Respecting Our Own Needs AND the Needs of Others

We all have needs. I think we can agree on that. In NVC – Non-Violent Communication – we learn how to be aware of what our needs are and we also learn to be aware of all the feelings we have as a result of our needs. In studying Emotional Intelligence, we also strive to have greater self-awareness and to express our feelings and needs and wants in ways that are fair for ourselves as well as for others. In learning sound conflict resolution methods, we also learn the difference between needs and wants.

One of the most wonderful aspects of NVC – Non-Violent Communication – is that we say that we want everyone to get their needs met. We want to get our needs met, but not at the expense of anyone else’s needs. And, we expect and hope for the same strategy from others, though we realistically know that there are people in the world who, for various reasons, only care about their own needs and even get those met at the expense of others’ needs.

NVC TOOLS For Men and Women:
Please click on the letters “NVC” (below) to learn more about how NVC can help us all:


View more presentations from UCSC.

NVC Feelings List:

NVC Needs List:

A very simple example of this is here:

Imagine there is a disaster and two people are trapped in an elevator. They’ve been told they will not be rescued for 3 days. One of them has a fresh meal he just got from a nearby deli as well as a bottle of water. The other person has no food or drink on him. What are some possible outcomes?

One outcome is that the person who has the water and food says he will share it with the other person.
Another outcome is that the person with the water and food says he doesn’t care about the other guy’s needs and he eats all the food and drinks all the water himself.
Another outcome is that the person without food negotiates or trades with the other person to get some of the food.
Another outcome is they fight each other for all of the food.
Another outcome is they agree to flip a coin to see who gets all of the food or which parts of the food.

There are probably many other possible outcomes to this situation.

The bottom line is that we all have needs – and there are many ways to get them met and many ways in which we respond to our own and others’ needs.

I had a great party to celebrate my non-fiction book contract with McGraw Hill. Many of my closest friends were there. It was a wonderful night. One of my closest friends, Vicki, was unable to attend because she had an emergency – a flood in her apartment. She kept saying how sorry she was that she was missing my book party because she knows how important this book is to me. She also sent a beautiful Edible Arrangements fruit basket that was also delicious. When we emailed each other the next day, she was still apologizing to me that she couldn’t go. I told her that I completely understood her need to be home and attend to her flood. I knew she was there in spirit, and it was okay.

I would not want anyone I care about or love to deny their own crucial need to meet my own less crucial need or want. We must respect each others’ needs.

A few years ago, my sister scheduled her wedding for a date during a time period when she knew I would still be recovering from a major surgery I was planning to have during that time. The surgery required a 2-month healing process and had been planned for a day as of yet to be determined within the first two weeks of January. It was planned and approved by my two bosses, with my surgeon, with my parents who agreed to care for me during the post-operative period, and also with a federal judge, who was presiding over a federal medicaid fraud trial in which I was the whistleblower and main witness; there would be a subpoena for me to be present at the entire trial. The judge had been changing the trial date every few months based on requests from both sides in the case for about two years at that point, so I had to let him know through my lawyers that there would be a two-month period during which I would be unable to attend a trial.

I would up changing my surgery date when my sister set her wedding date as I was Maid of Honor, and I didn’t want to miss her wedding. Because I changed my surgery date, that meant I was now free for my 40th birthday and could plan a trip with my then-boyfriend. We planned a trip to Mexico. I had to squeeze this trip into a very crowded schedule, in between required work trainings, legal obligations having to do with the federal lawsuit, many doctors’ appointments, and work events. My trip was set! I was excited about my upcoming surgery and hoped it would solve a chronic health problem, I was excited about my 40th birthday trip, and I was excited about my sister’s wedding.

Then, my mother scheduled my sister’s bridal shower for the day after my 40th birthday and told me that they would be using my birthday as the excuse to get her to the restaurant and surprise her. I said it was fine with me if they used that excuse to get here there, but that I would not be able to attend, as I would be in Mexico.

Instead of understanding my need to make the many obligations in my very busy life work and work well – my mother went ballistic. She could have said what her feelings were about the fact that I couldn’t go, realized that she had forgotten to check with me to see if i was available, and just accepted the situation. But that is not what she did.

She yelled at me and told me I was a bad sister and a bad Maid of Honor. She told me I was selfish and self-centered. She yelled at me and hung up on me. Before she hung up on me, I very consciously used my calmest voice and reminded her that she knew my life was very complicated and that she had not checked with me.

Each time I tried to reason with her, she had an even larger emotional response. She could only focus on her own needs and she refused to consider that I also had needs. She also was so overwhelmed by her own needs that she frankly didn’t care about my needs.

I would say, “Mom, you didn’t check with me; how can you be angry at me that I’m not available’. And her response would be “But I thought you’d be there”. Or, her response would be, “But I thought you were happy for your sister”. I was happy for my sister, but that didn’t mean I did not also have my own needs and a very complicated life.

What she was really saying was that she thought I would be there NO MATTER WHAT. Meaning, no matter what else I had scheduled in my own life AND NO MATTER WHAT MY NEEDS WERE.

She of course denied that she meant those things, but that is what she meant. Her actions and words proved it.

I would say, “Why are you angry with me? You can be angry at yourself for not remembering to check with me and you can be angry at the situation, but it is not reasonable for you to be angry at me”. She knew she was angry, but she was unable to examine her anger and understand who or what she was angry at. Many times it’s easier for someone to be angry with someone else than with themselves. That was certainly the case in this situation.

There is yet another layer to this. My mother would insist that she was not angry at all. She was so unaware of her feelings that she refused to acknowledge that she was even angry even though she yelled and screamed at me on the phone, told me I was selfish, slammed the phone down several times on me when I tried to discuss this with her, and then proceeded to not invite me to one family holiday or gathering for 3 years straight (as of today). She and my sisters and my father also stopped telling me family news such as when my sisters became pregnant, when they had babies, when my aunt was diagnosed with terminal cancer, when my cousin was in a nearby off-broadway show, and various other things.

They also chose to ignore events in my life – such as when I became very ill and was hospitalized and home from work for six weeks, when I got my first book contract with a major publisher, when I had very difficult work stress, when I slipped at work and broke my elbow, when I met my new boyfriend, and my entire second whistleblower lawsuit which was a dramatic four weeks in court. This, apparently, is their idea of “punishment” for my inability to attend a bridal shower. They actually believe that I deserve to be cut out of the family for having had my own needs and for having missed a bridal shower.

I would say, “Please explain to me why you remain angry about this”. And at one point she said “It’s a generational thing”. Meaning, that people of her generation believed that I should be willing and able to cancel anything I already had planned or needed to do in my life so that I could attend a bridal shower that nobody checked my availability for.

I said, “Don’t I get any credit for having moved my major surgery so my recovery would not interfere with the wedding date? Isn’t that the important day? I’m going to miss a bridal shower. A bridal shower. This is not a tragedy. Terminal illness is a tragedy. People killed by drunk drivers are tragedies. World hunger and starvation are tragedies. Missing a bridal shower is not a tragedy”. My mother said, “I just thought you would be there”. She was unable to get past this thought and feeling. She was unable to allow new information into her mind. She was stuck like a needle in the scratch of a record. She was unable to feel anything else besides anger and disappointment (which she wrongly displaced onto me instead of placing on herself) because she was unable to allow new information into her mind. She was unable to feel anything else because she was unable to be concerned with my needs and was only able to be concerned with her needs.

The word “able” in the two sentences above is one I am not completely comfortable using. Should the word be “willing” instead? I will not say I know for sure. Was my mother unable or unwilling to think and feel anything else? What do you think?

She also wrote to one of my best friends who is a licensed clinical social worker and insisted to me that this friend told me what she wrote to her. However, this friend did not tell me what she wrote to her, except for one sentence. My friend told me that my mother wrote to her and said “I am a good mother”. This was very telling. Apparently, my mother believed that my inability to attend the bridal shower somehow reflected on her goodness as a mother – OR – that she believed that she was such a good mother that I somehow “owed” her this because she wanted it. It’s hard to know, because my mother is unwilling to discuss any of it.

Sometimes in families, the group dynamics are such that someone is scapegoated as a way for the family system to respond to and deal with stress. This is what happened here. My father and other sister both insisted to me that I had to change my vacation. They wanted to know if I had purchased my tickets yet. They wanted to know why I couldn’t just reschedule it. The answer was no; I had an impossibly full schedule – the only other time I could go was the date of the wedding itself. As it turned out, I slipped at work and broke my elbow two days before I was supposed to leave for my birthday trip. I wound up working from home for three weeks because it was very icy and slippery outside and I could not slip again.

My father angrily asked me “If you didn’t go on your trip, why couldn’t you go to the bridal shower?’ He wasn’t really asking me the question which his words asked; he was really saying “I’m still angry at you that you didn’t attend the bridal shower and I think you could have because you didn’t go to Mexico!” When I told him I was under doctor’s orders to not go out on the ice because I could not slip again, he very quietly said, “oh”.

Again, he and they had no regard for my needs. They only knew that they wanted me at the bridal shower and that was it. That was the only acceptable outcome for them. My father also angrily told me that I should tell the judge to “shove it”. Nice. I told him that people do not tell federal judges to “shove it” unless they want serious consequences. I explained to him that I had a legal obligation. My father insisted that my family obligation came first above anything else.

Again, this is a very interesting layer to this whole conflict and to the subject of Needs. My father – and my mother and two sisters – actually believed they had a right to determine for me what my priorities were, which needs were more important than others in my life, and – in essence – to impose their will upon me, regardless of my needs, wants, obligations, health, job, lawsuit, etc.

This is an extreme form of unhealthy control – and their response with cutting me out of the picture as my “consequences” and “punishment” is very telling. Do these people love me? They probably think they do. Do they understand what healthy love is? No. Do they love in a healthy manner? No. What they did is what Susan Forward describes in her books Emotional Blackmail and Toxic Parents..

When I told my father that his response was emotionally unhealthy, instead of wanting to learn what that meant or learn how to have healthier emotional responses to the situation or to learn how I was being hurt in the situation, he angrily said “Then, I’m emotionally unhealthy!” He dug his feet into the ground and would not budge.

When I mailed my mother and sister Virginia Satir’s wonderful book, Peoplemaking, they refused to read it. Virginia Satir’s books are amazing tools for healthy parenting and improving families. I also sent my two sisters and my parents a very good small book on Catholic Conflict Resolution, which they all refused to read. They are not “unable” to read; they were UNWILLING to read these. They were unwilling to read, they were unwilling to learn, and they were unwilling to resolve the conflict.

When someone does not want to resolve a conflict, there is a tragedy and there is not much you can do about it. This was extremely disturbing to me. I even wrote to the pastor of their catholic church in Hicksville, NY, Father Mannion at Holy Family Church, and implored him to speak to my family, since I believed they would listen to him. He never responded to my letters or my phone calls even though I mailed him a detailed description of the conflict and a copy of the catholic conflict resolution book. His bio on the archdiocese homepage says he has a graduate degree in social work and that his goal at Holy Family is to bring people together. As far as I’m concerned, he is a failure as a priest, as a professional and as someone who claims to have a social work degree. He had an opportunity to mediate a severe conflict and he chose to do absolutely nothing.

The scapegoating took the form of projecting all of the anxiety and tension about planning a large wedding in 4 months (which is going to be stressful) onto me. All of the frustration and anger was pointed at me. Because I could not attend a bridal shower that nobody asked me if I was available for when they knew my schedule was extremely demanding and complicated.

Again, I reminded them that I had a very complicated schedule, that I had already moved my surgery for the wedding date, that I had work obligations, that I had legal obligations, and that I had obligations to myself that related to my own health.

Instead of hearing this and understanding it, they became angrier. They echoed my mother’s angry judgments of me that I was selfish, self-centered, a bad sister, and a bad Maid of Honor. They also embellished these with pronouncements that I was jealous and that I was trying to sabotage my sister’s wedding. My sisters even went so far as to say that my surgery was never actually scheduled for a date, therefore I did not move it. It didn’t matter that I pointed out to them that no surgery is scheduled four months in advance but that it was as planned as it could be with everyone in my life who mattered and depended on me: my two bosses, my parents who agreed to care for me afterwards, my surgeon, my surgeon’s office, the hospital, my then-boyfriend, and the federal judge and my many lawyers. However, this did not matter to them because they were too angry to see straight, to allow information to affect their feelings, or to acknowledge that they were insisting that their own needs were the most important thing in this conflict and that my needs were not important at all. My mother referred to my surgery as “facial surgery” as though it was some needless cosmetic procedure when in fact it was a necessary surgery that was hoped to cure my severe sleep apnea, which is a very serious condition which I’ve had for decades and which worsens over time.

My mother said “this is an elective procedure”. I reminded her that I had very stressful work situation and needed to do this NOW for my health and because I was not sure how much longer I would have this job and this health insurance. She didn’t care so much about that. She and they kept looking for arguments that would somehow prove their position that I should be at this bridal shower no matter what – regardless of what my needs were. None of them heard my needs. None of them seemed interested in my needs at all. If you have ever been in this position, you know how very painful it is to realize that people who are your family, to whom you have given greatly, do not care one iota about your needs; you exist for them in this situation only to fulfill their needs and nothing else matters to them. It is extremely painful and disturbing.

I reminded them that I had been minding my own business when these bridal shower plans were made by people other than me. I had been simply living my life, planning a surgery around a busy work schedule a federal trial. None of this mattered to them. When I asked my mother why my recovery time had not been worked around, she said it was because the groom wanted to be married as soon as possible.

Again, this is another very odd prioritization. In a healthier family, a statement would have been made by my sister or my mother that Denise was recovering during this period and so the wedding should be after that. In a healthier family, there would be scapgegoating. In a healthier family, it would not be an issue at all that I could not attend a bridal shower. There would be no “consequences” or cutting off. But there was here.

Why? Because they were completely focused on their needs and had zero regard for my needs. Why does this happen? How can this possibly happen? How can people who are family members and claim they love each other refuse to acknowledge and respect another’s needs?

Clearly, there was a conflict and a disagreement about what was a need and what wasn’t. When do people – family or not – believe they are entitled to define for someone else what their needs are and how serious those needs are? When do people believe they are entitled to tell someone else their own needs are more important than that other person’s needs are?

What happens when, as in family situations, many people gang up on one person and all agree that the one person’s needs do not matter, are not real, or do are not as important as the needs of the group?

Why do people try to control each other in these ways? There is nothing healthy about this. This is most certainly about power and control. Though, it is also very much about gender issues in the current US. Specifically, it is about gender issues within a specific culture that still exists on Long Island, NY and probably in other parts of the US. It is actually very similar to the control and abuse of power one finds in destructive cults. Healthy families do not respond to a family member in this way, but destructive cults do.

If I had been a man and had the same issue, it probably would not have erupted into the intense conflict that it became. Men are not really expected to attend bridal showers. If I had been married and my husband and I had already planned a trip somewhere or my husband had surgery planned and I had to care for him, I’m guessing that this intense conflict would not have erupted. It would have been acceptable for me to have to need to care for my husband. But it was not acceptable for me to have to care for myself – for my own need to take a vacation before my vacation time would expire at work and during a time when I could fit it into a very complicated schedule.

If I had a child and could not attend because my child was sick or had some other obligation, that need would have been accepted and respected.

But, I am a single woman with no children and my own personal needs were not considered important enough to count for anything. I was expected to change my plans again, even though I had already changed them.

Another piece of this is cultural – a very antiquated and no longer healthy or useful mindset that the most important thing is the bride during the time preceding the wedding planning. Nothing else matters; the idea is that anything related to this upcoming wedding and this bride’s desires trumps anything else – including – apparently – major surgery and federal lawsuits.

We see this all over the world as the root cause of conflicts large and small. Whether the conflict is over food, water, healthcare, equal rights, voting rights, race, ethnicity, color, religion, land, land use rights, what is considered acceptable or unacceptable – etc. – we see cultural issues and issues of identity intensifying conflicts in several ways:

1. When people confuse their wants with their needs. Nobody was going to die if I didn’t attend the bridal shower. It was a want; not a need. But it was reacted to as though it was a need. It was reacted to as though a tragedy would occur if I didn’t attend the bridal shower, i.e. if I didn’t do what they wanted me to do and essentially insisted that I do. The result was that I was severely punished by this group, who happens to be my family. There was an intense scapegoating operation that included essentially very consciously cutting me off from communication and inclusion in family events. We see this same dynamic played out in cultural issues in the US and in other countries; divisions between the Catholics and Protestants with the punishment for non-compliance being violence and even death. We see Tibetan Monks arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Chinese government for defying discriminatory rules against their right to practice their religion in certain parts of China. We see women beat by the Taliban if they try to meet their own needs for education, having careers, educating their daughters, or not covering themselves up from head to toe.

2. When people identify their core selves with what they consider to be their needs, even if their needs are NOT needs and are merely wants. All of the examples above can be used here as well. The Taliban do not NEED for women to have no rights; they just prefer it that way. No Taliban men will die if women suddenly begin going to school, having careers, not covering up from head to toe, or start voting. They may be uncomfortable and it may not be what they prefer, but it is not a need.
The very flawed thinking is “I am a man; she is a woman. This is intolerable to me. I have a right to now beat her”.

Similarly, if the catholics and protestants wind up marching in each other’s territory, nobody will die from that alone. What they die from is the violence that ensues because someone there becomes so enraged that someone else is doing something that he doesn’t like or approve of or prefer, that he feels he has the right to kill them. The very flawed thinking here is “I am Protestant. That catholic is marching in my street. This is intolerable to me, so I have a right to shoot him.”

Similarly, my family members thought “A good sister goes to her sister’s bridal shower no matter what. It doesn’t matter if she already moved her surgery. It doesn’t matter if he life is complicated with a federal lawsuit and a demanding job and health problems. She needs to do what we want her to do and if she doesn’t, we’re going to punish her by not speaking to her, not including her in anything, not sending her photos of the kids, and not inviting her to holidays. We have a right to deny her needs and to determine that our needs are more important than hers. Plus, she is outnumbered.”

These are all examples of very flawed thinking. Whenever we think our own needs are more important than someone else’s and we have a right to tell someone else what to do or not do or to somehow control someone’s choices, we need to examine whether or not we are being fair and reasonable. We need to stop and remind ourselves that we cannot know someone else’s needs and priorities. We can only guess.

Do you really think your needs are more important than someone else’s? Do you really understand the difference between needs and wants? Do you understand how your definition of yourself affects how intensely you respond to a conflict and determine whether something is a need or a want?

I encourage you to keep these questions fresh in your mind when conflicts with others inevitably emerge so that you do not make the very grave mistake of over-reacting due to confusing needs and wants or wrongly thinking that your needs have a right to be met at the expense of someone else’s.

This takes further introspection and awareness and touches all of our interpersonal interactions – at work, dating, in relationships, with family members, with groups of friends or activity groups, in worship or congregational situations, and with children.

We are capable of fine-tuning our internal self-awareness to measure our current feelings so we can accurately assess our current needs and determine where our needs fall on the urgency or importance scale as compared to the needs of those around us. We can calculate this in a split second as we become more and more skilled.

This is a skill to develop; we can become aware of this skill, learn it, practice it, catch ourselves, improve, stop ourselves before we complete errors, and generally decide to do better. As a result, all of our relationships will improve. Stretching ourselves in this way improves our interpersonal interactions and thus the quality of our relationships.

Stress and discomfort between people often emerges due to misunderstandings about perceived conflicts or actual conflicting needs. Either way, we can stop, check in with ourselves, see and assess our current feelings and needs and then proceed in the way that is best for all involved, whenever possible.

As for the wedding, I wound up not attending it at all. Since I broke my elbow and had to move my trip, that was the only time I could go within my extremely busy schedule. Before I had been treated this way by my family, I would have considered my attendance at my sister’s wedding to be more important than losing two weeks of vacation time because it was about to expire. However, since I had been treated this way by my family, I decided that I was not going to reward their behavior, I was not going to deny myself anything for people who had zero regard for my medical, legal, and professional needs, and I was not going to be physically near them until they somehow got healthier.

It has been painful, but sometimes we have to protect ourselves from very unhealthy family members by keeping a distance. Luckily, I have always had amazingly healthy and wonderful friends. It is possible to create your own family out of healthy people to whom you are not blood-related. And, often it is the best thing you can do for yourself.

During this time, I have had important support for coping with the pain of an unloving and very unhealthy family. I have also accomplished a great deal during this time; I have written two and a half books, got my first non-fiction book contract with a major publisher, outlined eight more books, invested money wisely, nearly completed mediation certification training, and did complete Emotional Intelligence Testing and Training.

I am open to having healthy relationships with my family, however they must be healthier than what they’ve been before, because I will not expose myself to the previous abusive treatment I’ve received from them. It is not worth it. I have a need to be valued and respected and to have my needs valued and respected. People who think they have a right to overrule my needs, control my choices, deliver extremely unhealthy “consequences” when I make choices they don’t want me to make, or who otherwise disregard my needs are not people I am emotionally, physically, or psychologically safe with, just as I – or anyone – would be unsafe in those same ways in a destructive cult or in an abusive relationship. All of these are examples of abuse of power and control.

If there was room here, I would post the power and control wheel and explain how all of my family’s behavior can be found on that wheel. It is extremely important to break free of groups, families, and “lovers” who wish to control you in any way. Control is abuse and can take many forms. There is very little difference between a family who does this, an abusive boyfriend or husband who hits you if you don’t do what he wants or the way he wants it, and a destructive cult group, which will try to control your Behavior, Intelligence, Thoughts, and Emotions (BITE). This is the hallmark of an abusive situation whether it’s with a group, a family, or in a relationship.

It can be control of money, control of time, control of food, control of friendships, control of your choices, control of your needs, or definition and control of your priorities, etc. Knowing your needs is an extremely important skill to develop.

Do not allow anyone or any group to control your needs or determine what your needs are. Surround yourself with people who understand, know, value, and support you. If someone loves you, they will not punish you for not attending a bridal shower; they will understand you have needs and they will want you to meet your needs and they will respect you enough to value the choices you need to make for yourself. Understanding needs and understanding the importance of respecting needs is to understand love.

Understanding and valuing our own needs helps us know and love ourselves, which is crucial. Understanding and valuing the needs of others is how we love others.

When we want everyone to get their needs met – but not at the expense of anyone’s needs, this is healthy love and healthy relating. In essence, this is heaven on earth.

Please feel free to share your own stories of family scapegoating, unloving families, destructive cults, and abusive relationships with me. Please feel free to share with me how learning about EQ or NVC has helped you make wiser choices in terms of who you will share yourself, your time, your body, your mind, you emotions, your life with.


About Denise A Romano

Denise A Romano is the author of The HR Toolkit: An Indispensable Resource for Being a Credible Activist, published by McGraw Hill in 2010. She is a workplace expert and has a strong interest in government, business, workplace, and personal ethics. She can be found on LinkedIn. View all posts by Denise A Romano

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