If a newborn baby was somehow given only its physical needs — food, warmth, shelter — but no human interaction or emotional connection, it would grow up as little more than a wild animal.
I know, it’s repulsive to even think about.
My point, however, is that most people live in the space between getting none of their needs met and getting all of their needs met. And the distance you are from the upper end of that spectrum is exactly the extent to which you are likely to behave like a red-assed baboon in the wild.
To avoid this embarrassing predicament, it’s a good idea to discover exactly what your needs are, how to take care of them, and what might be standing in your way.
Feelings and Needs
Needs speak to us through our feelings. If I feel sad, overwhelmed, or lonely, I am given an opportunity to recognize an unmet need and deal with it appropriately. Maybe I call a friend, do something I love, rest, or whatever.
But if blithely ignore my feelings (the check-engine light of my soul) and power through life with chronically unmet needs, a very unsurprising thing happens. My nervous system says, “Fuck this, I’m definitely gonna get my needs met, bro. Try and stop me.” Because a hungry mouth won’t stay hungry for long.
This is where all human savagery originates.
What Unmet Needs Look Like
Maladaptive coping mechanisms like codependency, perfectionism, addiction, self-harm, narcissism, etc. always form around unmet needs. This explains workaholics, chronic complainers, toxic positivity, and all manner of unsavory human behavior.
We’re all just trying to satisfy our needs, either consciously or unconsciously.
The important thing to know here is that, when we do it consciously, we have an opportunity to make healthy choices for ourselves. When we satisfy our needs unconsciously, however, we are at high risk of just grabbing whatever’s easy, convenient, or within arm’s reach and stuffing it into the hole in our chest.
Sex, cookies, drugs, Netflix, Instagram followers. Fuckin whatever. Just plug the damn hole, would ya?
What Even Are My Needs?
Most people haven’t the foggiest notion of the extent of their physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Here are the basics:
•Safety and Security
•Connection and Belonging
•Acceptance and Validation
•Attention, Affection, and Appreciation
•Freedom, Autonomy, and Agency
•Space and Privacy
•Peace and Solitude
•Self-Love and Self-Care
•Purpose and Progress
•Honesty and Authenticity
•Play and Joyfulness
When any one of these things is missing from my life, bad things happen to good people.
For example, if all my needs are satisfied, but there is no joy or playfulness in my life, I quickly resort to thinking, What the fuck am I even doing on this earth? Then I wanna self-medicate or do some off-the-wall shit to stir up some excitement.
Or, if everything is lovely, but I don’t feel safe and secure in my home, my job, or my relationship, I become an anxiety-addled mess and I wanna karate chop everybody then cry in the fetal position.
All the needs in this list are not “nice-to-haves.” Every single one is imperative to healthy functioning of the human organism. I realize this may be shocking news to many people. If you are such a person, I recommend taking a screenshot or printing out this list of needs as a reference. Learning to satisfy these needs in healthy ways can totally transform your life.
So How Do I Satisfy My Needs?
One method is to try to take care of all your needs by yourself. This is called independence, or in some cases counter-dependence, and is often a response to unsafe or failed relationships in our childhood. We tend to praise “strong, independent people,” but truthfully, fierce independence is not all that healthy. Many people with an avoidant attachment style occupy this camp.
Another strategy is to get other people to meet all of your needs. This is called dependence and is equally dysfunctional. Those with an anxious attachment style often march to this drum because of childhood abandonment or sporadically unmet needs.
Codependence is almost indiscernible from dependence, and typically infects people of similar ilk. The difference is that codependency means trying to get my needs met by meeting your needs. It’s a clever, yet sloppy form of emotional blackmail compulsively used by people who are ill-equipped to get their needs met in wholesome ways.
Both dependence and codependence are socially awkward and painfully ineffective when applied to everyone in your life. But when you focus that unhealthy dependency on one person, such as a romantic partner or a parent, shit gets red-flag-ugly in a jiffy.
Emotionally mature adults cultivate the fine art of interdependence. These people are able to identify their needs and communicate them clearly. Their self-care game is top-notch, but they’re also comfortable satisfying their needs through healthy connection with others, including romantic partners. Interdependence is not demanding, but mutually beneficial. It allows for boundaried and appropriate give and take.
Why Is It So Damn Hard?
State your needs. Self-care. Healthy boundaries. Seems simple enough, yeah? So why is that shit harder than braille calculus?
First of all, it’s possible to graduate from twelve years of public education, get multiple degrees from prestigious universities, and not once broach the topic of your own fundamental human needs. I try not to be cynical if I can avoid it, but what in the actual FUCK are schools doing if not teaching us to be functional human beings?
Secondly, look at your parents. Did they have you when they were seventeen? Finalize the divorce when you were eight days old? Yell at each other like complete idiots? Work twelve-hour shifts and leave you with a teenage babysitter? Even if they were ostensibly adequate parents, do you suppose they learned any more in school than you did? Sure, they probably loved you very much and did the best they could with what they had. But there’s a strong possibility that your parents had no idea what they were doing.
Thirdly, trauma. At its core, trauma is an overwhelming experience of unmet needs that gets burned into your nervous system, along with whatever maladaptive survival strategies you used to cope. Trauma teaches you to fear your feelings instead of feel your feelings. And people who cannot feel usually have a tough time identifying and taking care of their needs in healthy ways. Where there is trauma, there is always some form of self-abandonment and often addiction as well.
How Do I Fix It?
To address the three obstacles above, I recommend 1) re-educating yourself, 2) re-parenting yourself, and 3) working with a trauma-informed coach or therapist.
There have never been more books, blogs, videos, podcasts, and educational resources about emotional intelligence and healing than there are today. Take advantage of those things and learn all the stuff they forgot to teach you in school.
Knowledge is wonderful, but it changes nothing until you apply it and begin practicing new, healthier, self-care behaviors. Re-parenting yourself means focusing on getting your needs met in mature, appropriate ways all day, every day.
Trauma is a scary word, and it’s even scarier to deal with in real life. Journey Through Trauma by Gretchen Schmelzer describes the healing process from both personal and professional experience. It may be a good book to read before engaging in the most difficult task of your life. Also, The 4 Pillars of Healing and Growth is a short article that lays out some sound guidance and helpful tools.
And when you finally get a strong sense of what your needs are and how to tend to them, you will inevitably find that your life is pretty fantastic.
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