I never realized how important it is for me to feel seen until the last few years. I began to realize how much it mattered to me to be heard and validated in my last relationship, which lasted over two years and ended over a year ago. We worked a lot on our communication and relationship, and that was something we identified was of great importance to me feeling secure and loved. Having my side and experience heard and validated, whether in an argument or in a decision, was often the difference between me lashing out or breaking down and us moving forwards. For most of my life before that, I was unsure why I felt so insecure when instances came up where I felt ignored or cast aside, or even when I just wasn’t explicitly told I had done something right. It just seemed that I was high-maintenance, or that I over-reacted a lot — or this is what I was often told. In reality, I had certain needs that weren’t being met and that rocked the little bit of stability I had at my core and put me on uneven ground.
It took me a long time to believe that naming and finding ways to meet your needs wasn’t being “too much,” it was a necessary act of survival. We all have needs, and when those needs aren’t met we begin to decline. Abraham Maslow studied these needs and devised his theory on human motivation with a basis in the hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy is drawn as a pyramid, with the idea that higher needs cannot be well-met if the lower, foundational needs aren’t being satisfied due to a lack of foundation to build up from.
The lower needs are more basic survival needs, with physiological and safety needs at the very bottom. Physiological needs consist of things that are vital to life, such as nourishment and hydration, air to breath and shelter to sleep in. Right above that are safety needs, which consist of literal safety and security, but also stretches to things like health, a job, personal security, and other resources required to be secure in life.
It is easy to understand how lacking in this area would make it very difficult to focus on anything but trying to become secure — if you have no food, you will have a hard time prioritizing your health; if you have no job, you will have a hard time focusing on building strong relationships. Thus, each lower level must be fulfilled to a certain degree of stability for one to be able to move up the hierarchy and focus on higher levels of needs.
Next come psychological needs. Once basic survival and security is met, the next needs deal with love/belonging and esteem. This is why it is not enough to just give a child a home — rather, you must love and include them while reinforcing their capabilities and autonomy for them to develop normally and healthily. When these things are missing, psychological problems and mental distress develops.
Love and belonging refers to intimate relationships and your support circle — friends, family, intimacy, and a sense of connection. I always felt I had these but in reality never felt I belonged due to an inherent lack of deep connection within my relationships. This is where being seen comes in — belonging and connection requires others to know you on a deep and intimate level, and doing so requires that they see you for who you truly are and validate that. And then that they love you regardless. Without this, one can’t build esteem, which consists of self-respect, respect for others, strength and freedom, among other things. Without love, belonging, connection, and being seen, you can’t build yourself up and believe in your worth. You becomes stuck in a belief system that puts you at the bottom and reinforces the idea that you are not enough to deserve being seen, being loved, or belonging.
This has been my largest deficit throughout my life, an inability to believe in my inherent worth. To believe I am enough. Instead, I have always believed I was too much. And this was reinforced by my intimate relationships, especially my family. I was often labeled as dramatic, overreacting, high-maintenance — many terms that reinforced the idea that what I was feeling was wrong and made me unlovable. I couldn’t belong because I wasn’t like everyone else. In reality, I have always been sensitive and felt big. I was never making my expression or my feelings into more than it was — I really felt everything that I was saying I did. But instead of being validated for that, which would allow me to deal with what I was feeling and be heard for my suffering, I was made to feel that the way I inherently am was bad.
This was never anyone’s intention. My family didn’t set out to invalidate me, they set out to normalize me. They didn’t feel the way I did, and my emotions scared and frustrated them. As I have grown older and embraced who I am, rather than trying to push it down and stifle it while simultaneously feeling constantly crazy, I have realized that though I feel big, if I am heard and my needs are seen, I can meet them quite easily. And that there is nothing wrong with needing things.
Everyone has different needs, and so many of them, like mine, are based in deficiencies from their childhoods. Needs that were discounted or never met, and as a result are all the more important in adulthood. And just because someone else’s needs are different from yours does not make their needs invalid, bad, or wrong. It just makes them different. And if you love someone and want them in your life, then trying to meet those needs is a part of maintaining the relationship just as much as recognizing your own needs and asking for what will meet them is a part of caring for yourself.
When I was 18, I tried to kill myself in front of my parents. Things had not been good. I had been hospitalized earlier in the year, and my parents had treated it like a one-and-done-check-meagan’s-crazy-off-the-‘to-fix’-list kind of thing. I was hospitalized for 10 days, and finally had felt like the suffering I was experiencing day in and day out was being seen. I was put on a ton of meds, I was depressed, I was struggling. The day after I got out my parents insisted I return to school so as not to get behind. I was so drugged up my mom had to dress me. I slept through my classes for the first time in my life. My schedule was changed so that I could leave school everyday at noon and go to therapy.
In my parent’s eyes, I was supposed to be better. I went to the hospital, got medicine and treatment, and got discharged — thus, *ding*ding*ding* all better. I was drowning in my sorrow which had had a medicated band aid placed over it, and everyone had moved on but me. My visibility was gone. Again, I was not seen.
So I made the decision, after another argument with my parents about how much I was suffering and how they wouldn’t send me to the hospital because ‘what about school?!’, to down a bottle of klonopin in front of them. I have never seen so much terror on my mom’s face. My dad yelled at me something to the effect of what have you done. I ran upstairs, threw up the pills, and then walked out the front door and kept walking.
At this point, I do not believe I really wanted to die. If I had, I would have kept down the pills. Rather, I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to take me seriously when I said I AM SUFFERING. I NEED HELP. And I still struggle with that. I have had to fight for the treatment I have been given. I had to fight for breaks when things were too much and I was suicidal and afraid for my safety. I had to fight for treatment for my eating disorder. I have had to fight for what I am going through to be seen. I have had to fight for my needs to be validated and met.
I do not write this to villainize my parents. My parents did the best they could. We sometimes forget that in these situations, the mentally ill person is not the only one having a hard time. It is so incredibly distressing to have someone you love be so sick, especially when you have never felt the way they describe and you have no frame of reference from which to understand it. People can only be there in the capacity that they can, and that is entirely based on their level of education and experience with the issue at hand. My mom didn’t know how to help her suicidal daughter anymore than I would know how to help a 10-year old who’s father just died in the Vietnam War, something she dealt with in her childhood and would be much more equipped to help another with now.
Everyone’s parent’s fuck them up no matter how hard they try not to. Unfortunately, it is impossible to cover all the variables that can lead to distress later in life. I was so well cared for growing up. But because I was different, I felt invalidated. So now, I fight to be seen.
The reason I am writing on this topic now is because of a painting I made over this past weekend that so succinctly speaks to this feeling. I have fought to be seen for so long, I thought it wasn’t an issue anymore. But it is. It keeps coming up in therapy. The need to have my struggles validated. The need to have my trauma be recognized as real. The need to be heard without someone trying to alter my story. The need to own my life, own my trauma, own my story.
I just began EMDR again, and I think perhaps that is where this need is stemming from, at least partially. I had my first session last week, and since I’ve had one or two memory flashes, but mostly I’ve just had a lot of feelings come up. Feelings of being at fault for the bad things that have happened to me. Feelings of being inherently not innocent, of welcoming bad into my life. Feelings of being complicit. Feelings which have come up at other times in other ways, especially in feeling responsible for my own mental illness and what it has done to my life. Feelings of shame and guilt, most of which is not my shame and guilt but others’. The deep dark root of the void is beginning to show itself, which I suppose is the point. That is why I am diving into this part of my treatment. But it’s like all of these shitty feelings and beliefs about myself are my foundation — they are at the bottom of my pyramid of self and have interfered with my ability to move up the hierarchy of needs. Like a parasite that has infested the foundation of my safety and inhibited the grounding and rooting necessary to thrive. Instead of love being rooted, a lack of belonging has. Instead of understanding, a belief of being simultaneously too much and not enough has festered there. How can you grow towards self-actualization, towards becoming the most you can be, when you are so deeply rooted in a belief that you are nothing?
I feel as though I am beginning to uproot this parasite, these weeds that have hindered the growth of the good. But like when you pull a weed from a flower patch, the earth becomes torn and unsettled before it can be patted down and grown into, I feel like my insides are being torn up little by little. This general sense of unease has permeated my being, something I am describing succinctly as ‘bad weird’.
I am afraid of being uprooted. All I have ever known is weeds. I do not know what will be taken from me and my life as those weeds are removed. Even though I know it will be replaced with good, it is terrifying and I feel sick. I suppose this is probably what the weeds feel like when they are torn from the ground and left to wither and die so that the flowers may grow.