There is a difference between our needs and the way we meet our needs. Except sometimes we don’t feel that there is — perhaps because we don’t know of another way for our needs to be met. But if we can learn another way then we can expand our repertoire of behaviour and live more flexible and fulfilled lives.
We Are Needy
It seems obvious to me that we have needs, that we are related to our environment (ecological, cultural and value laden) — so that there is a more or less good match between our needs and our environment.
Much of the early part of our lives is spent learning how to meet our needs in the situation we are thrown into. Individuals’ needs and the situations they negotiate vary hugely. One Tibetan Buddhist in Lhasa will have a different experience to another in Dharamsala. An Australian aboriginal living a fairly traditional life in the Northern Territory will have a different experience to an Anglo-Saxon Australian General Practitioner with a lucrative practice at Potts Point (one of the wealthier parts of Sydney).
Some situations will provide better for some needs, while a different environment will fulfil others. The need for touch will perhaps be better met in Africa or Italy than (Anglo-Saxon parts of) Australia or England. The need for physical safety will be better met in most suburbs than in a war zone. One family may nurture a child’s critical enquiry and frustrate their desire to play music; another family will encourage interpersonal sensitivity but devalue manual skill.
Learning Ways and Means
We were all born into this world with few instincts compared to other critters — and so we learn to negotiate this complex world. There are expectations about speech, rules about eating, rituals for greeting, codes of politeness and rudeness, a language to learn, and much else too.
As we grow and negotiate this complexity we acquire our habits and attitudes; initially conscious ventures and experiments, later they become (largely) unconscious. We develop a personality, a manner of life and relating, preferred styles — all of which we feel are ‘us’. Having these things challenged, or being in situations where they aren’t functional, can evoke excitement, anxiety or fear.
I think it is a bit puzzling that these ways of life being challenged or having them cease functioning leads to such strong reactions (or perhaps any strong emotion at all). After all, these are not our needs. If we need to change our sense of what is polite or rude, why can’t we just get on with doing it? Or, more likely, why do we find some parts of politeness and rudeness harder to change than others?
I think that we cling so tightly to our ways of doing things because they become closely related to our needs. We may believe that there is only one way to meet a particular need.
We may believe that we have to insist if we are to get food. We may believe that selling ourselves is essential to getting the job. We may believe that it is only by patient and plodding perseverance that a skill is acquired. We may believe that it is collaboration which leads to any worthwhile achievement. We may believe that a particular kind of employment is essential to our self-esteem.
This can lead to our being tunnel-visioned and restricting ourselves unnecessarily. We will usually have friends who meet the same needs that we have in quite different ways to us. They are likely to hug everyone on meeting, while we reserve hugs for close friends. They love to dance, we like bushwalking. They state what they want up front; we look for what the other person wants and see where it meets with our needs.
Beyond the circle of our friends there will be other cultures that organise themselves quite differently to our own. Australian culture can be aggressively egalitarian, while traditional Indian culture has an elaborate hierarchy which people were placed into; Australians enjoy space and a relaxed communication style — in Tokyo people are jammed into trains and will likely be more formal in their way of relating.
Expanding Our Repertoire
There is a simply extraordinary array of ways for our needs to be met. What I want to suggest is that if we are feeling that one (or more) of our needs is not being met, then there are probably options to explore.
Which will bring us up against our sense of who we are. I am shy and so don’t want to sell myself in a job interview; I am outgoing and so don’t want to spend time by myself; I am an intuitive and don’t want to work consistently through the exercises to learn a skill.
I am not saying that our ideas about ourselves are wrong. Nor am I saying that we should necessarily change them. What I am saying is that our sense of who we are may be contributing to our needs not being met. And I am saying that we can experiment with expanding our options for meeting our needs. We have nothing to lose by learning how other people and cultures meet the needs that we have. If nothing else it will expand the options to consider.
We may then decide to try out one or more options and see whether it fits for us. We don’t need to give up our way of doing things — we can simply add another option for meeting the need we have.
I’m wondering whether you have had the experience of finding a new way to meet some need of yours. I’d love to hear your experience of what it was like for you in the comments.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by