Why you have trouble recognising and expressing your needs

Are your needs being neglected?

I so often see women losing sight of their own needs. Some of the versions I’ve witnessed:

  • You clearly know your needs, but you prioritise them last
    “I can handle it for the sake of others”

  • You clearly know your needs, but you feel uncomfortable expressing them
    “I don’t want to be difficult”

  • You’re a bit fuzzy on your needs, as you’re happy to go along with what suits others
    “I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”

  • What needs? I get to have needs?
    “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it”

Needs? What needs?

Although this is far from an exhaustive list, your needs may include: Rest, recovery, time alone, time at home, sleep, setting boundaries, saying No, food, movement, social connection, fun, time with family, being treated more respectfully, expressing your emotions, recognition, help, being listened to, autonomy to make your own decisions, time pursuing a pastime or passion… I could keep going. It is completely normal and human to have many needs all day every day.

Examples: What it looks like to struggle with expressing your needs 

Any of this familiar?…

  • You’ve just said yes to volunteering at the kids’ school for the fifth time in a row and no one else seems to take a turn

  • You’ve worked a full week and come home to doing the majority of the household chores - even though there’s others living in your home

  • You’re out to dinner with a group and everyone is ordering shared plates you don’t like and you don’t say anything, and it’s happened often

  • You usually let your partner choose the social events, holidays, restaurants, TV shows, and pretty much the big and small decisions in your relationship

  • You feel guilty saying No, so it’s just easier to say Yes even if it means often doing things you don’t want to do or don’t have the energy for

Why am I like this?

People pleasing

From a young age, girls are taught to please others. We’re taught not to make waves by questioning authority, speaking up, arguing a point, or being too loud or too much. Instead we are commended for being nice, deferring to others, completing acts of service, and for looking attractive. This positive feedback and attention means we are more likely to do these things over and over, and feel uncomfortable about disrupting the status quo. We can become really fuzzy on what our needs are as we’re so used to deferring to others. Or we might recognise our own needs but not express them as we don’t want to inconvenience anyone else. We are told explicitly and implicitly that good girls care for others and make others happy. But what happens to us in all this people pleasing? Do we get lost and forgotten?

Instead of seeing self-care as indulgent, we should be recognising how empowering it is. It says, I am as important as others. Self-care can then be seen as a feminist act.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde

Your needs were rarely met as a child

We ALL have needs, and it’s normal for children to have a lot more needs than adults. If your caregivers were regularly unwilling or unable to meet your needs as a child, it leaves a lasting impression. Perhaps the adults in your life had their own significant needs due to mental or physical health challenges, and were unable to recognise and fulfil yours? Maybe you were predominantly told to “put up and shut up”, or teased or shamed when you expressed negative emotions? Maybe when you expressed your needs it resulted in a huge drama? Perhaps the environment or your family situation meant that there was little time and emotional resources to attend to young you? If most often expressing your needs was met with an inconsistent response, or a rejection, then you may have learned that expressing your needs feels painful or unsafe and it’s better to ignore them.

*Note: I’m not talking about our requests for toys or fun parks not being met! (Those are wants). This is about needs like reassurance, comfort, love, engagement, interest.

You were taught that individual needs are selfish

If you learned via family, role models, schooling, or religion that you should always prioritise the needs of others and sacrifice your own, then it’s completely understandable you feel uneasy, guilty or even ashamed of meeting your own needs now. Whilst kindness and care requires recognising and valuing others’ needs, it’s not a black and white, all or nothing, scenario. In order to be of service to others we need to care for ourselves - the wisdom “fill your own cup first” is relevant here. Just like in airplane emergency instructions where parents are advised to fit their own oxygen mask first prior to attending to their child, it’s not selfish, it’s just darn practical. We are so much more use to others (and so much less trouble too!) if we respect and take care of our own needs. It does not mean that we suddenly ignore the needs of others, it just recognises that our needs are just as important as everyone else’s.

You don’t think you deserve it

You are unlikely to value your own needs if you have low self-worth. If you think you’re less than others, then you may feel you are unworthy of having your needs recognised and met. Some people have trouble caring for themselves as they believe they don’t deserve care.

What are the benefits of learning to recognise, express, and fulfil our needs?

  • It improves our physical, emotional, and mental health

  • We become more ourselves, live more in line with our values, instead of living through others

  • We get our needs met! (Might seem obvious, but wait til you feel what that’s like!)

  • We are less exhausted, less stressed, and have more energy to give to others

  • We improve our relationships via maintaining healthy boundaries

  • We role model this for other women and especially for the young girls in our lives

  • We help to change the culture around women as people pleasers

How do we do it? It takes time to learn to recognise, express, and fulfil our own needs. Awareness is a first important step. Reflect on which of your needs might not be getting met, what situations you defer to others, who in your life is a good role model for self-care, and even take a small step by taking time this week to fulfil one of your needs that’s been neglected. It also takes some work acknowledging we are worthy of self-care.

You may find working with a counsellor helpful - even booking an appointment for yourself is a wonderful first step in caring for your own needs!

If you would like to explore this more, I’d love to work with you.


by Jodie Arnot

Jodie is a registered counsellor with a Masters in Counselling from Monash University. She provides counselling via telephone, Skype, and in person, and is passionate about helping women to improve their relationship with themselves to live a life they adore.


Self-care, Self-worthJodie Arnot