Dear Tristan: Tell me what you feel

Dear Tristan,

I promise that, despite appearances, your mom and I aren’t coordinating or comparing notes on what we’re writing to you about, or when. I guess the similarities in our letters are just a sign of how much we’ve talked and shared with one another our hopes for our relationship with each other, and our respective relationships with you. Yesterday, your mom wrote about feelings and needs, and today she wrote about empathy. Yesterday, I wrote about empathy. Today, my letter is about . . . you guessed it . . . feelings and needs.

Your mom wrote in her letter yesterday, “One of the things adults most commonly say to children is, ‘It’s ok.’ It’s a reflex when trying to comfort a distraught child.”

I think she’s right, but I think that’s only part of a much bigger problem with feelings and needs in our culture today.

The simple problem is, it’s not considered “acceptable discourse” – at any age – to discuss our feelings and needs. It’s not just that we tell kids “It’s OK” or “You’re OK” during times of distress. I catch myself telling the same thing to coworkers who turn in work to me after the deadline, making my job more difficult. I tell them “It’s OK” rather than telling them “I feel really stressed because I now have an hour to do what it normally takes me three hours to do.” Similarly, when someone asks “How’s it going?” or “How’re you doing?” The expected answer is “oh, just fine!” or some variant thereof. The people who ask that question do NOT really want to know how you’re doing. They do not want to hear that you’re depressed, or angry, or hurting, or ill. They want to hear that everything is fine and go on their way.

Acknowledging our feelings is jarring . . . both to ourselves and to those around us. It’s not intuitive . . . it goes against our desire to believe that everything is right with the world. When it’s not . . . when we feel that something is not ok . . . we seem to do everything we can to bury that feeling, as though if we ignore it, it doesn’t exist.

I remember, when I was growing up, being taught that feelings were unreliable. I remember being told that the soul is comprised of our mind, our will, and our emotions . . . and that emotions were the most volatile and least trustworthy of the three.

I remember, as a teenager, trying to cultivate a mindset without feelings . . . purely logical and based on reason. I remember thinking that the only thing feelings were good for was clouding judgment.

I was completely and totally wrong. And what I have come to realize is that feelings are an important indicator of the health of one’s soul, the same way pain and pleasure are important indicators of the health of one’s body.

What, then, are feelings, and how do they relate to needs?

As your mom wrote yesterday, our needs are universal. Everybody shares the need for food, water, sleep, air, and other basic necessities. But beyond that basic level, we all share other needs like the need for security, relationship, accomplishment, or respect.

When our needs are being met, this generates certain feelings within us: “I feel safe.” I feel happy.” “I feel content.” “I feel fulfilled.”

When our needs are not being met, feelings are also generated: “I feel insecure.” “I feel afraid.” “I feel angry.” “I feel frustrated.”

Accessing those feelings in their pure form is very, very difficult . . . and the self-centeredness and empathy I wrote about in my last two letters play a vital role in understanding what we’re feeling. That’s because, far too often, instead of relating to one another through our mutual needs and the feelings they engender, we relate to one another through judgments. Instead of “I feel afraid.” we might say “You’re scaring me.” Instead of saying, “I’m feeling disconnected,” we might say, “You’re being standoffish. Instead of “I feel frustrated,” we might say “You’re making me angry.”

This act of placing responsibility for our feelings on the shoulders of those around us kills relationship.

Part of maintaining healthy relationships with those around you is to take responsibility for your own feelings . . . to realize that what you’re feeling is not a reflection on the person with whom you’re talking, but a reflection on yourself. If you’re angry, it’s not because the person you’re talking with is making you angry. It’s because an unmet need within yourself is making you angry, and the conversation just happened to touch on or reinforce that unmet need. Becoming conscious of the underlying need can empower you to develop a strategy for meeting it . . . because in truth, that’s what you’re doing anyway! Everything we do is a strategy we’re using to meet our needs. But a strategy developed by identifying the need and interacting with the feelings that need engenders is going to be a lot more effective than a strategy undertaken in haste without consciously realizing why you’re doing it.

And just as we can’t place responsibility for our feelings on the shoulders of others without killing relationship, we do the same thing when we place responsibility for our needs on the shoulders of others.

Make no mistake, right now, as I write this, you’re a seven-month-old baby. Your every need is my responsibility, and your mom’s responsibility. But there will come a time as you grow to be an adult that you become capable of meeting your own needs. In our culture, far too many of us never grow up in that way . . . virtually the entirety of Western Civilization has become a culture whose main concern is getting someone else to meet its needs.

But there’s very little difference in effect between saying, “You’re making me mad” (you’re responsible for my feelings) and saying “I’m mad, and it’s your job to fix it” (you’re responsible for meeting my needs). It goes back to what I wrote in one of my early letters about expectation . . . about the burden of “should”: The expectation that someone else “should” meet your needs, even if you’re fully capable of meeting them yourself, is one of the quickest ways to tear down a relationship.

I realize as I’m writing this that there will be times that I fail . . . times that I expect too much of you or react to you out of a place of my own needs without considering yours. And for that, I am deeply sorry in advance.

But understanding that we will all fail at times is part of the bargain. The interactions going on around you every day are the actions of people trying to meet their own needs. Once you can comprehend that, a new world of relationship opens up to you. One of the saddest things your mom and I have both realized as we grew into adulthood is how many of our relationships were based on shared experiences and viewpoints. The people I liked, I did so because I agreed with them on most things. But when our experiences diverged, so did the friendship. Your mom and I have become disconnected from some amazing friends, because the basis we had on which to relate evaporated.

But when two parties to a relationship are able to empathize with one another based on shared needs and the feelings those needs engender, the importance of shared experiences and belief systems is greatly diminished. Because the parties to such a relationship can interact without judgment, they are able to share openly without fear that the other person will be hostile to what they have to say. Just as I’ve grown apart from some of my closest and dearest friends due to newly-discovered differences in our belief systems, I’ve been able to develop some new and amazing friendships with people whom I could never have become close to if all I was basing the friendship on was our common beliefs.

In her letter on feelings and needs yesterday, your mom reiterated what she and I have both said throughout these letters, “You are not what you do.”

Similarly, what I’m trying to say in this letter is, “You are not what you believe.” And neither is the person across from you in a conversation or relationship. There’s so much more to each of us than what we do, or say, or even what we think. And my goal for my relationships – particularly my relationships with you and your mom – is to get to know the person beneath the actions, words and opinions. That’s why behavior modification isn’t the point for me. It’s why empathy is so important, and it’s why I think of self-centeredness as a virtue rather than a vice . . . because as your mom said in the conversation I referenced in my letter about self-centeredness, true intimacy is knowing yourself as deeply as possible, and sharing that person fully with another.

That’s the type of relationship I want with you . . . and I hope it’s what you strive for in all your relationships. It’s hard . . . but it’s worth it.


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