Reframing ‘Neediness’

Let it be known: Every single person on this planet has needs. And yet, there seems to be an aversion, in my culture anyway, to acknowledging that.

Maslow famously laid out his ideas about needs in this pyramid:

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Everyone’s landscape of needs, or needset, looks different. Some people have higher social needs than others. Some people have higher sexual intimacy needs than others. Some people are more risk averse and have higher security needs than others. But everyone has needs.

If you have, by luck or design, always had your needs met, you may not realise what your own needs landscape looks like. You might just have always felt good and balanced, and not really given any thought to the concept of needs.

However, if, for some reason, there are things going on in your life that are acting as a barrier to you being able to meet your needs, it might jolt you into an awareness of how important need meeting actually is.

You might be a sensitive person who has a heightened awareness of their needs (see ‘thin bark’ reference below).

Once you do see needs, you might also notice how phobic our society is to the idea of people having needs. For example, imagine the connotation that comes with the description of being ‘needy’. It’s not a positive one.

This, like many things, can be observed in the realm of parenting culture – the environment we create between parent and child to pass on the norms and values, social and interpersonal meanings of our society.

There has been a strong cultural resistance, historically entrenched, to the idea that babies are individual people with a their own set of needs. Rather than acknowledge this human reality, parenting culture has been based on the idea that parents control their children and that it is normal and acceptable for parents to deny/ignore needs that might be expressed by their children. Or frame that expression as ‘bad behaviour’.

This results in us/society being socialised into ignoring our needs, not listening to ourselves, and essentially becoming so distanced from our needset that it no longer sits within our personal awareness.

This can be a problem.

When a person, of any age, is experiencing their needs not being met, it can have adverse affects for that person, and depending on the circumstances, for the people around them as well.

Needs being left unmet over time result in distorted behaviour, that can cause harm to the self and to others, and it can result in deteriorating physical and mental health. Maslow’s theory places need meeting as the primary motivator of human behaviour. And if there isn’t a prosocial way to go about meeting a need, a person may then either turn in on themselves by allowing the need to go unmet, or start behaving in a way that is not prosocial to meet the need by any means necessary.

How long it takes for this to happen depends on an individual’s margin of resilience.

The best analogy I can think of to explain how resilience works, is to think of trees. Some trees have thick bark, some have thin bark. If a tree = a person, it’s bark = their resilience margin.

People with lots of bark can survive prolonged periods of their needs being compromised/going unmet (aka trauma). People with thin bark, are affected much more quickly by the experience of their needs not being met adequately, because their layer of protection is thinner.

As I mentioned above – it is possible for a person to not really experience their needs being unmet. They might have a combination of thick bark, and the ability to manoeuvre themselves without being particularly aware of what they are doing, into situations, relationships and circumstances that meet their needs. Having some cash available helps with this, as money does facilitate needs being met – plenty of the needs listed above by Maslow require access to resources to be met.

But, even people used to experiencing ‘needs stability’ are likely going to hit a breach of their needs when they go through a life changing experience, like becoming a parent.

As a parent, it can be a lot more challenging to manoeuvre yourself into a position to get your needs met easily, perhaps in the ways that you were used to pre-parenthood when you experienced significantly less personal responsibility and demands.

Parenthood itself can be considered a high risk zone for needs going unmet. The consequence of this can be adverse behaviours/feelings that do not represent the person in their most ‘them’ (self-actualised) state – for example behaving in a way that is out of character, feeling ‘not themselves’, and/or deteriorating mental/physical health. Ultimately, personal and interpersonal dysfunction and compromised health.

This risk is heightened in families where parents do have an awareness of their children as unique individuals with their own meaningful and important needsets to meet, who are parenting in a progressive, children’s/human rights oriented way. This is because supporting their babies/children in having their needs listened to, respected and met, can take a lot out of a parent physically and emotionally, and in a society that has little regard for the needs of babies and children, comes with the extra work of living as a family in a way that is widely considered to be counter cultural and can meet with external resistance.

Another barrier to people being able to embrace their needs and seek to meet them, is the impact of internalised negative connotation with the idea of even having needs, or worse, of being in a state of not having your needs met and therefore being perceived as ‘needy’ (as mentioned above).

The solution to this?

  • Raise children from birth in an environment in which their unique needset is acknowledged and respected by the people caring for them. Make the meeting of needs a thing, not a nothing. Be responsive to the needs communicated by babies, and children of any age, so that they don’t learn to ignore/become unaware of their needs. Support them in acknowledging their needs and in understanding the different ways that these can be met.
  • Resist miscomprehending people – children or adults – who have thin ‘resilience bark’ rather than thick, as being in any way deficient or in need of ‘toughening up’. In the same way that you can not force a tree to grow thicker bark, you can not force a person to be more resilient, and trying to do so will just cause more damage/trauma to that person. Instead, listen to them, believe them, and support them in being able to meet their needs and to not persist in an environment/experience that is harming them. It can be said that the most sensitive amongst us have the most to teach us about this world that we create and live in.
  • We can work to observe and reconnect with our own needset, and learn to see them not as neither good or bad, but essential aspects of ourselves that deserve to be acknowledged, respected and met as best we can. Doing so will create the most favourable conditions to live our most authentic and self-actualised lives.
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