Living in a world that is so deeply invested in the American dream, I can’t help but recognize how one of the ways that neoliberalism and capitalism survive is by teaching us to dream big while training us to ask for so little. When we pass through childhood and into adolescence, we’re told that not all of our needs can be met all of the time. But as we’re told that not all of our needs can be met all of the time — which, I believe, is a vital lesson in ethics and what it means to be human — we’re also taught to feel ashamed of having any needs at all. And so we remain silent, for if we remain silent then we can avoid the rejection that will surely come when we ask for something.
I use the royal “we” but I want to acknowledge that these lessons are highly gendered. Men have been taught to dream big and the patriarchal world that we live in has rewarded these men for daring to ask. Or for not even asking in the first place. Or for cloaking the act of taking in the act of asking. This is also the story of settler colonialism: it is the story of the Indigenous groups who signed land treaties believing that the white men on the other side would hold up their end of the bargain.
I want to talk about the ways in which asking for your needs to be met and expressing your desires is something that I’ve struggled with — and that struggle is inextricably linked to the fact that I’m a woman. For me this struggle began in childhood, when my mother passed away and I stepped into the role of mother, sister, and daughter simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, my needs came last.
This struggle continued on through my intimate and sexual relationships, where the idea of expressing what I wanted during sex was not only incomprehensible, but I didn’t even think that it was something on the table. When I expressed an emotional need I was told time and time again that I was being irrational, asking for too much, and sometimes I met with a flat out “no.” As Erin Wunker so poignantly writes in Notes From a Feminist Killjoy: “even emotion is susceptible to the repressive mechanisms of patriarchal culture. We can feel all the feelings, but there is absolutely no guarantee our feelings will be read as legitimate.”
The idea that one could have a dialogue with their partner or friends or family or insert-other-individual became an unrealizable dream. I thought I was “crazy” for thinking that such a dialogue could be possible. It wasn’t until I started going to therapy when I was 23, after an emotionally abusive relationship ended and my anxiety was so high that for the first time in my life, I felt like I could barely function, that I learnt that such dialogue was possible and that all of the men I’d been with who told me otherwise were wrong.
So I began one of the scariest journeys I could imagine: I started to talk about my needs, and eventually I became able to ask that they be considered, and eventually met. I began to form supportive partnerships and I began to reach out to my friends to ask for help when I needed it. The latter was more difficult than I could have imagined. My M.O. was to take on ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME and so my friends saw me as someone who didn’t really need help, who had it all together. Too terrified to admit that I didn’t have it all together, I started to ignore their phone calls, afraid that I would have to say “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you do that. I’m sorry, but I’m running on empty.”
This was the summer of my comprehensive exams, and as the summer came to a close I realized that I couldn’t ignore the phone calls anymore. One day I picked up and told my friend what was happening. And she showed me all of the compassion and love and tenderness I could have asked for. But that didn’t mean that asking for help or admitting that I didn’t have anything extra to give suddenly became the world’s easiest task. I had to practice it, encounter my overwhelming fear of rejection, and do it again until I rewrote that script. My friends would hear me, would still love me, and not hate me because I wasn’t able to do all of the things.
Now that I feel pretty comfortable expressing my needs (this of course is much more challenging when a new person — friend or partner — comes into my life). But with that comfort has come the realization that my terror at expressing my needs is not just tied to my personal history, but it’s tied to the world that we live in. That neoliberal, patriarchal, capitalist, racist, homophobic, ableist world that we live in.
I see it within the world of academia, where students are told when they begin their PhD to see their professors as “colleagues” now, but this is in no way reflected in the actual culture of the institution. When asking a professor to make time to talk to you about your research feels like you’re asking for the biggest favour in the world — when really, you’re just asking them to do their job. When a professor does more than the rest, you see this as going “above and beyond” when really, they’re just showing that they care about your professional development.
I recently sent an email to a professor whose work I deeply admire and who I had the pleasure of meeting and working with for a few hours during what was called an “experimental classroom.” I wrote to her and asked if I could come and help her do some research on the west coast while I get her feedback on the current chapter I’m working on. I told myself “this is ballsy. This might be asking ‘too much.'” And then I thought: why do I feel this way? I would be offering her something and she would be offering me something! And this is when I started to think about how the neoliberal world of academia has trained me to ask for so little.
I felt this again when after three dates with someone, they asked me to meet their primary partner. Having never done polyamory before, we discussed how we could do this in a way that would feel supportive for me and we came up with a plan that felt good for both of us. The night before they told me that they needed to change the plan and that they’d come up with an alternative. That alternative meant that one of the necessary supports I had asked for (a short 15 minute debrief just the two of us after meeting their partner) could no longer happen. I proposed some alternatives that could facilitate that and was told that these compromises were in direct conflict with their needs and as a result, were a sign that I didn’t respect their partnership. What was implied was that if our needs were ever in conflict, we’d have to respect their need or else stop seeing each other. After trying to explain how me feeling supported would have a direct impact on them (and thus me feeling supported = me respecting their partnership) we decided to stop seeing each other.
And up came so many of those old feelings of “you’re asking for too much.” Or “you’re not being reasonable.” I started to spiral into self-doubt and feelings of not being good enough. I know that those feelings are my own and that they are attached to a long history separate from this very short series of dates. But what this showed me was that the scripts of neoliberal patriarchy are still so deeply embedded in me. Like an imprint on a palimpsest, you can’t easily see it, but the mark is there.
So how do we start to challenge the ways that we’ve been trained to ask for so little? For me, it was about taking a leap of faith and asking for support even if my greatest fear was that I would be rejected. This wasn’t easy. So I started with the people closest to me. The people I trusted. I also turned to those people to process the rejections that I did encounter. For me I needed someone else to help me with the spiral of self-doubt, someone who could tell me “no Margeaux, that’s not asking a lot. In fact, you’re asking for very little.”
I think it’s also important to think about the difference between compromise and collaboration. When you’re compromising, you’re both beginning from a position of “this is what I want” and then you see what you can let go of to meet somewhere in the middle. When you collaborate, you start from a common goal and you build up from that. With a compromise you might be working towards a similar goal but you might have already decided how you want to reach that goal. With collaboration you focus on the ends and then figure out what the means are for making it happen. And you don’t stop until both people feel good.
Now sometimes collaboration just doesn’t work and you have to compromise. But I think that, regardless of which path you take, it’s vital that you are always thinking about the power differentials at play. Sometimes I will compromise because I recognize that I hold more power and privilege than the other person. This could look like me having more time or more emotional resources and so instead of meeting at my place, as planned, I go to their place. But I think that it also means being able to acknowledge which party has had to fight to have their voice heard and their needs met. This means acknowledging that those from marginalized groups (i.e. not white men) have to work a lot harder to ask you “can I have this?” They have been trained to ask for so little. Holding space for this reality is integral to developing an ethics of care. To breaking that cycle and to creating new scripts where we can say “No, I deserve this and more.”
This post was written by Margeaux