Know your needs!
“Know thyself!” — in this maxim Socrates outlined his route for personal growth, greater happiness and fulfilment. What it means to know yourself is a hugely vast, complex psychological and philosophical question. We may wonder where and how we can embark on this journey. I would suggest the starting point by rephrasing Socrates’ call: know your needs!
Being in touch with your needs forms a foundation for knowing yourself. This may sound prosaic, down to earth, yet the failure to recognize and meet our needs is often the root of many physical and mental health issues.
Consider an example, that you don’t realize that you are hungry and you go for a whole day without food. You may end up feeling faint, developing a headache and getting snappy and short-tempered. Do it for long enough and more serious health issues may develop. Or suppose you do not heed your need to have some quiet time by yourself and keep saying yes to social engagements or volunteer to babysit your friend’s child. It will result in you feeling drained, resentful and wondering why the spark has gone from activities that used to be fun. Similarly, taking on extra tasks at work, working long hours on a regular basis will pave a road to burnout, often characterized by increased anxiety and depression.
Our needs are diverse and complex. They concern physical, emotional and intellectual aspects of our existence. It is important to get to know them intimately in order to be able to create a lifestyle that supports and promotes our wellbeing on different levels. An appreciable part of my therapy work is dedicated to helping people get better at recognizing and addressing their needs.
What stops us from knowing our needs
It may be surprising to know that you might need therapy to get in touch with your needs. Aren’t we supposed to just know them intuitively? After all, our needs are part and parcel of who we are. What can be closer to home?
There are, however, serious hurdles that get in the way of us being in touch with our needs. Most of them stem from our upbringing. If our physical and emotional needs were neglected when we were children we wouldn’t become skilled in recognizing them ourselves. Equally, if our parents neglected their own needs we would have learned to do the same from their negative role-model.
There are also all kinds of judgmental labels and messages which end up creating blocks to being in touch with our needs. One of the most virulent and pervasive of such labels is “selfish.” You may (or may not!) be surprised to learn how many people express qualms about doing therapy because spending time and money on themselves and their emotional needs means for them “being selfish.”
Similarly, values and beliefs implicated in our self-identity may obscure our needs from us. Our aspirations, our desire to live up to certain standards become intricately interwoven with our self-image. Our mind (a skilled deceiver!) will then “help” us to avoid an inner conflict by hiding from our awareness things that may challenge our inner beliefs and self-perception. Thus if we associate being “strong” with having a “stiff upper lip” we may learn to suppress our emotions and never allow ourselves to cry – even when we are grieving a significant loss. Likewise, the fear of being a “failure” may prevent us from quitting a job we hate and exploring other possibilities that would allow us to realize our potential.
One step at a time
Being in touch with our needs and knowing how to communicate them effectively is a basis for building healthy relationships with our family, friends and work colleagues, for preventing burnout and ensuring that we function to the best of our ability.
Getting through to our needs may require overcoming certain emotional barriers, some of which I have outlined above: dealing with self-judgment and the feelings of shame that it triggers; challenging our pre-existing assumptions about ourselves and the world around us. It will require courage to learn to express our needs to others and not to suppress them for the fear of confrontation.
This is a journey that will be forever unfolding as we are continuously changing and thus will our needs. It will always be a work in progress, a thought that I find rather liberating. It means we don’t need to strive to be perfect or complete.
All we need to do is to take one step at a time.