Needs and the Past

“When the Past is Present.” David Richo

While universal needs are shared by all humans, the intensity of needs–the neediness of the needs you might say–may be different from person to person and within a person depending on numerous factors, including the past.

All causes and conditions in a person’s life can affect a person’s needs, starting right at birth, and maybe even including our genetic make-up. No amount is right. No amount is wrong. The needs are still universal, the degree to which needs are alive in us just reflects our differences. Just like some people are born to be tall or blond, some might be born with strong needs for purpose or creativity, closeness or space. And just like some people have comfortable childhoods where most of their needs were met most of the time, for others the exact opposite may be true, and these childhood experiences will impact what needs are alive in adulthood and to what degree.

How the Past Can Be Present in Our Needs

For most people, many of our adult unmet needs have been unmet in one way or another for a long time. Jungian psychotherapist and Buddhist David Richo writes in How To Be An Adult in Relationships that each child needs Acceptance, Affection, Appreciation, Attention and Allowing.  He says that if one or more of those needs are not satisfactorily met in childhood,  that person will attempt to meet those needs in adulthood, either consciously or unconsciously. Since the original needs that were not met came up at an early age, most likely the strategies to meet the needs will not be mature. Thus a need for Acceptance may create a habitual behavior of people pleasing, or high achievement, or anti-social behavior if meeting the need starts to seem hopeless and the person disassociates from it.

On the flip side, successful strategies to meet needs in childhood are also often so deeply embedded in a person’s personality that they are often the same strategies used to meet needs in adulthood. If being funny for example regularly met needs for safety and acceptance as a child, that might be the go-to strategy for a person as an adult. A funny example of a successful strategy from childhood still being used as a adult might be my own experience with the board game Monopoly. I was quite good at Monopoly as a kid of 9 or 10. I understood numbers, liked collecting property and often knew how much risk to take when I bought new property. As an adult, I basically played real life monopoly in the San Francisco real estate market, and had enough success to write this website and live in Spain!

I think the theory of continuing successful strategies from childhood  also plays with satisfying needs. That is, if a person has had success satisfying a certain need, they may go to that need regularly as an adult, even when others are still hungry and unmet. This often creates habitual and even addictive habits, even though at least temporarily there is some satisfaction and a sense of homecoming in the initial moments of meeting the need. But because it really is a need thoroughly met, going all the way back to childhood, the satisfaction that comes when we meet such a long satisfied need, much like when we scratch an itch, may only be momentary. I had this experience with the Monopoly example,  where the needs the strategy originally met as a child–challenge, success, acknowledgment–came rather early for me in the adult Monopoly game and I bored of it as a full time endeavor.

Strategies as Needs

Another important aspect to needs is they often also serve as strategies to meet other needs, especially as children. For people who had challenging childhoods, a need for safety and acceptance often underpins many other needs, including more conscious needs such as for competence, effectiveness or contribution. Tim Kelley, author of True Purpose calls childhood traumas which affect our need for purpose and meaning, “sacred wounds.” Thus our sacred wounding of childhood can lead to sacred needs, which can often dictate what occupation or vocation we choose.

For instance, if productivity was highly valued in a family, and reinforced with attention and appreciation, a need for productivity may exist in that person long after childhood. This is especially true if the child was deprived of attention and appreciation unless she was productive. It can get even more complex if the child was shamed or punished if they were not productive. Thus, to feel safe, the child might become habitually productive. In adulthood, what feels like the need for productivity might actually be a strategy to meet the need for safety.

The Hungry Ghosts

Another way we see childhood needs affecting adult needs is in our reactions. Again using the 1-10 scale I have used elsewhere, if the appropriate need energy might be a 2 and we feel like we need it at the level of 6 or more, almost for sure it is a long unmet need–a longing maybe, or a traumatized need. In Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism there is a concept of the Hungry Ghosts, beings with intense emotional needs. In Tibetan Buddhism the Hungry Ghosts are depicted as having huge stomachs and very narrow necks and tiny mouths. As a result there are forever unsatisfied, unable to eat enough to fill their big bellies.

Sometimes certain needs can feel like that, like a Hungry Ghost. Until I did some early childhood work, literally from my infancy I had experienced Shared Reality as a need that seems insatiable. I was constantly trying to convince people to see the world as I saw it, to share in my reality. My hungry ghost of this need just could not get enough, and I would react when this need was not met at many times the intensity one would normally expect. Once I became aware of what need was alive in me, I was able began the road to healing. It was until I reached my early days of infancy that I finally found some deep healing around it and my Ghost no longer felt so hungry.