Just as your basic physical needs (e.g., food, water, shelter) must be met to ensure your physical survival and growth, another set of needs must also be satisfied to guarantee your psychological and emotional survival and growth. These needs include:
- Feeling loved ("I'm worthwhile"),
- Allaying insecurity ("I'm safe"),
- Feeling competent ("I'm capable"),
- Feeling in control ("I'm in charge"), and
- Guarding against negative emotions ("I feel good.")
Every human being has these needs and they, in and of themselves, are neither healthy nor unhealthy, functional nor dysfunctional; they are simply a part of what drives us as humans. We don't have the capabilities at a young age to satisfy these needs ourselves, so we rely on parents and other caregivers to meet these needs. What makes these needs beneficial or harmful to us -- and whether our life inertia begins in a positive direction -- depends on how they are satisfied by our parents and others when we were children.
Unfortunately, because of our inability to satisfy these needs on our own, we are vulnerable to the neuroses, pathologies, and just plain whims of our parents and the environment in which we were raised. These vagaries of childhood can mean that the prominence that certain needs take in our lives, and the ways we learn to satisfy those needs, don't necessarily turn out to be healthy or functional in the long run. Yet, these fundamental personal needs become the first impetus behind our life inertia; our values, our thoughts, emotions, and actions, our reactions to people, and how we respond to different situations are all initially formed to satisfy those most basic needs.
Needs or NEEDS!
For needs to exert a functional force over the initial creation of your life inertia, they must be met sufficiently and in a timely and appropriate manner by loving parents and a supportive environment. This means that the needs are satisfied unconditionally by parents without children needing to make a special -- and perhaps unhealthy -- effort to have those needs met. These needs then gain a healthy and balanced place in the constellation of needs that we all have and that form the initial force propelling our life inertia. Needs that have been satisfied in a positive way start out functional, create a positive life inertia, and continue to exert a healthy influence over us into adulthood.
In contrast, needs that were not readily or adequately met in childhood gain an out-of-proportion prominence as children get older, much as a child who grows up poor may develop an obsession with making money because of their early deprivation. I distinguish these types of needs by capitalizing and italicizing them and following them by an exclamation point: NEEDS! NEEDS! are those that can only be satisfied in a conditional way (e.g., only if children actively conform to their parents' demands). These NEEDS! are characterized by their ability to exert influence over us in ways that are unhealthy, dysfunctional, and counter to our best interests, and that create a negative life inertia early in our lives that often continue into adulthood.
These NEEDS! become a central and powerful force that initiates and propels their life inertia, the singular goal of which is to satisfy those NEEDS! in any way possible. Young children are not conscious of these dynamics, yet their survival instincts intuit what they must do to have their needs met and assume roles and behaviors that ensure this -- even if they ultimately prove to be dysfunctional. As these NEEDS! remain unmet or are met unsatisfactorily, children can take desperate measures. (Desperate is defined as taking on attributes and behaviors that ensure that the NEEDS! are met, but become dysfunctional later in life.) Common NEEDS! include perfectionism, need for control, and need to please. These NEEDS! create a desperation to be satisfied at all costs, even at the expense of the over-all well-being of the person. This dominance in the life inertia, to the weakening or exclusion of other needs, can make these NEEDS! dysfunctional, much like a starving person will do anything to obtain food even if it means breaking the law.
From Needs to NEEDS!
The real litmus test of whether needs are functional or dysfunctional is whether those needs, and their means of satisfaction, help or impede your psychological and emotional integrity. Needs become NEEDS! when they detract from the quality of your life, interfere with your happiness, relationships, or work efforts, or prevent you from achieving your goals. Unfortunately, what can begin as functional by meeting unfulfilled NEEDS! in childhood can become dysfunctional after those needs and how they are met are no longer essential to preserving your psychological and emotional integrity.
For example, Matthew felt out of control, unsafe, and unloved as a child in a family with an alcoholic and sometimes violent father. To satisfy his NEED! for control, he became compulsively neat and organized. To allay his fear of being hurt by others, Matthew became passive and accommodating in his relationship with his father and others. Though these behaviors helped him satisfy his NEEDS! to feel in control, safe, and loved as a child -- and, as a result, were functional at that time -- they have become dysfunctional in adulthood. Fast-forward 20 years, and Matthew continues to satisfy those control, comfort, and love NEEDS! in the same way as he did as a child with excessive control and order in his life, and through passivity in his relationships. Yet the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors related to satisfying those NEEDS! now cause him to feel inadequate, unfulfilled, and miserable about himself, as well as disconnected and manipulated by others because they don't directly address the root causes of his feelings -- they only assuage them enough to be manageable. These NEEDS! have also prevented him from developing healthy relationships because Matthew has been unwilling to let go of control and risk the hurt he felt as a child that is essential to feeling deeply toward and trusting of others.
A question you might have is: Why would you continue to have those NEEDS! or continue to satisfy them in ways that are no longer functional when they are so clearly dysfunctional? The reason is that you still respond to the world as a child, that is, you have the same life inertia -- guided by your most powerful NEEDS! and the means by which you satisfy those NEEDS! -- rather than as an adult with a different and healthier set of needs and substantially more maturity, capabilities, and resources. Much like athletes who practice bad technique for so many years -- they become really skilled at bad technique -- that they can't readily change them because they are so ingrained, you have "practiced" certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving to meet your NEEDS! that became entrenched and habitual parts of you. Though they helped you get through your childhood, they are no longer serve you well as an adult.
The force of your life inertia established in childhood can prevent you from ever understanding, confronting, or resolving those NEEDS! or finding more functional ways of meeting them -- does an asteroid hurtling through space know which path it's on? You may not even be fully aware of the self-sabotaging influence that your life inertia has on you. You may see that your life is not working out the way you had wanted (e.g., unhappiness, failed relationships, career setbacks), but you are at a loss to understand why.
This notion is no more powerfully illustrated than in a 2007 documentary titled Protagonist, in which four men with dysfunctional life inertias are profiled. These men created life inertias, as the New York Times film critic Stephen Holden observes, "as ways of transcending painful, oppressive childhoods that left them with feelings of inadequacy and shame." For all four of these men, NEEDS! that arose due to traumatic early life experiences (suicide of a mother, beatings from a father, being the "school punching bag," and awareness of homosexuality in a religious family, respectively) led to severe and obsessive means of satisfying those NEEDS!, through terrorism, crime, martial arts, and missionary Christianity, respectively. Only later in life did they experience crises that caused them to question and confront their life paths and exert change over their life inertias. Though extreme cases in both the strength of the NEEDS! and the severity of how those NEEDS! were met to be sure, we all have varying types and degrees of NEEDS! from our childhoods and dysfunctional ways of satisfying them.
Future posts will explore ways to let go of your unhealthy NEEDS! and reconnect with your healthy needs.
For more by Dr. Jim Taylor, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.