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Letting the mask fall & supporting my real needs
This newsletter is about why we often take struggle as a cue to try harder, and what happens when instead we take it as a cue to pause, assess our needs, and support them. In other words: treating struggle as a signal about our needs. This post is mostly about personal empowerment, but I do wander into radical politics a little, especially in the footnotes. Enjoy! 💚
Today I want to talk about struggle—what struggle is, why I spent so much of my life pretending I wasn’t struggling, and what it looks like to admit my struggle to myself and see myself as in need of support and accommodation, rather than almost making it, if I just tried a little harder.
In the past, I would have framed my reflexive refusal of help entirely in terms of trauma and self-reliance: I’m scared to receive help because the people who love me also hurt me. And I think that’s definitely a part of it—but it can’t be all of it, because I didn’t do any significant trauma healing between two weeks ago and now.
What I did in the last two weeks was learn about ADHD, self-identify as neurodivergent, and then started peeling back the layers of internalized ableism. What I did was let myself unmask.
I am by no means an expert at any of this. I am a newbie to understanding neurodivergence, disability, and ableism. But, I can feel the mask unravelling in my body and I want to talk about it.
I can feel my real, vulnerable self resurfacing.
I can feel how close to crying I am when my stress starts to peak. I can feel my giddiness about life when I share a moment of delight with a friend. I can feel my anxiety rise and fall throughout every social interaction. I have laughed out loud more times in the last few days than I have in months. I can feel my body in a way I thought was inaccessible to me.
The other night I was trying to do some deliberate winding down to get some sleep, and I put on music and dimmed the lights and started moving my body. And I could feel the music with my body in a way that I haven’t in years, and I started to sob.
I used to dance twice a week (ecstatic dance, no steps, just movement). I had forgotten how much I love to move organically. I remembered that I used to do it, but it felt like an alien—who was that Emma who did that? I had forgotten how to be that person.
One of the major stressors in my life is that I no longer live in a city, where there are things like ecstatic dance. I live in a very peaceful town that is entirely under-stimulating for me. I need more, and I can feel the stress it produces in my body every day. I can feel all of my stress now, which sounds terrible, but I’m glad, because I use to just feel numb.
Whatever I was doing to try to pretend to myself that I was fine actually thanks, it was numbing me to my own body, and now it is unravelling.
And this unravelling is because I’m legitimizing and tending to my real needs now, instead of pretending to myself that I don’t have them.
Our feelings are signals about our needs.
This is one of the foundational tenets of NVC, which I have studied and taught. But what happens to that signal when you believe your needs are not legitimate? What happens if you were conditioned that you must deserve your needs being met, by doing things that feel impossible to you?
My body-mind kept screaming that I had needs, but I couldn’t meet them. I had been conditioned to believe they were not legitimate needs. So I started to tune out the signal. I pushed it out of my conscious awareness. It became a low-level awareness of struggle, but it lacked definition. I knew life was hard and felt bad, but I didn’t know precisely why or what to do about it, because I was not attuned to myself. I had tuned out my internal reality to try to meet expectations in my external reality.
This external focus meant I had stopped connecting I feel bad to I have needs, and instead connected it to, I’m not enough, I must try harder, I must become different. Instead of looking for resources to meet my needs as they are, I kept trying to become a different person, a person who didn’t have those needs.
Instead of, I need this to be easier, I thought, I need to be able to do this.
But since I can’t change my ADHD, i.e. erase who I am, I was just stuck in endless struggle. I recently described it to a friend as, feeling like I’m being waterboarded by life. Being alive felt like slow, relentless torture.
I’ve been searching for a reason to live my whole life.
This isn’t the same as wanting to die; it’s just acknowledging that life is such a struggle that the pain doesn’t seem worth it. I have been the person left behind, and I would never do that to anyone else on purpose. But wishing I had a legitimate reason to check out, that nobody could blame me for? Yeah, there were days like that. I just pushed the thought away and kept trying to climb my Impossible Mountain.
I hadn’t yet realized that it was impossible, and it was OK to stop. It’s OK to stop trying to climb mountains that I can’t climb without help. It’s OK to ask for help. And it’s OK to find mountains that match my abilities. There are lots of mountains in the world; I don’t have to climb ones that I find impossible.
In fact, I’m pretty tired of trying to climb mountains at all. I’d like to stroll through some pleasant meadows and forests instead. Preferably filled with woodland creatures and fairies and quirky old people who speak in cryptic riddles while inviting you in for tea and crumpets in their cottage.
What is struggle, actually?
In NVC, I was taught that anger, shame, guilt, and depression are signals that we are disconnected from our needs.
But nobody ever mentioned struggle as an indicator. I’ve never heard anyone even mention it as a feeling. But we all know the feeling, right? It’s the feeling of chronic frustration. It’s a sign of chronic unmet needs.
But struggle is also something that is delegitimized and stigmatized by our capitalist, productivity-obsessed, normative, neurotypical culture.
If you are struggling, the implicit assumption is that there’s something wrong with you. Only if you can prove that you have a legitimate reason to struggle is your struggle seen as valid—and even then, you are still expected to spend every ounce of energy you have trying to become, or at least appear, “normal”.
The constant refrain about ADHD is: It’s not real. Your struggle is not legitimate. You say you are struggling, but we’ve decided you are not, actually. We don’t believe you. You are lazy. You are looking for an excuse for your bad behavior.
I thought I needed to find a reason to live, but I actually just needed to figure out why living was so hard for me. Because life naturally wants to live. It doesn’t need a reason. I only needed a reason to endure.
And life felt like something to endure, because I was ignoring all my inner alarm bells about needs that I didn’t know how to meet, because I was constantly getting messages of this should be easy for you.
I was told I shouldn’t have the needs I have, so I tried to stop having them, and then tried to pretend I never had them. But needs don’t go anywhere, and the signals don’t either. They just turn into pain with no name.
I couldn’t identify the name for my pain until I could admit to myself that I was, in fact, struggling. I finally recognized that yes, I looked “OK” on the outside, but I was putting in an immense effort to look and seem “OK”, while inside, the dull pain of existing was so relentless that I kinda wanted to not be here at all.
Realizing I have ADHD is the first time I’ve imagined that life could actually work for me as I am, rather than imagining I would have to become a different person to be happy and well.
What does “not struggling” look like, in practice?
I now see my real, actual needs as legitimate and important. This is what that looks like:
Before: Thinking Clif Bars are a waste of money, and I should learn to cook real meals. I would feel a little twinge of wrongness for buying them or eating them. That’s just a shortcut. You’re lazy.
Now: Buying Clif Bars is an accommodation that I need. I don’t always have the executive function to cook meals, or to plan ahead to have ingredients to cook meals. I need to eat, therefore Clif Bars are great. I try to make sure they are a new flavor too, so I’m excited to eat them. I can keep working on simple meals and low-executive-function food systems, but I don’t have to make eating a struggle in the meantime.
Before: Trying to pretend I never feel hurt or worried or anxious or scared, and I’m totally cool and chill about everything.
Now: Just blurt it out if I’m worried about a misunderstanding, so I can get reassurance, because I need emotional peace of mind and to know everything is OK.
Before: Struggle to try to figure out how to make more money by myself, because it’s shameful and wrong that I can’t figure it out on my own. If I do talk about it, act like I have it all handled, or I don’t care.
Now: Talk about it with every friend I can, because I know friends are a major source of motivation for me, and they help me think through ideas and make the whole thing less scary and overwhelming. Be honest about exactly what I’m struggling with, and ask for help.
Before: Try to be an adult at all times, especially with other people.
Now: Let myself be a kid when I feel like it, which is most of the time. Enjoy my friends as I really am. Let myself enjoy my computer games. And remind myself to really think through adult-type decisions carefully, because I know that I don’t always make the best choices for myself.
I’m not perfect at it. I still have thoughts like, Why do I need this? or Am I really like this?
The difference is that I know now where those thoughts come from. They come from centuries upon centuries of judgments about whose needs deserve to be met and whose don’t.
Who gets to have a fulfilling life, and who gets to spend their entire life in struggle? It’s entirely down to the priorities built into how our society operates.
Struggle is a signal about our needs, but it’s also a sign that somewhere along the line, someone decided our needs didn’t matter. They didn’t take our frustration or distress as an important signal to tend to. Instead, they told us that we were wrong for feeling that way, and so we learned to pretend we were fine.
I have taken pride in how well I am able to endure suffering. You can’t break me. Fuck that noise. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It’s empowering, but it’s also a sign that something is deeply wrong in the world that I have a habit of coaching myself to try to bolster my ability to not be crushed.
Struggle doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens when priorities are decided that don’t include you.
I may not be able to transform society’s values as a single person, but I can transform my own values. I can choose to value myself and alleviate my own struggle whenever and wherever I can.
In other words, I can undo my internalized ableism.
To do that, I have made a decision to include myself and my real needs in my own activities. I am the one declaring to myself that my needs matter. I’m not waiting for anyone to give me permission to take care of myself the way I need to.
I value myself by:
no longer expecting myself to be a neurotypical person, with neurotypical goals, neurotypical abilities, and neurotypical strategies
letting myself use the help available to me, including buying pre-cooked meals, pre-chopped vegetables, etc
doing things the way that is easiest for my brain to handle 🧠
enjoying my unique sense of humor, playfulness, and excited delight 🦄
accommodating my real needs
showing up as my real self 🥰
letting this is good enough, let’s be done now feel great to me, and a vote for my wellbeing, instead of inadequate and wrong
celebrating myself constantly 🌟 (it gives you dopamine! try it!!)
including myself in my community of fellow neurodivergent people
not expecting boring things to be easy for me, or even possible for me
limiting how many hard things I try to do in a day, and replenishing my dopamine afterwards with a game, treat, or friend high-five
thinking carefully about what I agree to, given my actual interest instead of my perception of what I “ought” to be interested in
tracking and responding to the moment-by-moment subtle shifts in my energy, attention, mood, and emotions that all tell me about my needs as they are right now
This is how I’m undoing my internalized ableism and unlearning the idea that struggle is natural and normal, and I should keep doing it until some magical day when I reach the Great Couch in the Sky and have “made it”.
I don’t want to “make it”. I want to live every day like my being here matters.
The idea that so many of us struggle to believe that we matter suddenly feels like madness to me. Who told us that, and why did we believe it? Why do we participate in our own oppression? Why the fuck is this shit in my brain? Get out, now! I don’t consent to devaluing myself!
I’m awesome. And you’re awesome. And even if the larger world continues to be The Bad Place, we can transform our personal world into one that values us, by deciding to value ourselves, and conducting our lives like we are valuable, we matter, and our real needs deserve to be met. 💚
Where do you struggle? What might be possible if you saw that struggle differently? Come find me in the comments!
To be specific: I need certain parts of life to be easier for me, for example, around daily chores. But not being able to adult felt shameful, so I told myself that I was just quirky and weird, and that’s why I struggle with cooking, shopping for food, tidying, vacuuming, decluttering, maintenance (car maintenance, home maintenance, website maintenance), figuring out insurance, lawn care, going to the dentist, etc. Everyone finds that stuff boring, right? Yes, and…they still do it. I just live with them half-done, done badly, or not done at all. That is what struggle looks like. And it feels terrible, because we all know what we are “supposed” to do. But “you’re supposed to do this” means nothing to an ADHD brain except “feel bad about yourself now, because you know you’ll never manage to keep up with all that”.
Nonviolent Communication - you’ve probably heard of it, but if not, I have a page about it over here as well as a list of needs. I love it and find it personally quite useful as a framework, and I also have a beef with how it was taught to me, because my teachers rarely discussed systemic barriers to needs being met, and focused solely on the individual communicating and self-optimizing on their own. Discussing needs without discussing unequal access erases every marginalized person’s lived reality of why their needs are not met.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t struggle involved there too. It’s simply not possible for a disabled or otherwise marginalized person to meet our needs on our own, and mutual aid through community affords more dignity (if also more complicated internal politics) than begging the oblivious/privileged to see our struggle as real and our needs as important and our personhood as valuable. Going where the resources are often means having to objectify ourselves to be seen, constantly masking and performing, and potentially losing our authenticity status within our communities. Marginalized communities are beautiful, messy, and life-saving. 💕