cringed when somebody said to you, "Go ahead and take a chance. What have you got to lose?" And you say to yourself, "Take a chance on what? Possible rejection? Embarrassing myself? Feeling stupid for asking at a bad time?" All those old fears start bubbling up, don't they?

So what to do about it? To tell the truth, learning to ask for what I want or need has been a bumpy ride for me. I've plugged away for years on this challenge gaining ground to be sure, but all too slowly. I must have been ready to turn the proverbial corner the day I heard motivational speaker and author Patricia Fripp point out, "The answer will always be 'no' if you don't ask." Wow. I got it. And what a difference that motto has made to me. Asking for something takes on a whole new coloration now. I made a choice to no longer set up a situation where the answer would always be 'no'. I could see I was cutting off all my options by not asking. Now it's as if an internal dialogue takes place, and the feisty part of myself counters with, "I'll show you that I won't take 'no' for an answer without asking first."

"The answer will always be no
  if you don't ask." 
                           -- Patricia Fripp

Getting What You Need

Identifying needs and asking for what you need are only part of the picture. What if your attempts at asking are successful and someone actually offers you warm, loving, comforting gestures -- can you accept them? Can you take them in? Can you trust they are real? Or do you tell yourself that in spite of getting up your courage and asking for what you want or need, that if the truth be known, you "don't deserve it" or "they must have an ulterior motive" or "they'll only take it away again".

Suppose however, you could let yourself just say, "Thank you." I'm talking about the same "thank you" I suggested earlier in the book when someone gives you a compliment. You may find with a little practice at accepting yourself, you can choose to take in compliments and caring gestures. The key is letting yourself make that choice.

About The Author

Elayne Savage holds a Ph.D. in family psychology and draws on 25 years of clinical experience in her work with individuals, couples, and families in her private practice in Berkeley, California. A frequent media guest, she lectures at several colleges and conducts seminars in the San Francisco Bay area. This article was excerpted with permission from her book Don't Take It Personally, published by New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA 94609.

This article excerpted from:

"Don't Take It Personally -
The Art of Dealing with Rejection" by Elayne Savage, Ph.D.

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Last updated: 07/11/09

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