Why Do We Treat Having Needs as Equivalent to Being Inadequate?

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The topic of needs is nuanced and complex and we use the word “need” in many ways that are fraught with cultural bias. But, try this short look at the value of recognizing and having emotional needs met.

We admit with clarity that humans need food and water and sleep. Sure, we can fast; we can go without fluids for brief periods; we can survive without sleep but not for long long periods. Stated differently, our bodies have real needs and if they are not met, there are consequences, particularly in children.

When children are deprived of food and water, their development is thwarted and they fail to thrive (literally and figuratively). These basic needs are not perceived as weaknesses; they are part of being human and thriving.

My work with individuals who have experienced trauma leads me to another related observation. Whether we want to admit it or not, we have emotional needs that must be fulfilled too. If you deprive children of affection and touch, if you neglect them, they will fail to thrive. Benign neglect is hurtful.

Children whose basic emotional needs are unmet experience lifelong consequences, including attachment disorders. Survival with depth and richness requires more than food and water and sleep — although too many children lack all three globally.

Humans (well, most of them other than hermits or those with disorders related to attachment) have needs for other humans. We are, after all, social animals. The emotional needs of adults are not all evidence of narcissism or personality deficits or some form of immaturity (as in he still needs his mother and he is 40 years old). And yes, adult needs differ from the needs of children.

The problem is that if one has been traumatized and that trauma is the result of neglect or the trauma goes unattended to, the affected individual learns to survive independently — denying needs and managing life without deeply needing anything or anyone.

The fear and hurt of needs NOT being met makes a traumatized individual avoid feelings of need; need becomes dangerous in that you must rely on another and risk that that “other” will not meet needs. So in an effort to get self protection, we deny needs. Sometimes, we are blind to our needs and cannot recognize them or speak of them. Some of those students demonstrating all that bravura are actually folks with unmet needs.

To be transparent, I have not been a fan of needs. They feel risky and self indulgent. Better to meet the needs of others than to recognize one’s own needs. Even seeing a doctor sometimes seems unnecessarily self-focused.

In our culture, we have autonomy Uber alles. Too bad we denigrate all emotional need and aspire to complete autonomy. When we do that, we miss out.

We miss out on human connection (and animal connection too). And we know that success depends on reciprocity and at least some person who genuinely cares and believes in one’s well-being.

Think about leaders who don’t believe they have needs and that they are always right. Think about leaders who don’t ask for help or advice and adore silos. Think about leaders who fire folks left and right and fail to understand the needs of those with whom they work or their own emotional needs.

But, watching traumatized adults and children struggle, we would be wise to help people realize that having needs — recognizing and expressing those needs — is not a sign of weakness or illness or deficiency. Emotional needs — like the need to be intimate with another person — is not something to denigrate. It is not a weakness.

Now, there are exaggerated needs and excessive needs. Some people need to write a whole book to vindicate their being fired — see David Schulkin’s just released book if you want an example. Some people have only needs and no capacity to deal with the needs of others. They are non-reciprocal.

But, there are healthy needs and for individuals with trauma we need to help them see that needing is not the same as being needy (repetition intended). Wanting intimacy or or human connection, wanting a good relationship with a partner or child or friend, isn’t bad. And there are children who hurt their parents by not even recognizing parental needs let alone attending to them (assuming non-abusive parents and reasonable needs). There are relationships that fail because only one person’s needs are met.

I am reminded of James Ryan’s question in his stellar book, Wait What?. One of his five questions to ask others and of oneself is: What can I do to help you or what help do I need (the latter being my addition)? Would that we could ask that of others and ourselves. We are asking: what do you need?.

My advice: make “ need “ a word that is not a perennial negative. It can be a positive when we recognize that humans have legitimate physiological and emotional needs, whether or not they admit the accuracy of that statement.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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