You have needs... and they matter...
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
It’s a surprise to some people on coming to therapy that they learn they have needs. And more importantly, the idea that their needs matter. Often when people have grown up in environments where their needs haven’t been met, or been in friendships or relationships where their needs have been ignored, people adapt by downplaying, subverting, or completely suppressing their own needs. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model assumes that all human beings have capacity for compassion, but when people are in relationships where some of these needs aren’t met, people develop protective parts that may resort to various strategies to get their needs met. In IFS, we would say that the person's system adapts by building/recruiting a part that does the adaptation or suppression strategy to needs not being met. So, getting into contact with needs as something that matters to you or a part of you is fundamental in therapy. (I lose count of the number of times in a week I would say to a client, "Ask the Part what it needs from you!")
Backing up a bit, when most people think about human needs, they often recall the work of Abraham Maslow, who presented the concept of needs as a pyramid. He starts at the bottom with basic physiological needs, then builds safety needs on top of this, followed by needs for belonging, then for esteem, and finally at the top, needs for self-actualisation. Needs are universal and cross-cultural, and they are positive and we all share the same needs, but we feel them with varying degrees of intensity, and we use different strategies to meet them. As I've indicated above, some strategies are effective and skillful, others are less effective and not so skillful.
Needs are inextricably linked to emotions. Emotional responses are information about whether our needs are being met. When our needs are met, we feel pleasant emotions. When our needs are unmet, we feel unpleasant emotions - and that’s when things can get tricky. Emotions are great delivery systems for relaying information about whether or not your needs are being met. When you recognise a positive feeling (e.g., joy) and the underlying need that’s been met (e.g., connection, belonging) you might feel a sense of calm or confidence, and you don’t need to really do that much because your system is in harmony. When you recognise an uncomfortable feeling (e.g., anxiety or anger), people can react on autopilot to do something potentially harmful unless you can learn to tap into the underlying need that’s not being met. For example, if your partner is texting a friend and you feel angry, without knowing the underlying need that is not being met (e.g., safety in relationship, attention from your loved one), you may react in a way that harms the relationship, rather in a way that creates connection.
When you learn to recognise the feelings and the underlying needs that aren’t being met, you can mindfully consider your options for how to respond to those feelings and unmet needs. Of course, the recognition of our needs, and articulating them externally doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be met - sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes our needs have more to do with something we need internally rather than something that another person can provide. Additionally, learning to respond to the needs of parts internally ultimately means that you create the conditions where you can articulate and get your needs met from others externally, which is a great gift of what IFS implicitly teaches through the process of connecting inside.
And ultimately, true freedom comes from knowing what we value at our core, developing ways to respond to the emotions and the needs underlying them that come up. We can also learn how to be at peace with some unmet needs.