I was raised by a good Catholic mom, which means that I was raised with guilt, lots of guilt. Guilting was my mom’s natural form of communication. When she needed something, she never directly asked. She would start her sentences with “would you help out your poor old mom and . . . “. As those of you raised by moms with black belts in guilt know, you are trained to start moving and responding as soon as the guilt laden sentence begins. It is a Pavlovian response.
As I left my family of origin to start my own adult life, I didn’t know how to communicate my needs directly. I had never had a role model of how to ask for what I wanted directly. I only knew how to try to manipulate others into doing what I needed. This caused problems in my relationships, especially in my romantic relationships.
These poor communication skills created unnecessary drama and frustration in my relationships. I didn’t like how it made me feel and I really didn’t like the effect it had on my relationships. Part of the problem was I didn’t know that I was allowed to ask for what I wanted.
But the other part of the problem was that I didn’t know how to communicate with someone directly. As different relationships failed, I gradually learned from my mistakes and worked on my own personal self-growth. I started changing my interactions with my family of origin and in my peer relationships. As I increased my healthy communication skills, my relationships improved.
I knew that I had finally changed this dysfunctional communication pattern when I was visiting my parents. My mom was walking across the room saying “Claudine will you help your old and decrepit mom. . .” I had instantly wanted to move to the front of the chair I was sitting in to get up and do her bidding. But I had stopped that Pavlovian response and stayed relaxed in my chair. I just looked at her and she then said “What kind of daughter are you who won’t even be guilted by her own mom.” I just continued to look at her and she started to laugh at how ridiculous she sounded. Soon we were both laughing.
And then something magical happened. I asked her, “Mom why don’t you just tell me what you need and then I can tell you if I can help.” This was a real turning point in our relationship. My mom still tried to guilt me over the years and occasionally I would fall back into that pattern. But overall our pattern of communication changed to one that was less frustrating for me.
Over the years the phrase “tell me what you need and then I can tell you if I can help” has been a way to assist the people I love and yet keep healthy boundaries. I no longer allow myself to be guilted or manipulated into doing what someone else wants. By communicating this way, I’m also less likely to try and guilt or manipulate others either.
The magic of this phrase is that it allows me to communicate directly with the people in my life about what they need. It creates space for us to creatively problem solve by focusing on what is needed instead of how they expect to be helped.