Live Through This

Use Your Words

If psychic powers are the cost of admission to knowing you, you’ll be awfully lonely.

Illustration by Allegra

Illustration by Allegra

I was having a bad day the other day. It was raining, I kept dropping (and breaking) things, I got a parking ticket—pretty standard bad-day stuff. I called my “main hang,” Kumail, for comfort, and here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Hey honey, how are you?
Him: Oh, pretty good, while waiting for this meeting I talked to this guy for like an hour about cosmetic dentistry. It turns out that it’s hilarious, and also slightly sinister.
Me: OK.
Him: [Something else about cosmetic dentistry]
Me: [Imitating his voice] “And how are you doing today, Emily?”
Him: Yeah, how’s your day going?
Me: Oh, OK. I got a parking ticket.
Him: Oh, that sucks. What do you want to do tonight?
Me: JUST GLOSS OVER MY MISERY, WHY DON’T YOU?!
Him: …What?

Has this, or anything like this, ever happened to you? Do you ever find yourself waiting impatiently for someone in your life to respond to your signals that you need…something? Do you find yourself disappointed when it isn’t offered to you without your asking for it, and more upset than you were to begin with? I don’t just mean in romantic relationships—this kind of thing happens all the time with friends, parents, siblings, and anyone else you feel close to.

I was a practicing mental-health therapist from 2003 to 2010, and in that time, I saw lots and lots of clients of just about every kind, with all manner of mental and emotional problems. But there was one particular pattern of behavior, one that plagued many if not most of my clients as well as myself (please refer to the above example), a pattern I came to see as one of the most maladaptive things you can do to any kind of relationship—something that might reduce your anxiety in the moment, but which over the long (or usually just slightly less short) run makes things much, much worse. And that pattern was: expecting other people to be psychic. This is when you have in mind an outcome that you’d prefer and an idea of how you’d like your loved ones to behave, and then you get upset when those expectations aren’t met—but you’ve skipped the crucial step of informing people of those expectations. It can sound like this:

“He should know that I don’t like onions on my sandwich by now.”

“It’s our anniversary! Where are my flowers?”

“Can’t she tell that I’m upset right now?”

“How could he make fun of my parents? Doesn’t he realize I’m really sensitive about that?”

“Is she gonna ask me about the big test that I was worried about? She’d better, or I’m gonna be pissed.”

In each of these situations, the speaker is asking someone to have mind-reading powers. They’re essentially requiring, as a baseline minimum for dealing with them, the ability to magically KNOW what they need without their having to resort to what is really our very best and most efficient means of communication, as a species: words.

I guess in my fantasy version of my phone call with Kumail, he would have figured out how bummed I was just from the sound of my voice, and responded by (a) asking me about my day without prompting, (b) telling me everything would be OK, and (c) suggesting we go get pho Because that’s what I wanted. So why didn’t I ask for it?

Perhaps because it’s still hard for me, even as a grown, feminist woman, to seem “demanding.” Maybe because I am usually so easygoing that I feel somehow defective when I require attention. It certainly isn’t because Kumail wouldn’t have been willing or able to do anything I asked of him—he just didn’t know what I wanted. Because I didn’t tell him. Thus damning myself to an evening with no pho, no comfort, and an even worse feeling in my gut. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now, I can hear some of you saying, “But doesn’t it take the magic out of things if you have to tell someone how to treat you? Shouldn’t they just know?” And that’s a nice thought, especially for those of us who tend to do a lot of heavy lifting in our relationships (whether it’s necessary or not), but nope—no one can be expected to just know every thought and feeling in your head! And if psychic powers are the cost of admission to knowing you, you’re going to be awfully lonely.

If you, like me, have a hard time seeming “high maintenance,” remember that the person you’re in a relationship with is there because they care about you and want to be around you. Having days when you need more attention than usual is fine. Expecting that someone else will know when those days are is not. Even if you are soulmates/best friends/parent and child, that does not mean that you can anticipate the other person’s every single want and need. And if you take the plunge and actually ask for what you want, how much warmer and fuzzier is it to have someone listen to you and then do what you request, just because it makes you happy? Sure, someone can eventually learn that if you say, “I’ve had a bad day,” they should immediately offer you a hug, but that takes time, and it’s never 100 percent. Communicating with someone is way preferable to presenting them with a test they cannot pass, a mystery that can’t be unraveled, and thus making sure that they constantly fail to meet your expectations.

But Emily, WHYYYYY would anyone make sure that they were constantly disappointed by other people? I know, it sounds crazy! But the real truth is that a lot of us force our partners or friends to let us down over and over so that we can blame them for the lack of perfect harmony in our relationship, because we’re scared to admit the truth, which is that right now…we’d rather be alone. Expecting psychic behavior can function as an impenetrable suit of armor that protects you from the nitty-gritty of relationships. Maybe you’re not really ready to be that close to someone else. Maybe you’re still feeling hurt over your last relationship/BFF-ship. Maybe a lot of shitty things happened to you when you were a kid that make it really hard for you, now, to trust anyone, so you find sneaky ways to push everyone away. These are all totally reasonable ways to feel (though I do think you gotta work on that trust thing—I’m not saying everyone needs some kind of emotional intimacy with other human beings in their lives, but I am saying that I have never heard of someone who didn’t, and I was a practicing therapist for seven years). But it’s not fair to punish other people for their lack of X-Men-level powers.

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41 Comments

  • tangratoe March 4th, 2013 11:26 PM

    This article came at the perfect time for me, I just had a problem like this a few days ago and this has definitely helped give me some perspective.

    Thank you :)

  • n March 4th, 2013 11:35 PM

    thank you for this.

  • takebackyourpower March 4th, 2013 11:57 PM

    love this. but where is the option for ‘you asked for what you wanted in ‘I” language, clearly and your loved one just didn’t give it to you?’

    • M. Kitka March 5th, 2013 4:18 AM

      Here it is! :-)

      “If your sincere requests end up being fodder for jokes, or dismissed, maybe this person isn’t someone you should have a close relationship with. Good thing you found out now!”

  • cherrycola27 March 5th, 2013 12:59 AM

    This article is so perfect, and almost perfect timing! I wish I would have read this yesterday, so that I wouldn’t have gotten into a dumb fight with my boyfriend because he didn’t want to dress up fancy and throw Great Gastby party with me.
    I have such a hard time telling people what I’m feeling and what I need, but it extra sucks because I can’t hide my emotions at all so I usually just end up looking like I’m about to/wanting to cry because I’m afraid to say how I’ll feel. I bookmarked this before I even finished reading it. I’m definitely going to try and stop this pattern.

    • clairedh March 5th, 2013 7:01 AM

      I am right there with you in the ‘I’m about to/want to cry” except that I actually bust out in tears so much so that I can’t talk. But once they’re gone I can usually say what I need to say 100x clearer than I would if I had held back the tears. I’m bookmarking this too and writing the steps in a place where I will see it often so I can practice.
      Thank you for this article. Rookie is the best :)

  • OH NO March 5th, 2013 1:09 AM

    So this is unrelated, but what, exactly, is Rookie’s relationship to Say Media? Just noticed the red ” at the bottom of the screen, and their “About Us” is filled with all the imprecise, creepy, corporate-y language that I really distrust, and mentions “purchasing patterns.”

    • Anaheed March 5th, 2013 7:05 AM

      They sell advertising for us.

      • pinnedtothepage March 5th, 2013 11:31 PM

        Anaheed, I always like your style. For realll.

  • sloththefifth March 5th, 2013 2:14 AM

    These words were just what I needed. Thank you!

  • Audrey Horne March 5th, 2013 2:14 AM

    I’ve struggled with opening up to people my whole life. Currently I’m in a relationship with a fella I completely adore, but he’s a little closed-off too. I feel like unless we change our approach, things between us won’t last as long as they could. So far I’ve been pretty successful at not letting this sabotage our relationship with the old “ignore it until it goes away” technique. But there have been some close calls.

    I actually couldn’t sleep earlier because I was busy having a hypothetical conversation with my him in my head about this topic. I would really love to be in a relationship where I can communicate freely with my s/o. So far the only thing stoping that from happening is myself. I really need to work on this, because I feel like in a way I’m taking the relationship for granted and missing out on the full experience, since I don’t share my feelings.

    It’s difficult but hopefully I can work up the courage to change this, and find out what happens when I tell someone whats on my mind instead of holding it in and waiting for them to figure it out.

  • Marjainez March 5th, 2013 3:06 AM

    THANK YOU
    x

  • Jasmine March 5th, 2013 3:08 AM

    How do you just open up to people and communicate with them about your feelings?
    I have a hard time just sharing personal feelings with anyone (friends, family, etc.) and it usually leads to some sort of conflict which could’ve been avoided if I had just been open about what I was feeling/needed.
    I just really don’t know how to take that “talking about it” step..

  • enchantedviolin March 5th, 2013 4:29 AM

    Great article! And very important for maintaining close and happy relationships.

    I learnt to express my feelings the hard way!

    I always assumed it was the ‘girl’s prerogative’ to be understood without having to say what I wanted or what was bugging me…my ex also felt the same way. Whenever we fought or I had accidentally upset her she would never tell me straight out how she was feeling or what I had done. It became so frustrating. I told her if she didn’t tell me I wouldn’t know how to change and whereas I made the effort to improve my communication she stayed the same. The relationship stopped being fun because I felt I always had to walk on egg shells around her. It was definitely one of the reasons why we ended up parting ways.

    I call it the ‘mind reading game’ because that’s essentially why we do it. We play silent because we want the attention of someone fawning over us. But it really isn’t fun for the other person. They just feel confused and hurt that you won’t tell them up straight.

    I try to always be up front about this sort of stuff with friends and family now (though sometimes I do still find myself playing the game). I hope for much happier future relationships because of this choice :-)

    http://enchantedviolin.com

  • LeavesThatAreGreen March 5th, 2013 4:32 AM

    Thanks, this was very useful! :) I suppose I’ll have to start telling people how I feel…

  • Naomi March 5th, 2013 4:59 AM

    this is one of THE best articles i’ve read and is so relevant to my life

  • Lascelles March 5th, 2013 7:21 AM

    Am I the only disappointed this article wasn’t about ACTUAL physic powers :D

  • Emma S. March 5th, 2013 7:25 AM

    Emily, this is vital information. Thank you. xoxo

  • MaddieMae March 5th, 2013 8:12 AM

    Thanks so much for this article, Emily!
    I find that I have a really hard time communicating with people, and end up shutting them out or getting angry (which I’m also not very good at dealing with). It’s weird to me because I love helping other people feel better about their bad days, but whenever I’ve had a bad day I feel like I don’t need anyone else’s help, which leads to me shutting people out.

  • flapperhatgirl March 5th, 2013 9:04 AM

    Actually, I was just thinking about how I really need to “improve my communication skills.”

    I mean, I’m the sort of person who uses phrases like “improve my communication skills,” so it’s pretty obvious I need help : P

    I’m very close to my mom, but it’s hard.

    http://thepseudo-intellectual.blogspot.com/?m=1

  • alisatimi March 5th, 2013 9:14 AM

    This is so great and so relevant. I went from sharing EVERY feeling I had and overloading people with my problems to not sharing anything at all once I realized I was being selfish. In the end though, both extremes are selfish – either way I was constantly demanding something from others or blaming them for not giving me what I wanted. I’m trying to find some sort of balance now…

  • Abby March 5th, 2013 10:00 AM

    My life. MY LIFE YOU GUYS WHY IS ROOKIE SO PERFECT AHHHH.

  • wallflower152 March 5th, 2013 10:04 AM

    Great article. I’m a pretty easygoing person and I don’t get upset easy but when I do I don’t let people know. I’ve just started to realize how un-feminist that is because in romantic relationships, for example, I’m known to be “low maintenance” so even if something upsets me I don’t mention it for the benefit of the other person. I’m just starting to realize how stupid this is and trying to stop. And in friendships too, friends have learned to think they can pretty much treat me however they want/say whatever they want and it won’t bother me and I’ll be there the next time they need me. Sad day.

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild March 5th, 2013 10:40 AM

    Such a great article. I know so many fights in past relationships have started because I’ve assumed my partner knew exactly what I’m thinking…I’m trying a more open line of communication in the relationship I’m in now, and this article certainly helps.

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • Becka Louise March 5th, 2013 11:28 AM

    I have a hard time opening up to people and asking for help, I usually just stay quiet when I’m upset and try my best not to let on to any of my friends, yet all I want is for them to just know! I’m always helping my friends out and I would realise if anything was wrong with them, so why can’t they be the same with me? But I know it’s unfair to ask that of them. I’m trying to find the medium between wanting my friends to be psychic, and telling them too much for that extra bit of comfort, and I think I can do it now :) This article was amazing, thank you so much <3

  • Tangerine March 5th, 2013 1:08 PM

    I am such a player of this horrible game, and have been playing it my whole life. I’ve even played it with therapists, quitting after a few sessions because we didn’t “mesh.” Opening up to people is scary, even to my sister or mom. And don’t get me started on strangers (people I’ve known less than three months.) So not acting this way is hella hard for me, and I appreciate how comprehensive and sage this article is. <3

    My favorite piece on Rookie so far, hands down.

  • Maddie Hardy March 5th, 2013 3:48 PM

    Amazing article!!! I’ve been guilty of doing this to my friends and family for years– good to know that I’m not alone and it can improve~

  • billie March 5th, 2013 4:57 PM

    I often feel like I’m stuck between wanting people to automatically know what I’m thinking/feeling, and wanting to keep things to myself. It just leads to me shutting people out and somehow resenting them for it even though it’s /my/ fault.

    This is such a great article. Thanks, Rookie!

  • spudzine March 5th, 2013 7:40 PM

    Wow, I think it’s truly amazing how Rookie always-ALWAYS-seems to have in just the right articles at just the right times. I have this problem too, and it wasn’t until yesterday did I decide to do something about it. And now I know how!

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/

  • Mayabett March 5th, 2013 8:32 PM

    I learned this method of dealing with problems recently and it helps so much! I’m so skilled at solving issues with other people now. I feel like by using this, I’ve also helped my friends and family get better at it too, which they’re really happy about!

  • Rutabagas March 5th, 2013 8:53 PM

    Nice. I have a close friend who calls me every night. Whenever I have a bad day, she senses it immediately and asks me what’s wrong. Unfortunately, as said in this article, not everyone has this super power.

  • lankafish March 5th, 2013 9:09 PM

    wonderful and practical

  • hiraari March 5th, 2013 9:46 PM

    this is really helpful!
    thank you so much

  • Rocio Perez March 5th, 2013 10:47 PM

    Expecting other people to just know how I feel is exactly what led me to break up with my ex-boyfriend. It was really painful because I truly cared for him, and had wanted to be with him for a long time, but at the moment I didn’t see that I was wrong, and it took quite a while for me to realize that.
    Now I’m in a new relationship, and even though I’ve become a little more vocal about my feelings and needs, I’m still scared that I’ll do the same thing. And that has been on my mind quite a lot lately, so this came just at the right time.
    Great article, Emily, thanks for sharing this!

  • mulberry March 6th, 2013 1:37 PM

    This is fantastic, and the ending especially reminds me of Nonviolent Communication! I feel super duper corny saying it but when I first started reading about NVC (the four basic steps are making objective observations, identifying your feelings, identifying your needs, and making a request–much like the four things Emily suggested!), it was a HUMONGOUSLY powerful tool for me to use in my personal road to chilling the eff out in life. I had been in a definite funk for a lot of years wherein most of my relationship-y interactions were painfully swollen up with a pretty powerful inner emotional dialogue that no one knew about but me. I totally blew things out of proportion a lot of the time, and felt really truly awful about things that probably meant nothing to anybody but me. Okay, I still do this sometimes. But I do find that when I challenge myself to go through the process of separating things out like, “What specifically is happening in this situation? I put my ukulele down, he picked his guitar up and started playing. How did that make me feel? Well, I feel kind of worried, disappointed maybe, and a little hurt. Perhaps I’m craving recognition or reassurance right now.” A lot of times, I end up feeling a lot calmer and closer to the truth of things than if I just went with the old, “OH MY GOD HE DOESN’T THINK I’M A SPECIAL AND AMAZING LITTLE FLOWER ANYMORE HE’S NOT AMAZED BY MY HIDDEN TALENT HE DOESN’T LOVE ME HE’S GOING TO BECOME CHARMED BY SOMEONE ELSE WOOOOOE IS MEEEEE” routine. I also feel a lot more well-prepared to actually communicate if I decide I want to.

  • mulberry March 6th, 2013 1:44 PM

    Also, can I just say that I am constantly amazed by the awesomeness of the whole Rookie community? Every time I read something here I end up being just as inspired by the comments as I am by the (very well-written and inspiring) pieces themselves. I get such a strong sense of respect, authenticity, and growth from sososo much of what I read here. Thanks for being so rad, people!!!

  • booksaremyonlyfriends March 9th, 2013 9:01 PM

    I’ve never had a problem with casual sex; I love to feel good and I don’t like commitment. It worked for me. Then I met him! And I fell in love. It was a very scary thing, and I tried to run away from it. I was scared of having expectations, and for the right reason. One night I was having a terrible night and throwing one of my crazy-girl fits. I ran out of the house and he followed me. I wanted him to; he got that right.

    But he wasn’t saying the right things. He was either saying way too much or WAY too little. It just made everything worse. I knew exactly what I wanted him to say and it hurt me so deeply that he wasn’t able to say it.

    So, on an impulse, I looked at him and yelled “Dude! I just need you to tell me that I’m smart and you value who I am!” He said it. And he meant it, too. I could tell. Problem solved.

    Opening up to him that way not only took me into a world of emotions I never thought possible, it also made the sex the best I’ve ever had.

    TRY IT LADIES.

  • Maradoll Mynx March 17th, 2013 9:59 PM

    All of that said, there is a particular brand of friend who will read your signals easily and always seems to say the right things and ask the right questions. It is an especially sensitive brand of friend. These sensitive types are the types I prefer. I always hold out for them. They are around. If you like someone who is emotionally attentive, you don’t need to label yourself “high maintenance” or “seeking psychic friends.” It’s simply a personal preference. You are not somehow wrong for wanting it. Set your standards high for other people, ladies. Sensitive people are out there for those of us who are selective enough to wait for that type of friend.

  • Emilie June 21st, 2013 6:07 PM

    Allleeeeeggrrraaaaaaa