This may be because you have needs that are not being met.
Before you say, “No Shit Sherlock”, take a moment to check whether what comes to mind when you read this are a list of wants rather than needs. What I am referring to are our basic human needs, such as for security, autonomy and achievement. Many of us have experienced a loss of some of these basic needs during the pandemic. Even I, as a lifelong member of the “Introverts club”, happy to run with a lighter social calendar for a while, really missed that most common physical demonstration of emotional intimacy and acceptance – a hug from a friend.
The recent health crisis may have made us aware of some common needs, but it cannot be blamed for all our unmet needs. Sometimes we are the ones who get in our own way of getting our needs met because of beliefs we hold based on our early life experiences. I invite you to join me on a deeper dive into our human needs in the hope you will find an idea that is new to you that will help you get the support or respite you need.
What are our basic human needs?
We all have needs. We come into this world with a few “pre-programmed” and we add to these as we grow and develop and take our place in our families and communities. Our core needs as babies are to be nurtured and protected to ensure we survive. Then as we explore our worlds we need to be seen and valued by the people around us to maintain our safety, encourage our creativity and self-expression so we can thrive. As we venture beyond immediate family, we need to feel connection with and inclusion in our communities to be healthy and find meaning in our lives, through our relationships, our roles and our sense of purpose.
Why is it so hard to acknowledge our own needs?
As children how our needs were acknowledged and satisfied or discounted and neglected will have an impact on how we are in relationships as adults and the beliefs we hold. Nature shaped little humans to adapt to their care givers and families, to ensure their best chance of survival. For some children this means learning to suppress certain needs when the people their lives depend on can’t meet or tolerate these. Even when basic needs for food, shelter and protection are met the need to be valued, express individuality and achieve emotional connection may be left unsatisfied. When such children become adults it can be hard to even acknowledge these needs as they may feel it makes them weak, less than or unlovable, and they continue to suppress them. Nonetheless those needs are still there, they didn’t go away.
For example, for some people, acknowledging they need help can feel like failing. Their early life experience may have left them with a belief they should be able to do everything themselves and there is no point in asking for help as it will never come. When this early conditioning is carried into adulthood it can lead to taking on a lot of work and responsibility, which may make for highly productive individuals, but without the ability to ask for help when it is needed can lead to stress and resentment.
Attempting to change this behavior is difficult, although not impossible. If in the past showing any dependency was threatening to your existence, asking for help may feel incredibly uncomfortable as although it is no longer life threatening it is questioning your very identity as a capable and highly independent person. To move forward will require a change in belief. Instead of seeing the need for help as diminishing, you can consider that recognizing you need help and asking for help are positive and healthy actions that build and foster good relationships, making you more effective, not less.
This type of turnaround in thinking is a useful tool in coaching. If we find a belief is no longer serving our client we can ask what the opposite belief might be and then together we can explore what truth there might be in this alternative way of thinking about an issue.
However, loved and privileged you were in childhood you may still find that you have an unmet need. This is not a failing in yourself, or your carers, assuming everyone did the best they could with what they knew and understood and the resources they had access to. Identifying, accepting, and meeting that need as an adult may be an important part of your personal growth and lead to more fulfillment. It will also help you identify and respond to that need in others in a healthy and compassionate way.
Wants vs Needs
Becoming aware of suppressed needs is the first step towards getting these met as it gives us the opportunity to revisit the thoughts and beliefs, we have about them. As adults we can choose how to express our needs in healthy ways and how we want to have our needs met. Our survival no longer depends upon this but our happiness does.
To get more clarity on our needs it may be helpful to draw a distinction between wants and needs. For example, consider our need for food. We need nutritional food to survive.
I may want cake, but if there are other more nutritional foods available, I don’t need cake and in fact cake is not the best option at this time. If I satisfy the want I have not addressed the need effectively and I will quickly be hungry again as my body seeks the nutrients it requires.
To help you identify your needs consider the things you want in your life and then ask yourself what need each of these might meet. You may find the following list of needs, adapted from the Human Givens approach to therapy, helpful in categorizing your wants in this way.
Security — a safe environment which allows us to develop fully
Attention — by giving and receiving we build our sense of self and value as an individual
Sense of autonomy and control — power to make choices and agency to direct our own lives
Feeling part of a wider community – connection, relationships, roles and purpose
Emotional intimacy — acceptance of who we truly are without any pretense
Privacy — space to reflect and consolidate learning and choosing what we share
Sense of status within social groupings – acceptance and support from the wider community
Sense of competence and achievement
Meaning and purpose — our drive to grow and create as part of something beyond ourselves.
When you have grouped your wants in this way, what groupings or gaps stand out? What thoughts or feelings did you have about the different needs? What new ideas did you come up with?
What needs are you projecting onto others?
As parents many of us are hyper focused on the needs of our children. In a romantic relationship we may be focusing on our partners needs and find ourselves working hard to try and meet these. If we have aging parents, we may be anxious about their day to day need for support. Connecting with and caring for others is an important part of having healthy relationships but when the needs of others are in conflict with our own needs or totally eclipse them, we can become stressed and depleted.
If we have unmet needs we run the risk, as parents or carers, of projecting these needs onto our children and may become enmeshed to the extent that our children’s success or failure feels like our own. We can also have unrealistic expectations of our romantic partners that they will meet all our needs even if we can’t accept that we have these! It is our responsibility as adults to meet our own needs. If we are looking to others to meet these we may find we place too much pressure on them or become anxious as we cannot control the outcome.
Self-care is not selfish
Learning to listen to and acknowledge our own needs is important for our mental and physical wellbeing and creating healthy relationships. By taking care of ourselves we will be better able to care for the people who are important to us. We will have more energy and creativity to support them in their challenges and we will avoid becoming resentful and burned out. If the idea of putting self-care first is uncomfortable it may be triggering feelings of guilt or shame. This can happen if you believe that to be a good person/wife/son/parent you must put others first and sacrifice your own needs.
I want to be clear: self-care is not selfish. Taking care of yourself and taking care of others are not mutually exclusive options and it is important to achieve a balance between the two. There will be times in your life when you choose to put others before yourself but not all the time and not to the extent that you are emotionally or physically exhausted, unable to grow and flourish as an individual.
When I suggest finding a balance between your needs and others this doesn’t mean an equal 50/50 split. Aim for a position which feels reasonable and realistic to you that ensures you can be effective in your role and replenish your physical and emotional resources. What is reasonable is not fixed, it will change over time and seasons of your life. First time parents will experience a dramatic shift as they take on responsibility for a new and totally dependent but separate life. Gradually over time the shift can move back as children become less dependent and their support needs change to allow them space and grace in which to grow, fail, learn and build resilience for themselves.
If you find you have neglected your needs and been overly focused on your child’s needs, what beliefs will your children hold about what it means to be a good parent and how to value themselves should they take on that role in the future. In what ways could you show them how you take care of your needs whilst also supporting them in finding healthy ways to get their needs met so you can both grow and flourish?
As you explore these ideas and reflect on your experiences, please be kind to yourself and remember, wherever there is resistance, there is learning.