Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

03 Apr 2023, 21:15 p.m.

Teaching, Entitlement, And The Verb "Need"

Sometimes I attend a singing group here in New York City, when I can do so with COVID risk mitigations.

The other day, I participated. I didn't know the songs, and sometimes I had a bit of trouble, and as I sang, I thought I noticed a few other people did, too.

The leader for this group is a trained music instructor -- that's his day job. And he consistently noticed when some folks were having trouble, and he paused our progress and used various techniques to help us practice the one bit we weren't getting. Sometimes he used his hand to illustrate the melody, or changed the accompaniment to better support or emphasize the right things. And it worked, and we solidified our skills in that particular transition or exception, and then we sang better.

Isn't that amazing? Isn't it amazing that we can notice when someone's struggling with a skill, and we can bring in known techniques for helping scaffold their learning, and then be unsurprised when it works?!

And isn't it amazing that, if you're struggling with something, sometimes there's a leader who notices, and cares, and prioritizes getting everyone the instruction they need so they can participate fully? Even if the struggle is kind of minor?

Afterwards, reflecting, I thought, I'm not entitled enough. Because I think I've been in a lot of situations where I muddled through, assuming I had to, and never had that pair of realizations:

  1. I'm having some trouble. It's not catastrophic but it's not pleasant, either.
  2. It's perfectly fine to ask for help even if I don't "need" it.

Right? It's ok to be dissatisfied, to notice my own dissatisfaction instead of brightly Trying To Make The Best Of It in a way that suppresses the very awareness that I don't like my situation. And -- without using fraught words like "deserve" -- I think there's something in there about what I feel entitled to.

I have often stayed away from saying I "need" something. Because "need" has been, to me, a demanding word. I can say I prefer something, I would like it, it would be nice, it would help me a lot, it's hard for me not to have it, I'm having a hard time doing without it, and I figure other people can appropriately balance those requests against their own preferences .... but once I say I "need" something, it's like pulling a fire alarm. I'm overriding everything else. I'm declaring that you must prioritize the urgency and importance of my desires. Or so I have unconsciously thought.

"Hey, Sumana," you may be asking. "If you avoid using the word 'need' because you think that it's a magic override kind of word, and then when other people say they 'need' something you jump to fulfill those needs, doesn't that lead to a kind of unhealthy imbalance where you have a hard time expressing your own needs and getting them met, while also getting accidentally tangled up when other people use 'need' a lot more loosely than you?"

Well, imagined interlocutor, yes, you are correct that some difficulties have arisen! I'm working on it.

I do not want to turn into a bad neighbor, an overly entitled individual with a double standard for how maximally demanding she is as a user and how minimally helpful she is a provider. But I think there's some space to maneuver between where I am now and where I want to be, and between where I want to be and the place I want to avoid. My friend Jacob wrote a year ago about the difference between "I'll light myself on fire to keep you warm" and "f--- you, got mine," with a place in the middle he described as "put your own mask on, before helping others."


So I'm going to try to find some alternate ways of thinking about the verb "need" so I can use it a bit more. Maybe. And -- as counterintuitive as it feels -- I think I need to be more open to feelings of dissatisfaction. If I feel dissatisfied, I want to notice that, even if I decide to accept the situation without trying to change it. I want that acceptance to be conscious, intentional. In a way, the first person I need to ask for help is myself, and if my first reaction is to say that Sumana doesn't need or deserve for things to be better than they are, sometimes I need to say to myself, "I'd like to speak to your manager." I wonder how that'll go.