Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.
Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.
But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.
This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.
Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:
- Physical touch and affection
- Time for relaxation
- Intellectual stimulation
- Fun and play
- A spiritual life/sense of meaning
I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.
For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.
What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?
As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.
For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.
Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.
The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.
In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”
The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.