In my work as a DEI practitioner, I feel like the question, “What do you need?” comes up a lot, both amongst me and my teammates and with the people who we partner with every day. We focus on relationship building, sharing stories with vulnerability and listening with empathy, bravely leaning into new learning, and doing our best to embrace the non-closure that is so often in tow. In my experience, when this is done with intention, inflection points are inevitable, and while necessary they can bring up a range of emotions, physical and mental reactions, and even cause or resurface harm.
I’ve learned over time how much of a “solver” I am, and how my knee-jerk reaction when met with an inflection point or a challenging moment is to do my best to find out what is needed to move through and make it better. Hence my question, “What do you need?” Whenever I ask this question, I tend to preface it with, “I know this can be such a challenging question to ask and receive.” I took a moment recently to ask myself, why do I preface it so? If I feel it’s challenging or not often answerable, why do I continue to ask it?
In my reflection, I realized three things. One: This is the question I ask myself, and one that I wish others would ask me. Two: I consider the act of asking myself this question an act of self-love, grace, self-friendship, and compassion. And three: That my goal is therefore not to have the question answered, but instead to invite folks to reflect on it for themselves so that they, too, can practice that reflection, self-love, grace, self-friendship, and compassion.
I used to struggle with this question, not because I struggled to come up with a response, but because I came up with SO many possibilities that I began to feel selfish at the mere thought of articulating these needs. While I’m still actively working to understand and unpack the specific messages I have internalized throughout my life as a Black, multiracial woman, I do understand that my feelings of shame, selfishness, and reluctance to answer this question for myself, “What do I need?” stem from the ways in which I’ve been socialized. Society has told me to be small, that asking for help makes you needy or weak, that others who don’t ask for help are somehow better. When society does this for long enough, the voices move from being external to internal, and then become internalized.
“We also learn that love is a limited resource and that the love we want and need is too much, that we are too much. We learn to shrink, to lie about the whole love we need, settling with not quite good enough in order to not be alone.”
About a month ago during a team meeting, I finally decided to respond to those voices. I made the firm decision to begin releasing these toxic notions by slowly starting to ask for what I need, and I felt safe enough to do so alongside my colleagues whom I trust. This is my continued act of self-love. So…here it goes: I need affirmation. That’s right, I said it. Out loud. I need affirmation! I need it at work, I need it from my friends and family, and I need it from myself. I deserve to take up space and ask for what I need. We all do. And articulating my needs doesn’t make me needy.
I love knowing when I’ve done a good job. I thrive on words of appreciation, in and outside of work. When my manager joins me in a ‘gut-check’ conversation and affirms for me that I’m on the right track, when I receive positive feedback from facilitation, when a friend tells me they appreciate something I’ve done for them, my soul is filled. I am not needy, I simply have needs.
While part of answering the “WDYN” question involves taking the risk or opportunity to speak up and self-advocate, I’ve come to realize that there are certain conditions (for me) that need to be true in order to do so. Growing up in a very privileged, independent school world, it was rare that I saw myself reflected in the community around me. As I grew older, I increasingly realized how that impacted my sense of self and my understanding of my identity as a woman of color. Along with that, I realized how much easier it was to be myself, and along with that to speak up for myself and what I need, when I surrounded myself with people who already affirm me in the skin that I’m in and in all that I have to offer.
As we continue pressing through the pandemic and things begin to open up again, I’ve become more social, and I’ve begun to take stock of my relationships. A major part of this has been noticing which relationships are filling me and which are draining me. Part of this journey is knowing how much is in my proverbial well so that I am able to ask for what I need when I need it, and provide it when asked for it by those who I love and care for. Wrapped up in all of this continues to be my need for affirmation, and not simply through words from my colleagues or loved ones. Affirmation, for me, goes beyond the words and deeds of the day-to-day. Instead, it is a feeling of certainty that I have people around me who see me, who affirm me in all of the identities I embrace, and who have my back unconditionally. That is what allows me to keep asking and grow in my ability to answer, “What do you need?”
As with any journey, there is always more growing to do. So I’m asking myself these questions, and I invite you to do the same with me:
What/who fills you? How do you know? What does it feel like in your head? Your heart? Your body?
What/who does not fill you? How do you know? What does it feel like in your head? Your heart? Your body?
What does getting to know this feel like in your soul?
What conditions need to be true in order for you to ask for what you need?