My favorite definition of needs comes from Connecting Across Differences by Jane Connor, Ph.D and Dian Killian, Ph. D. In their excellent book they write that, “needs are the driving energies of life.” At times I even believe that needs are the guiding energies of life because not only do they propel us to take action, they encourage us to take the right action, if we can only be clear as to what need is alive.
Whether needs are a value we hold dearly or a biological energy such as hunger, needs propel us to act. They create a wanting, a desire that when left unfulfilled can result in irritability, sadness, depression or even death. When fulfilled, the opposite is true, and happiness, presence, health and tranquility can emerge. You might say that nature uses carrots and sticks to get us to meet our needs.
Some needs are essential to our very survival and these are usually obvious and without too much debate. These include, for instance food, air, water and sleep. Next we might agree that there are essential things like shelter, warmth, safety and touch that are “needs” and with them we may perish. At some point, however in the hierarchy of universal human needs, we can find different beliefs and opinions on what is a need and what may be a value, or a “want” or maybe a desire that is not essential at all.
This is okay. What is important is that what I am calling needs here are universal to all humans and are all positive and beautiful. If they do not meet those criterion, they are probably not needs but what NVC might call a “strategy” to meet needs. Probably the best test is it universal. If you can imagine a human being somewhere in the world where that thing would not be life serving or life enhancing, it may not be a need in the context I am referring to.
Another test is whether evolution or God, whichever you prefer would want us to have this need in order to survive, procreate and prosper. Looked at another way, try to imagine life without the energy of a certain need. Could you imagine humanity without the need for learning? Or challenge? Or accomplishment? Or safety, presence, closeness. If you come across one where you can imagine humanity without it, especially if we would be better of without it, it is not a universal need.
Sometimes other words are used for needs such as values, wants, desires and “what matters.” We can even use purpose, intention, goal or cause. At different times and different contexts these other labels often are helpful, especially for people who are too triggered by the idea of having needs or even of the word itself. If this is your case, then use something different. For example, if saying, “I have a need for love and safety,” is too difficult, try, “I value love and safety.”
Most of the conflicts and disappointments in our lives come not from being “needy” or having needs. They come as a result of the choices we make to meet our needs; the actions we take to meet the needs. In NVC terms, the strategies.
Needs on their own do not conflict. They are what they are: an aspect of nature, an expression of our humanity. Needs inform us as to what we need to be happy and healthy. When we are attune to what we need we can make better choices as to how to meet the unmet needs. Otherwise we may make choices that can be harmful to ourselves or others or even the planet.
Strategies on the other hand, are choices we make and are therefore subject to the imperfect nature of our decision making. This does not make them inherently bad. They are not. They are all–no matter how unskillful–attempts to take care of ourselves; to love ourselves. For most people, the strategies that we use to meet our needs (as teenagers for instance) may not be as skillful as ones we create as adults, or after we’ve had some experience and training.
An example of a need is touch. Strategies to meet that need might include a hug, a massage or holding hands. For a child it might mean being held. In NVC terms we try to distinguish between what is a choice—the strategy—and what is life expressing itself—the need.
Discerning our needs from our strategies and solutions is often not easy, especially in a world where our first reaction is normally to look for a solution, even before we are sure what our needs are. For example, money is often thought of as a need. But in NVC philosophy, it is a strategy to meet needs, such as for basic survival needs such as shelter, food and clothing, and also for less essential needs which might include ease, generosity, purpose or adventure.
In today’s world, especially in the west, money has become the go-to strategy for so many needs that we often forget there are other ways to meet needs besides with money. Even the essential survival needs of food and clothing can be met without money, or much money, let alone other needs like ease or generosity.
Ease and relaxation are two needs that are often dependent in our minds on money. For example. if I just save a certain amount of money then I can start to relax. Or then I will take a vacation where I can relax. Or I will start that hobby so I can relax. Well most of us know we can start relaxing right now. We can loosen our grip on the idea that only money can save us and start to relax in this very moment, whether or not we have more money.
Another strategy that is often confused with being a need is a relationship. A relationship is a way we meet many of our needs including for connection, partnership, acceptance, touch and sexual expression to name a few. But all the needs we hope will be satisfied by a relationship can be also met other ways. Connection for example can often be met by merely connecting with oneself. This can be done via meditation, the practice of connecting to needs, writing in a journal or even giving yourself a bear hug.
Another strategy people often confuse as a need is alcohol or drugs. Many of us have probably heard someone say, “I need a drink!” Well they don’t really need a drink, but it is true that alcohol can and does meet certain needs, such as the need to relax and connect, celebrate or just numb out from some pain.
When we go to drink in a bar, we may go there to meet our needs for community, mutuality and shared reality as well as relaxation and connection. Sometimes we need courage, especially to meet our need for connection. Alcohol and drugs can often give us a sense of courage. So the needs met by that drink are often many. And there are many other strategies that can meet those needs as well.
For some people, drinking has become a problem in their life because while it may meet some needs it creates other needs. This is another reason why discernment is so important. We want to ask ourselves, “What need(s) am I trying to meet by going to a bar tonight? Are there other ways I can meet those needs?” If our habit is to go to a bar and then not come home until after midnight even if we have to work in the morning, we may need to balance our need for connection with our need for integrity and respect and consideration of others, which would not be met if we show up to work late and with a hangover.
Interestingly, one reason I believe Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful is because it meets many of the same needs going to a bar did: Namely community, connection, mutuality and shared reality.
Many needs can also be strategies to meet other needs, which of course can make it all rather confusing when we first embark on a needs based consciousness. For instance, the need for order can also be a strategy for peace or safety. The need for space might be a strategy for safety or privacy or independence. Over time, as we become more comfortable with arising needs it becomes easier to discern whether a particular need is also serving as a strategy to meet other needs.
As we uncover the ever arising and changing needs we connect with our humanity, with the natural flow of life. And sometimes just connecting with our unmet needs is enough to find peace and contentment. We don’t have to actually meet the need. It’s almost like that part of us that has that need just wants to be seen or known for having that need. Once we connect with it, a lot of times it goes away.
Connecting to our intentions first–the needs–and then pausing long enough to check in with ourselves around whether our choice is the best one we can make in that moment is what Mindfulness of Needs is about. This is what Right Intention by the Buddha is about. This is where we can find liberation and freedom from suffering.