If you’ve been in therapy for any period of time, you’re familiar with how much we therapists just love to help you identify and describe your emotions. It’s kind of our thing, and yes we know it can get a bit obnoxious. We don’t care.
It’s for good reason, given that our culture does a pretty terrible job of teaching us language for articulating our internal state. In fact, our society thrives on us ignoring our actual emotional landscape so that we can just… keep… going (and producing…).
Tuning into our emotions is power. And once we’ve done that, we get to graduate to the 201 course of the Literacy of Me. This course is titled, “What are the hell are my NEEDS?”
It sounds straightforward, really. We know what needs are – we think – and we know we require them to operate healthfully. So why are we so darn bad at identifying, articulating, and getting them met? Why do we walk around with so many unmet needs, harboring resentment or stories about how we must not deserve to have those needs met?
It might be because we don’t actually have a solid understanding of what our needs are, and we’ve never actually be encouraged or taught to excavate them. But guess what? That’s about to change…
Needs are closely related to our personal values. They are our individual set of requirements for living a whole, fulfilled, nourished life. They are what allow us – when met – to be most fully in flow and safety.
Needs can vary in their degree of intensity, meaning that we can have our own hierarchy of needs. We might, for example, need safety more than or before we can experience pleasure.
Our needs can also ebb and flow over time. While they tend to remain somewhat stable, some of our needs might take more precedence at certain times in our lives. We may need more connection during a period of uncertainty, whereas that needs recedes when we are feeling more sure of our path. The need is always there, but its primacy shifts.
Here’s an important distinction that you’re going to want to remember. There is a difference between our needs and the strategies we use to meet those needs. Let me explain, and then give you some examples.
Our needs are always internal requirements. They can’t necessarily be observed or touched. Strategies used to meet needs are observable and behavioral. They are the things we do or consume or take to meet what the need is.
If we think we need money, we are actually needing security, autonomy, or whatever value the money – a tangible thing – provides us.
If we say we need quality time with our partner, we are actually needing affection, connection, or playfulness. The quality time is a means to meeting those core needs.
It might seem like semantics, but this distinction is important. The reason it’s so vital to differentiate is twofold. First, we need to be able to define our own core needs and consider multiple ways of meeting those needs, because sometimes one strategy is not available. Second, we need to be able to articulate our needs to others, and when we ask for a strategy versus expressing the core need, we could limit the opportunity of the person to understand us.
For example, if we might tell our partner that we need them to cook dinner for the family on weeknights (a strategy). This request could reflect a need for relaxation for us after work. It could reflect a need to feel valued in our relationship. It could reflect a need for equity. It could reflect a need for us to tend to our health by taking a walk after work.
It’s not that the strategy request is not valid or important. But it doesn’t communicate anything about what we are needing or valuing in that request. And it then limits our partner’s ability to meet that need potentially in other ways or alternative ways if that one isn’t going to work.
Getting familiar with your needs is a practice. One of the best ways to do so is to reference a list — or a wheel! — to help us spark our awareness. When we become practiced at identifying our needs, we get closer to ourselves and those important to us. And we begin to ask for and create opportunities for needs to be met.