Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

Needs & Wants: The Surprising Voyage of Self-discovery

Something that comes up a LOT with both my individual and couple clients tends to be a sometimes-surprising lack of self-awareness around our own needs and wants. I suspect this tendency to not know, or not admit, to what we need and want comes from a couple of different places, starting with cultural messaging around how “wanting things” = “being selfish”, and reinforced by a million small disappointments throughout life that inevitably instill in us a message that there’s no point in wanting what we want because “we’re only going to be disappointed anyway”, either by not achieving what we want, or by achieving it and finding out it’s not what we thought it would be (see an earlier post on achieving our dreams). I used to think that women are doubly-hampered in that many of us are culturally-conditioned on the basis of gender to be silent, or to be nurturers putting other people’s needs ahead of our own. I don’t think it’s so obviously-gender-biased a phenomenon any more, however. I see an increasing number of men in my office who are, for many similar reasons, also adopting the kind of care-giver roles that have kept them so reactively bound to meeting a partner’s needs that these men haven’t had any more time to observe and develop their own needs than many women have.

This kind of cultural messaging is something we internalize from an early age, starting from the first time we as toddlers throw a tempter-tantrum in the toy aisle and get told we can’t have what we want. Maybe we grow up in financially-constrained environments where we can’t have what we want for economic reasons. The lucky and privileged ones grow up in environments where they learn they can have what they want without potentially asking for it at all. Many of us get into relationships as young (or even older) adults in which we attempt to attune to what our partners want so quickly that we put our own self-identifying desires on hold to be everything (or even just something) to our partners, risking a situation in which we create a pattern of back-burnering our own needs for so long that we forget we even have them. A long-time friend of mine refered to this many years ago as “becoming complicit in our own subjugation” — complictly enabling someone else’s needs to take such priority over our own for so long that we create a significant disturbance in the Force when one day those needs begin to reassert themselves.

For the purposes of perhaps gross-oversimplification, I define needs and wants as different things based on our abilities to flex where and how these needs are met, especially in relationship, and even *whether* these needs are addressed in specific relationships. In my lexicon, needs are generally the deal-breaker, gotta-have-them requirements one identifies as crucial foundations for secure attachment, for feeling content over the longer terms, for feeling like there is room to flourish and grow. Some of these may be tied to a basic Maslovian structure of needs, and some of them may be refinements of concepts like social belonging, esteem, or self-actualization. Wants, then, are those “nice to have” elements on which we are likely to be more willing to alter our expectations, or even voluntarily sacrifice them outright. (Note: Needs and wants are inherently different from values we hold, but for many people are intrinsically tied to those internal values. We’ll explore that idea in more depth in a futre post as well.)

There are two recurring issues I see time and again in the counselling office:
(1) people don’t know how to identify their own wants and needs at all, or
(2) people can’t tell the difference between needs and wants because they have allowed their needs to have as much of a transient nature and permeable boundaries as their wants have.

It’s a remarkably telling moment when I ask someone, “What exactly are your *needs* in this relationship?”, and receive back a blank stare. It’s common that people can tell me what they DON’T want to have happening (usually the exact set of factors that drive them to seek therapy in the first place). While defining by negative space is a good place to start, it doesn’t tell us much about what they know in a more positive way what needs they are driving toward. A Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, wrote, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Most of us can tell when our needs are not being met, and if we’re happy in a situation, we simply assume that our needs for that situation ARE being met. But ask someone to identify WHAT needs are being met, and we’re most commonly met with silence. When we don’t know what needs we’re trying to meet in relationship, how do we know for sure when those needs are adequately met? Equally important, if we don’t know what needs we require to have met in relationship, how do we explicitly negotiate those needs with our partners such that our partners can explicitly consent to be part of the need-meeting process, or adequately negotiate what they *can* be available for??

(The topic of consent in relationships is a whole other ball of fish I’ll be writing about in a near-future blog post; stay tuned.)

At the very least, defining by negative space gives us a place to start by providing quick and convenient opposites we can use as a basis for explorations. If I know I don’t want sarcasm and mockery from a partner (for example), what would the opposite of that look like in my worldview, and do I want that instead? Or do I want something *like* that, but different? How would I describe or label that adjacent idea?

Sometimes it’s easier to step away from the framework of known don’t-wants (it can be difficult to convince people to let go of their anger over finally acknowledging their disappointments and frustrations) and challenge people to think in blue-sky terms about what they DO want. I like to refer to this process as “reinventing Self 2.0”. It’s largely predicated on one deceptively-simple question: “What kind of person do you CHOOSE to be?”, because when people can articulate the kind of person they wish they could be, they are often unconsciously speaking to their own internal needs; this gives us a very strong place to start a discussion about what gets in the way of meeting those needs, and how do we tackle those obstructions both real and perceived? It also sneakily inserts the concept of agency, based in the power of self-directed choice, into the lexicon of someone who may have a history of subsuming their own relational needs, resulting in an additional layer of disempowerment or disenfranchisement within their relationships.

Next week, I’ll offer some suggestions on how to build a “road map” to provide some direction when refining our self-knowledge about needs and wants, both in terms of building a lexicon and in terms of uncovering obstacles. Until then, consider the question of “WHAT KIND OF PERSON DO YOU choose to be?”, as a way of opening the internal exploration around identifying the kinds of needs that being that sort of person would meet for you.

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