mind and emotions

Stop Playing Hot Potato in Your Relationships

On a scale of one to ten, how in touch are you with your needs? Choose a significant relationship–can you name three of your needs in that relationship?

In my own life and in talking to friends, I’ve learned that needs are a hot topic, and it seems that women are more likely to answer the above questions with, “Oh, I don’t really need anything.”

At the same time, the people who “don’t need anything” generally spend a lot of time complaining about how their needs aren’t getting met, so there’s clearly a disconnect happening.

Here’s a pattern that I was very attached to for decades: In my romantic relationships I felt very uncomfortable identifying, much less expressing, my needs.

A few of the reasons why this felt so difficult:

  • I was so out of touch with myself that I honestly didn’t know, on a conscious level, what my needs were.
  • I was afraid of being perceived as needy or high maintenance if I expressed my needs.
  • I was afraid my partner would say “no” and that this would feel awful.
  • I was afraid my partner would think I was demanding and naggy.

Clearly, there was a lot of fear swirling around and a deep disconnect from my own experience. Let’s talk about this disconnect, because it seems to come up a lot in my conversations with women. Culturally, we are taught to take care of others first–our partners, our kids, our co-workers, our community. Taking care of ourselves is often viewed as a form of selfishness.

Because we’re so consumed with what other people need, most of our sensors are picking up their radio stations and we’ve forgotten how to tune into our own.

This is why I believe codependency is so incredibly common. If you’re new to that term, here’s a short article that does a great job of defining it, and there’s even a little questionnaire to determine whether it’s something you struggle with. An excerpt (emphasis is mine):

Characteristics of Co-dependent People Are:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
  • An extreme need for approval and recognition
  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
  • A compelling need to control others
  • Lack of trust in self and/or others
  • Fear of being abandoned or alone
  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries
  • Chronic anger
  • Lying/dishonesty
  • Poor communications
  • Difficulty making decisions


I have a metaphor that helps me visualize what’s really going on when I or someone else says, “Oh, I don’t really need anything.” First, a reality check:

Every living thing on this planet has needs. You are no exception.

The sooner we stop denying the presence of our needs, the sooner we can get them met, and oh baby, does it ever feel great! Far from feeling needy, naggy, and insecure, we feel empowered, confident, satisfied with our life, and comfortable in our own skin.

But back to that metaphor. Let’s envision needs like a potato. When you deny that you have needs, or you are so out of touch with your needs that you aren’t consciously going about meeting them in a healthy way, this is like playing a game of hot potato where you keep passing your needs, your hot potato, off to someone else.

The irony, of course, is that this is precisely the opposite of what the “no-needs” person wants to do: making their needs someone else’s problem. And yet, when we’re not conscious of our needs, this is exactly what we do.

Those needs don’t go away–someone has to deal with them–and when we’re not consciously willing to deal with them, we pass that hot potato off to someone else.

This usually results in other people being resentful of our hot potato needs and subconsciously (or very consciously!) trying not to meet them.

In my relationships, when I passed off my hot potato my parters would feel manipulated, because here I was proclaiming that I didn’t have needs, and yet I was dumping all of these hot potatoes on them. This led to them being very resentful and not at all open or giving–and understandably so. My worst fears of seeming needy and naggy were realized. Truly, it was a lose-lose.

I’ve been on the other side of this exchange, too, and I can attest to its suck-itude. I have a family member who claims she is needless, yet every interaction is a subconscious passing of the hot potato in the form of fishing for compliments, acting the martyr, false humility, and other icky behaviors.

As much as I love this person dearly, on the receiving end of this manipulation it is really, really hard to drum up the desire to acknowledge, much less meet, any of her needs, and oftentimes I don’t because it feels deeply unhealthy for me to do so.

And here’s the thing: People who are healthy and rooted in their sense of self won’t want to play this game of hot potato with you, so you will have less chance of maintaining relationships with healthy individuals if you insist on “not having needs” and passing off your potato.

We each have our own potato to bear.

(That was a fun sentence to write.)

When you assume responsibility for your own potato, you are saying to yourself and to the Universe:

“Yes, I have needs. I am a person of worth and value, and I have needs.”

Owning your needs and learning how to express those needs in a healthy way (books like Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself can be super helpful if you’re unsure where to start) opens the door to, well, getting your needs met, both through your own efforts and the support of others.

Asking is the first step in receiving, no matter who’s doing the giving.

We can’t receive if we don’t ask, even if we’re asking of ourselves. But once we do ask in an open, clean way (i.e. without subconsciously passing off the potato, martyrdom, and other energetically clogged exchanges), the Universe rushes in to meet that need.

I have been astounded time and time again at how much easier and more joyful clearly expressing my needs feels and how readily my needs are met, often far beyond my expectations.

When you ask for what you need from a place of self-empowerment, the universe joyfully responds.

Are you ready to take back your hot potato and ask for the life you want?

meditation mind and emotions yoga

Reading Your Body’s Messages

For years, ever since I began practicing yoga, I believed that my body could hold onto emotions, which would then manifest in physical ways, but I never had much luck seeing this in my own body beyond the obvious connection between, say, stress and my tight shoulder muscles.

For the past few years, though, I have been on a journey of hormonal and digestive healing, which was initiated by the onset of hellish menstrual cycles. The first time I experienced The Epic Cramps, I ended up in the emergency room, because I thought my appendix, or possibly every organ in my body, was bursting. It was that painful.

As the saying goes, pain can be a very potent teacher, and these cramps led me to discover a uterine fibroid and an ovarian cyst, along with a cascade of hormone and digestive issues. In future posts, I’ll talk more about some of the dietary and lifestyle changes I made that have had a significant positive impact on my health, but for the moment, I want to concentrate on one aspect of this pain that taught me a particularly memorable lesson.

Heads up: We’ll be talking about sex and biology, so if either makes you squeamish you might want to read something else. 🙂 So, one of the frustrating issues that came along with my cysts was pain during sex. I’ll spare you the details, but the key, here, is that it was specifically the act of allowing anything to enter my body that caused the sharpest pain, and along with it, a wave of vulnerable emotion. And no, in case you’re (understandably) wondering, I do not have a history of sexual abuse.

Over the course of a few months, I kept talking with my partner, journaling, and meditating on this issue, and I began to see all sorts of connections between painful sex and my rigidity around my food choices (another example of controlling what does and does not enter my body). And this, then, led to realizations of an important area in my life where I have serious trouble limiting what does and does not enter: relationships.

I’ve always struggled with creating and maintaining healthy boundaries, which can easily be traced back to my family history, which both did not model what healthy boundaries looked like nor supported–or in many cases allowed–me to create boundaries of my own. I’ve come a loooooong way in developing these skills as an adult, but there are still people in my life who so closely resemble key family members that they fit into my dysfunction lock like a key, and I slip back into old patterns.

In these situations, I feel like my subconscious is working off of an entirely different game plan than my conscious mind. Subconsciously, I’m seeking out self-absorbed, overt or covert narcissists who will suck up my energy like a vampire, giving very little or nothing back. My role is to be the energy source, allowing them to drain me dry, and my only retaliation is to passively resent them. Sounds fun, eh?

Knowing my self-destructive tendencies around this type of person, I tried for years to distance myself from these relationships, only to replace them with people who were nearly identical, or to assert myself within the relationships, only to fall back into resentful silence. Clearly, something wasn’t working.

And then, in this process of healing my body, I had an insight after meditating one day: My body was trying to protect me in the only way it knows how–in the physical domain–by creating boundaries. The only problem is that my body doesn’t need any more boundaries on that level right now; it needs boundaries on an emotional and spiritual level. It was if my body was saying to me, “If you’re not going to do this, I will.” If I was unable to draw these boundaries in my relationship and take care of myself, my body was going to get to work and start creating boundaries, whether they were in useful locations or not.

With this realization came a wave of tenderness and compassion for myself, which also carried with it great strength and resolve. I could feel my spirit and mind saying, “Don’t worry, body. We’re in this together, and I’m not going to let you shoulder this burden alone. I’m going to take care of you, just like you take care of me.”

Over the next few weeks, I pulled away from toxic relationships and felt liberation flooding into the space they had previously occupied. When I was in unavoidable situations with these people (e.g. running into them at the store), I was able to politely yet firmly make an exit without feeling beholden to the energy vampires.

While I still have much to practice, I feel myself getting stronger with each interaction in which I stick up for myself and take care of my own needs. If guilt crops up out of habit, I can gently recognize it, honor it, and release it. I feel optimistic that, with continued practice, creating these boundaries will become second nature, just as the self-destructive habits have been for so long, and I thank my body for being a wise teacher who made sure that, come hell or high water, I learned this lesson!

Now it’s your turn: What is your body trying to tell you right now? Are you ready to listen?

Update 1/5/2015: I recently finished reading Cyndi Dale’s Energetic Boundaries, and one passage in particular helped validate my intuition on this issue. She says:

Our energetic boundaries are our first line of defense in regard to our health. If working correctly, they’ll deflect or transmute energies that can make us sick. They’ll also release and cleanse us of physical and psychic toxins…But…once our energetic field starts to splutter and work at a less-than-optimum level, out bodily system becomes overtaxed and has to assume the field’s job. This depletes our body, leading to [numerous health issues].

mind and emotions

How to Stop Resenting Everyone

It can be really difficult to ask for what you need. Or rather, I should say, it can feel really difficult to ask for what you need. The actual asking isn’t, in the grand scheme of things, rocket science, but our minds can trip us up and have us believe otherwise.

I come from a long line of codependents who aren’t good at expressing their needs. But nonetheless, if you failed to meet those unspoken needs, you could be sure of punishment in some form or another. It was like being trapped in the non-whimsical version of Wonderland where up is down and down is up. Except for when it’s not. Confused yet?

Growing up, I watched most of the women in my family care taking for other people. Most of this energy was focused on the significant man in their life, but it certainly carried over to just about everyone, including neighbors, coworkers, and friends. What I took away from this was that other people did not have to take responsibility for themselves, because it was my job to take care of them. And while I wasn’t allowed to express my own needs, I sure as hell could resent the world for “placing” this burden on me.

Along with this false sense of responsibility came a false sense of control. If you regularly find yourself thinking, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!” with an air of resentment and superiority…well, you may have a touch (or a bushel) of codependent traits. Step on into the Club House.

While this control can give you the illusion of power and safety, it’s a house of cards. Everything is dependent on what other people do, say, and think, and one wrong look or word can cause the whole thing to come crashing down, leaving you feeling insecure and panicked. Because the truth is, unless you’re dealing with an infant (and I mean an actual baby, not an adult acting like they’re still in diapers), you can never control another human being. It’s impossible. Stop trying.

We can construct all of these elaborate systems in our heads that “prove” how much control we have over another person, but it’s just that: in our heads. True power comes from having mastery and healthy control over ourselves. No one else.

If your internal state is a mess, it’s much “easier” to focus on other people’s problems. If you seem to be drawn to drama like gum to hair, you might be using the constant crises to distract yourself from what’s going on in yourself. And if you surround yourself with people who always “need” help, it’s easy to feel superior, because, on the surface, it looks like you have it all together in comparison to those walking train wrecks.

For me, the end result of all of this dysfunction was a feeling of isolation, resentment, and exhaustion. This started to manifest in my body in myriad ways: migraines, an incredibly tight jaw and shoulders, lower back weakness, etc. My body was becoming encased in rigid layers of control, and my back was, quite literally, feeling the burden of all this excess baggage that I was dragging around.

If any of this resonates with you, there are plenty of resources available, because there are a lot of us codependents out there! Books like Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Caring For Yourself can be a great way to gain understanding of your own thought and behavioral patterns and learn tools to create healthier habits. There are Codependents Anonymous groups in many areas, and talking with a qualified therapist can also work wonders.

If you take anything away from this post, know that as much as it may feel as if there is no other way to live (“if I stop taking responsibility for this stuff, everything will fall apart!”) or that you’d rather die than relinquish this control (I know the feeling well), you do have choices. They may be hard to see right now, but there are an infinite number of options waiting for you. The more clouded mental layers you peel away, the more options you will see, and choice by choice you can create a new way of life free from the chains of codependency.

It all starts with one step.