Stop going to the hardware store for milk!
I honestly can’t remember the first time I came across this saying but it’s since turned into one of my very favorite sayings to share with my clients.
“Stop going to the hardware store for milk” essentially means that at a certain point you have to realize that the thing you are trying to get from a particular source simply may not be possible and it would save you a world of frustration if you could only stop going to the wrong source for that thing you really need.
What this can look like in real life:
- Going to your parent again and again for emotional support when you’re deeply hurting and having them disappointingly just not be able to emotionally show up for you;
- Repeatedly expecting your partner to give you specific, spot-on advice about something you’re wrestling with and having them frustratingly not be able to help you in the exact way you hope they will;
- Trying to talk to your sibling about something again and again in the hopes that they might be able to take personal responsibility for their part in the conflict you’re having and yet having them just. not. get. it;
- Turning towards a friend hoping and wishing they could finally, actually get you and be a source of camaraderie and empathy despite their life being a complete opposite of yours.
Whatever the specifics are for you, I’m imagining there have been times and moments when you’ve repeatedly turned towards a loved one for something you’re deeply longing for and, no matter how hard you tried to explain what it is you need or how many times you ask for that thing, they just have not been able to provide it for you, right?
You have, essentially, been going to the hardware store for milk when, quite frankly, that darn hardware store just doesn’t have any milk at all to give you.
And it’s probably been a very painful experience for you, hasn’t it? Of course it has.
So why do you keep doing it?
Why do you shop for milk at the hardware store?
The reasons you proverbially shop for milk at a hardware store are complex and unique to you but somewhere at the root of it is likely the hope and expectation that a certain someone should be able to fulfill X, Y, and Z of your needs.
That “should” — that hope, that expectation — is where the pain and frustration can come from.
Look, of course it makes sense that you would want your parent to provide you with emotional support when you’re hurting, or for your partner to be able to show up for you with the perfect advice you’re craving, or for your sibling to take responsibility and be able to self-reflect in their relationship with you, or for your friend to get you and your life when you turn towards them for support.
All of those needs and wants are totally valid! It’s human nature to turn towards those we are close to for support and comfort when we’re hurting and longing to be seen and understood.
But sometimes the people in our lives truly can’t show up for us in the ways we want and expect them to. Through no fault of their own, they simply may not have the emotional and relational skills to do so. And yet we still shop for milk at the hardware store because it’s hard to see and accept that our loved ones are limited and perhaps just not capable of providing us that thing we dearly need and want.
But when we continue turning towards people who truly can’t give us what we need and want instead of seeking out others who are more capable of giving us the thing we crave, we add hurt and frustration on top of whatever hard or challenging feelings we’re already wrestling with. And that can be so, so painful.
So what can you do about this unsuccessful milk shopping?
The first step is, of course, to bring your awareness to the fact that you have, proverbially, been shopping for milk at the hardware store. Accept that you’ve been turning towards sources who simply can’t give you the thing you want and need.
And then you must grieve. You must grieve the thing you may not be able to receive from the source you believe “should” provide this for you and who you dearly want to provide this for you. You must mourn the limits of your loved ones and feel all the painful, possibly young feelings that come up for you when you realize you may never ever get X, Y, or Z from the very person you imagined and expected would be able to provide this for you.
(And yes, sweetheart, you *do* actually get to grieve this.)
And, at the same time you’re grieving and accepting the things you may never receive from some, you can begin practicing shopping for milk at more reliable sources. You know, like at grocery stores.
You can begin seeking out and cultivating sources who can actually show up for you in the ways you need and want (your grocery store people!). These folks may be other members of your family, they could be friends, they could be part of your spiritual community, it could be your women’s group, it could be your therapist.
Begin noticing who can show up for you in the ways you truly crave in those moments of need, and turn towards THEM. The act of having your needs and wants met by people who can actually show up for you can be deeply reparative and healing.
And, of course, even our grocery store people won’t be able to show up for us all the time in the ways we want, even if they have the capacities and skills to do so. Because, Life.
Life demands a lot of all of us and sometimes our loved ones (not to mention us!) simply don’t have the bandwidth to show up. And yet this – someone’s situational limitation – is different from someone who may not have the emotional or relational capacities to show up at all ever in the ways we want. Discerning between the two is important.
So seek out your grocery store people, know where you can actually get your milk when you want and need milk, and develop multiple sources you can turn to for milk when one store proverbially runs out.
In recognizing who can most likely show up for you in the ways you want and need and cultivating more of these resources in your life, you will greatly increase your odds of getting milk when you want and need it and, in doing so, provide yourself with reparative healing opportunities.
Now I’d love to hear from you:
What came up for you in reading this article? Do you sometimes go shopping for milk at the hardware store? Has learning to “shop for milk at the grocery store” been a healing and reparative experience in your own life?”
Leave a message in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.
If you would like additional support right now and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
Jon F. Gasper on
Stop going to the hardware store for milk. That is a wonderful analogy for why ones partner may not fulfill your needs. For years I went to the hardware store looking. In the end all that I found was dis-consolation. So with professional help I am finally looking in the right direction. The hardware store no longer means anything to me. The connection has dissolved. Now I am looking for a grocer.
Looking for a proverbial “grocer” sounds like a wise and self-loving choice, Jon. I wish you all the very best in your journey to do so! Warmly, Annie
Antonia Nelson on
Love love love this!!!
Simple act, stop looking for what you want in places it will never be found! Boom
Move on to the next step and start the healing process!!
So glad this article resonated with you, Antonia! Thank you for taking the time to read it. Warmly, Annie
I just can’t shop anywhere right now. But this article made me realize that I don’t actually ask for help or support as I don’t know how and it’s extremely difficult (except for basically people I pay. Paying doesn’t lessen their value, I just think people have so much shit of their own, they can’t possibly want to hear about mine
Thank you, Jan, for your comment. And you’re right: just because you pay someone for “milk” (like a therapist or doctor or coach) doesn’t lessen the value or mean anything about you. It can be very hard to find people in our personal lives who can show up for us in the way we want and being wise and self-loving enough to seek out professional help can be a tremendous support. Warmly, Annie
I like the statement. I learned that the body has a mechanism to heal, so I quit going to external hardware stores. The best healing choice I ever made in 60 years.
I’m so glad that’s worked well for you, Leckey! Warmly, Annie
Literally and figuratively, sometimes you CAN find milk at hardware stores. But it will most likely be in a small container and come with a steep price tag.
Ha! Good point, Karen. Way to extrapolate the metaphor. 🙂
I’m thinking sometimes the hardware store poses as a grocery store, which can be very confusing. My example is Swedish psychiatry offering you milk for a very discounted price. Being in desperate need of milk to survive you can then tend to go back, again and again, even though the milk is very processed and not nutritional, sometimes sour and often doing more harm than good. And you do it because you can’t see any other options.
The good quality grocery stores, that could actually cater to your needs and provide you with nourishing milk that helps you heal, are too far away from where you are, very expensive and don’t take food stamps (if you even have any). So you are stuck knowing that there is milk out there, but without being able to reach it.
You turn to people around you, getting a little milk here and there, from people who really want to support you but don’t have much milk to share themselves. You even try to produce the milk yourself, and you are able to get some sustenance from it.
Yes, I definitely agree with you that getting the proverbial milk we’re sometimes longing for and needing can be very hard to find and access. And yet, my hope for you and for all of us is that if we persist enough, we will find what we need in relationship.
I stopped going to the hardware store for milk many years ago. I have also come to realize that when there is no grocery nearby when I need milk… I do have a cow and can get the milk myself… sometimes you are the only one who will really understand what is going on in your life/psyche and that is not a bad thing.
That’s very true. No one else will be the expert of your experience quite like you and sometimes we’re the only ones who can give ourselves the proverbial “milk” we need.
Thank you for sharing your experience.
Thank you for your words Annie, something we all need to remind ourselves of. I have always had a distant relationship with my older brother simply because he doesn’t desire to communicate or emote because “that’s just him.” But my son recently died and he vowed we would step and be more supportive. Yet somehow he has not followed through with those vows and has added more hurt by judging my grieving process. How do you accept someone who promises to be your grocer but somehow ends up being the worst hardware store owner on top of everything else?
First let me say, I am so very, very sorry to hear about the death of your son. I can only imagine how deeply you may be grieving and how hard it must be to have someone who, in your time of need, say they will show up and then don’t. I want to invite you to consider that you don’t actually have to “accept” that person as in, feel good about their behavior, but you could “accept” it in the fact that perhaps you recognize and realize this person may not change. From there, you can look for other “grocers” to turn to and let into your life.
Again, I am so sorry to hear about your son and hope that you are getting all the supports you need from other safe sources around you.
What about when the hardware store sells milk to someone else but never seems to have milk available for you. That is super painful and not really addressed in the article.
That completely describes my lifelong shopping experience. Lots of milk but little for me. Super painful. It’s likely the reason I trust absolutely no one in my life.
Beth, I’m so sorry it feels as though that has been your lifelong shopping experience. I would just like to emphasize that you are deserving of an abundance of milk, whatever your milk may be.