The truth is, not many women can name what they need emotionally from the people they love. Think about it. When was the last time someone asked you “what do you need?” Does your partner, boyfriend, husband, mother, daughter, son, friends, colleagues ask you what you need regularly, or is this question never spoken in your family or at work? And if you ask yourself this question, did you know the answer? Do you know what you need emotionally? Do you feel comfortable claiming your emotional needs? And do you trust that people will listen to you, and honor what you need from them?
When I ask my clients this question, many look at me as if I’m speaking a foreign language. They have no problem telling me what their family members, friends, and colleagues need from them. But when it comes to talking about what they need, so that they feel heard, understood, cared for, supported, visible, encouraged, and important, many women struggle to know what they need. And what isn’t spoken about enough within the Women’s Movement and counseling world, is that this simple question – what do you need? – is at the heart of understanding women’s experience with sexism and gender inequality.
The question – what do you need? – is central to understanding how a woman thinks about herself and understanding her mother-daughter history. When we understand how a woman’s mother and grandmother have learned to keep quiet, to put other people’s needs before her own, to see herself as a listener rather than a speaker, and a caregiver rather than a care receiver we see the generational patterns of selflessness, emotional neglect, and invisibility that are passed down the generations. Women today have inherited the sexist belief system I call “The Culture of Female Service” that silenced their mother’s voice and treated their mother as the family caregiver. I write about how this belief system denies women and mothers the right to be a person with needs of their own in “The Mother-Daughter Puzzle”. And this belief system is alive-and-well today in many families.
In my family, my mother and grandmother viewed themselves as caregiving mothers. They didn’t recognize that they had an identity outside of their caregiving role. And I was expected to step into my mother’s shoes and walk the same path that she did, which involved never asking myself what I need and focusing my attention on meeting everyone else’s needs.
It is in my private practice that I see the harm that this generations-old sexist belief system inflicts on women. I see how it causes women to become depressed, anxious, and suffer from an eating disorder. I see how it sets women up to tolerate and normalize relationships and workplaces in which they are silenced, dismissed, or even abused. And I see how it causes mother-daughter relationship conflict as mothers and daughters fight over whose needs get to be met in their relationship.
The silencing of women’s feelings and needs is women’s Silent Female Scream. I write in “The Silent Female Scream” that –
“I hear a silent female scream anywhere where females have silenced themselves out
of fear. Fear of not being heard, of being criticized or ridiculed. Fear of invoking anger
or disagreement they fear they cannot stand up against, fear of loss of rights,
promotion, services, livelihood, or even life. The silent female scream is present
anytime a female is trying speak her truth but isn’t heard, and then learns to believe
that her words don’t matter anyhow. The silent female scream is present when a
female’s needs and feelings are not respected and instead are turned around as if it
is her failing or her fault”.
After generations of sexism that has silenced our mother’s and grandmother’s feelings and needs, women today no longer know what they need. The conversation that asks – what do you need? – has been thoroughly silenced. And in its place, women have learned to meet their own needs by focusing on what other people need.
Women have forgotten that they are not caregiving machines. And our mothers could not teach us how to see ourselves as a person in our own right with needs of our own. But we must awaken the question – what do you need? – because it is essential for women’s emotional and mental well-being, for women’s equality and visibility in their relationships, families, and workplaces, and for strong, emotionally connected mother-daughter relationships.
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com