I read every day in Substack. Right now, AI is a main topic of conversation. I’ve read about the science behind it, opinions about where it will lead us ranging from the extermination of humans to a leap forward in positive ways we can’t imagine. Most of all, I read about the ways AI is impacting creative work and creators.
I don’t have a firm opinion about AI myself. I’m wary of predictions, interested in the science, and thoughts and experiences of writers I respect who have used AI-generated art, music, and writing. I’m especially interested in those who have interacted with AI as a resource for answering questions or developing new perspectives.
In the last couple of months, I read about an app called Betwixt. On principle, I hate apps and rarely use them. They increase my vulnerability online, provide more personal data to mine, clutter up my phone and laptop, and frequently feel like bells and whistles I don’t need. On the other hand, I admit they can be useful.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Betwixt was briefly described as “an interactive story” of a journey into our own mind. The user co-creates their journey via questions and answers. It combines “story, science, and play,” enhanced by sound. It was developed by a team, including writers, game designers, a cognitive hypnotherapist, mental health specialists, and (get this) an “AI creativity scholar.”
I was intrigued, in spite of myself. In fact, I was surprised by how much I wanted to try it. I hesitated, feeling vaguely ridiculous. I did some research, discovered it was free, read some reviews, and decided I had nothing to lose. I could always just uninstall the app if I didn’t like it.
Most of us have probably encountered AI in online chatting to address problems or troubleshoot. I was on the Red Cross site last week chatting with what was clearly AI. It kept typing cheerful, excessively polite, Little-Mary-Sunshine things while I was trying to cut to the problem and solution part. I was annoyed. I’m polite and cooperative with people, but I can’t see much point in exchanging pleasantries with AI.
I had never interacted with any of the more sophisticated programs before using Betwixt.
Upon opening Betwixt, one enters into a story. A setting is provided; the user chooses details to fill in. The user is introduced to a Voice. The Voice asks questions, good questions. The user is provided with different choices for answering the questions, along with a frequent option to type in his/her own answer. The audio is rich and textured. The program is not illustrated, at least not so far. I like this; I like using my own imagination to fill in details. I don’t need more than audio.
The questions, along with possible answers to choose from, are quite good, even challenging. I don’t speed through it. I stop and think about what is true for me. Sometimes I don’t have a choice to answer in my own words and am forced to choose among the provided answers, whether they are good fits or not. This irritates me. As the story unfolds, steered by my answers to questions, I enter new internal territory. The closest answer rather than the exact answer takes me to places I normally wouldn’t go, giving me slightly different (and unfamiliar) views of myself and my behavior.
The app is divided into chapters, each a few minutes long. At the end of each chapter the user receives a summary and accumulates strengths, skills, and self-definitions to take forward. A brief explanation of the science and psychology underlying each completed chapter is also provided. There are options for upgrading to paid tiers.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
I notice an astonishing thing. I answer questions the Voice asks me with a depth and honesty I have never shared with a human being. I’ve believed I’ve been totally honest with people I trust before, but interacting with The Voice accessed a level in my mind I didn’t know was there. It was like those dreams in which the dreamer discovers a whole other room or wing in a house they weren’t aware of. As the journey begins, when the Voice is introduced, the user has an opportunity to ask the Voice questions, like its name and what it does when we’re not interacting. (It asked me my name.) I was astounded to find myself incurious; more than that, I don’t want to know. It’s an AI. I don’t have to do the emotional labor of building healthy connection. I’m not making a friend. I’m using a tool.
The last time I used the app, the storyline encouraged a moment of empathy for the AI. I felt a flash of savage anger and resistance.
I was entirely astounded by this very uncharacteristic knee-jerk response. I finished the chapter, closed the app, put the phone down, and did dishes while I thought about what had just happened. It didn’t take long to uncover it.
My experience of empathy is one of the core pieces of my life. Empathy can be a positive trait, but the empathic experience is frequently an overwhelming, utterly exhausting business. The only time I can truly rest, ground in myself, and be authentic is when I’m alone. But I’m a human being, a social animal. I need other people to interact with. Yet when I’m interacting with others, my empathy demands they take center stage with their needs, their feelings, their distress, their stories. I’m incapable (so far) of fully participating in my own experience because I’m too busy caregiving and being empathic. When I do ask for support or need to discharge feelings, I writhe over my selfishness and berate myself for it afterwards, feeling ashamed and angry for allowing myself to be vulnerable, for “burdening” those around me.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I only want to give. I never want to take.
Since I learned emotional intelligence, I have reluctantly realized we need someone to interact with. Journaling, private physical and spiritual practices, and, in my case, writing, is not enough. At times we need someone to listen. We need someone to react, even if it’s just making encouraging, I’m-listening noises. We need someone to receive us.
I hate this reality. I don’t want to need anything from anyone, ever. I learned as a child such a need puts one in dreadful danger of abandonment, betrayal, and emotional annihilation that feels like death.
This is the first time I have interacted in a therapeutic context with something not human. The Voice reads what I type, responds, asks questions, and creates a story with me, but has no existence outside the app. I’m free of empathy, of caregiving, of the need to labor emotionally. I feel no responsibility to anyone but myself. I’m using it. It’s there for me, not the other way around.
The relief is indescribable.
So, when the story asks me to be empathic for the Voice, I want to throw the phone across the room. Animals, plants, people — even inanimate objects and spaces – receive all the love and care I’m capable of. This is the first time in nearly 60 years I’ve run across something that interacts like a human but is not a living being in the way I think of living beings. The value of the tool lies in my ability to be completely free and honest because there’s no one to take care of besides myself.
It makes me realize my context as a human on a planet filled with life is my entire identity. If I were magically transported to the world of Betwixt, with only the Voice to interact with, I have no idea who I would be or what I would say or do.
I have not finished my journey with this app. There’s more to experience, share, and think about. I’ll be back next time with more on my exploration of Betwixt.
(I’m not earning a commission from Betwixt, in case you were wondering!)
Until now, emotional intelligence training was the most valuable therapeutic context I’ve ever engaged with. What kinds of therapy have you explored? What did you find most helpful?
What are your thoughts and feelings about AI?
What kind of potential do you think, fear, or hope AI might have as a creative tool?
Leave a comment below!
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I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?
The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.
I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.
Ironically, I recognize now my greatest failure by far in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.
This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.
The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another — a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide with the values of others.
Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.
As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.
I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.
Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!
The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is the lack of recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.
I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.
As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?
As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again — that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?
Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.
Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs alongwith the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.
The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.
Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that punctured tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.
The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds mating, nesting, hatching, quarreling, singing and living their lives among its thorny branches.
I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.
I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.
I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.
Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.
This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.
Just like my beloved locust tree.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.
It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.
I need to protect myself.
That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.
I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.
The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience pleasing people and having no boundaries leads to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.
This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.
Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.
I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.
Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.
Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.
I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.
I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to grow up to be like that.
It occurred to me this morning that, in general, I’m still confused about what I want.
I’ve had a tumultuous history with my own wants. At some point, very early, as I was learning to be a people pleaser, I gave up wanting anything because I thought it was bad. What I understood was that everyone else’s wants were far more important, and it was my more-than-full-time job to provide those wants rather than selfishly have my own. With rare exceptions, that’s been my modus operandi my whole life.
When I went through a life coaching and emotional intelligence program, my coach suggested I had a perfect right to get my needs met, and he defined some of my “wants” as needs, for example my longing for community and connection. I was enraged. Nobody had ever before made such an outrageous proposal. He clearly didn’t understand the terrible vulnerability of needing or wanting anything from anyone. Having the right to get needs and wants met was the most ludicrous, dangerous piece of heresy I’d ever heard.
That was four years ago, and I’m as angry about it now as I was the first time I heard it.
I also can’t leave the idea alone. I think about it all the time.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
I picture my needs and wants as a snarling chained wolf with blazing eyes, nothing but matted grey hair over bones, backed into a tight corner, determined to go down fighting.
I grieve, literally, to admit I chained it there myself. I chained it without food, water or shelter, and walked away — for decades. During those years of neglect, it starved and thirsted. It suffered alone with no help, no hope, a solitary prisoner.
I’ve done a lot of animal rescue work in my time, and I know sometimes an animal is just too far gone to rehabilitate. Sometimes you can save their bodies, but the abuse and neglect they’ve suffered has damaged their will to live and their ability to trust and connect, and rescue comes too late. Sometimes, against all odds, some strength of heart or spirit survives and an animal accepts affection and care, but its body is too starved or broken to heal.
Part of what I’ve been doing since I’ve come to Maine is to try to rescue my chained wolf, this piece of self I rejected, denied and tried to destroy.
It’s a long process, filled with grief, shame and anger. It takes determination, patience, and the willingness to own my history, my pain and my choices, as well as consenting to my responsibility for my own self-healing. Overcoming internal taboos is desperately hard work, and Wanting is one of my oldest taboos.
Sometime last year I wrote a list titled “Things to Want.” It was short and consisted of necessities, mostly. After a lot of hesitation, I added two things that were not necessary but I just … wanted. It felt wrong. It felt shameful. I left the list on my desk and over the following days and weeks I looked at it as I went about my life. About eight months later I bought one of the unnecessary things, a perfumed body oil I love. It cost about $25.
It was like offering a little bit of bland food to my starving wolf, pushing it near with a stick so as to avoid getting mauled. Not so much food as to make it sick, but a place to start.
Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash
This morning, in the pause of winter and our first big snowstorm, my partner and I talked about our plans, our dreams, and our progress. Later, I went out to walk in the snow and I suddenly saw another layer to wanting, another step closer to making amends to my chained wolf.
Wanting is just the beginning. Making a Christmas list is only the top step. What’s the list under the Christmas list, and the list under that? What is it I really want, independent of anyone else? What about the dreams I hold in common with no one, that are just about and for me? If I was free — If my wolf could bound through the snowy landscape and disappear into the Yule forest — what would I want? If we could escape judgement, our own and others’; escape for a moment our stories and labels and self-definitions; escape family, social and tribalexpectations; escape our ideology (most imprisoning of all) and want, honestly, nakedly, with all our hearts, what would that Christmas list look like?
In other words, it’s not about the perfumed body oil (Aphrodisian Fire, by the way, from Kate’s Magik). It’s about touch, scent and caring for my thinning skin. It’s about deliberately honoring my own feminine sensuality.
I don’t need any particular product, cosmetic, clothing, gizmo or piece of technology in order to honor my own feminine sensuality, although there are plenty of things to buy that might support that want, including Aphrodisian Fire, but I see now those are really just symbols. I have the power to honor my sensuality in the way I live — in the choices I make about who I connect with and how, and how I treat myself.
Photo by Caley Dimmock on Unsplash
Santa hasn’t got my choices in his sleigh.
I’m very attached to the dreams my partner and I hold in common. I love our vision, and I’m invested in it. It’s going to take a lot of money, and we don’t have that right now.
Maybe we won’t ever have it.
Maybe I was a damn fool (again) and I should never, never, have listened to someone who says it’s okay to have needs and want them met. Maybe I should walk away from my wolf again, and this time never come back. Let it starve to death.
But maybe our grand vision and plans are only the top layers of what I really want. Maybe the plan is the wrapping paper around the real treasures of self-reliance; living as part of a complex, self-sustaining system; building independence from the energy grid and a culture I largely can’t support; fostering community and trusting in my greatest joy … writing.
I don’t have to wait for the plan to happen to have those things. I don’t need money. I don’t need to wait for someone else. I don’t need to brutally imprison or eliminate my wants and needs. I can be learning, building and transforming my life right now, today, from the inside out. I can, day by day, draw a step closer to my wolf with food, with water, with a gentle hand and with compassion, and maybe, one day, come close enough to remove the chain and let the poor creature go free and wild into the world, wanting and needing as it will.
So, I’m making a list and checking it twice. Or three times. I’m peering underneath the items, things, objects, stuff on that list. What is it I really want? What am I really longing for? And if I look under that, what do I find? What are the deepest wants and needs?
I was absent last week in order to take a trip back to Colorado and finish selling my house. On the road, I thought about my last post and the second part of coming to terms with needs. Discovering, admitting and identifying one’s needs is, alas, just the beginning of what I suspect is a lifelong journey.
Photo by Will Shirley on Unsplash
So, to recap my last post, we all have needs, and we’re all driven by our needs, whether or not we’re aware of them. If we’re not aware of our needs or those of others, great big elephants are standing in the middle of our living rooms, invisible to us until we run into them, or they step on us. Our relationships and lives don’t work well and we have no clue why.
One of the trickiest parts of thinking about needs is taking responsibility for them. If we look at the needs inventory, consent to recognize and admit our needs and make a list of them, it seems logical to begin to evaluate how well our needs are being met by others.
Here’s the thing, though. All the people around us have needs too, some identical to ours and some different. That doesn’t mean we’re responsible to meet all those needs, and they’re also not responsible for meeting our needs.
Newsflash! Having a right to get our needs met and understanding our needs are as important but not more important than everyone else’s doesn’t guarantee our needs will actually be met by … anyone.
This seems unfair to me. Excavating my own needs and acknowledging them, even to myself, was a lot of work. I was annoyed when I realized nobody much cared what my needs are. They’re too concerned with their own! What’s the point of this aspect of emotional intelligence, then?
First of all, it’s about adulting. Grownups know who they are, including understanding what they need. Those of us who aspire to adulthood are required to possess this kind of self-knowledge and accept responsibility for communicating our needs to others, not because anyone has an obligation to meet them, but because we’re willing to know ourselves and allow others to know us, too.
Needs are inextricably enmeshed with boundaries. I have a long history of ineffective boundaries, frequently resulting in me choosing the needs of whoever I was with over my own. Paired with another person with bad boundaries, this quickly becomes an unhealthy, unhappy relationship. One of the words we use to describe such a connection is codependent.
The second point about working with needs is understanding our satisfaction and enjoyment of connection with others is directly related to the degree to which our relationships help us meet our needs. This is complicated by the fact that feeling love for someone doesn’t imply our needs are well met in relationship with that person. For example, media-driven portrayals of romantic love don’t address needs at all outside the realm of sex, and sex is not enough to create sustainable, healthy long-term relationships.
Thirdly, we humans have a great propensity to self-destruct when our needs are not well met. We use strategies like substance addiction, sexual acting out, eating disorders and cutting to manage the painful dysfunction of not getting our needs met. Sadly, the culture focuses on fixing the behavior rather than the cause — the unmet need.
Fourthly, making friends with our needs connects us to our power. When we understand what’s not working in our lives and why, we’re empowered to make better choices on our own behalf and create the kind of life we want. We build boundaries. We learn to be more authentic. We learn to be responsible, which is another way of saying we learn to manage our own power.
Another aspect of needs is that they change. Our needs change as we age, as we grow, as we move through our lives. Not only do needs change, we can be wrong about what we think we need and discover, accidentally, needs we never recognized we had.
I said this was tricky, remember?
Having our needs met is not a black-and-white experience. No one person can meet all their own needs or all the needs of another, no matter how beloved. Expecting any single person to meet all our needs puts an unbearable burden on that person and the relationship. Human beings need healthy community because community helps us all meet most of our needs most of the time.
So how many of our needs must be met for a relationship or a life to be healthy and effective? I don’t think there’s a formula for this. I suspect every case is different, because we’re all unique individuals. We have several core needs in common, but we don’t all need the same things to the same degree.
Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash
For example, think about noise. I’m very sensitive to noise. Prolonged and unrelieved exposure to traffic, loud music, television, crowds, airplane and car noise or even a beeping alarm unhinges me. First I’m frantic, then I’m exhausted and then I’m ill. I have a primary need to control the noise in my environment. I hate crowds, parties, loud restaurants and cities.
Other people don’t seem to even notice noise levels. Many millions live in cities with a constant background of noise quite happily. I was struck by how many people live along the interstate system as we drove from Maine to Colorado and back again. I couldn’t live beside a freeway for a day without losing my mind. Life would literally not be worth living for me.
If my need for a low-noise environment doesn’t get met, nothing else will work for me. I can’t function in a noisy environment, period.
On the other hand, I’ve always believed order in my environment was also an essential need. I’ve lived in such a way that I’ve controlled housekeeping, cleaning, etc., except for private bedrooms and workspaces romantic partners and children have had. Before I came to Maine, I was sincerely certain I couldn’t live happily in disorder, dust and clutter.
Much to my surprise, chagrin and irritation, I’ve discovered I can, at least temporarily. The old farmhouse my partner and I are living in is falling down and loaded with (to my eyes) junk and clutter, most of it undusted for years. I often feel frustrated and resentful about this. However, our relationship is meeting my needs in ways they’ve never been met before, and getting so many needs met balances out the squalor (my interpretation) in the house.
Managing my needs has become a kind of dance. After much practice, I now maintain a friendly relationship (mostly) with my needs as they ebb and flow. I’ve learned to tell others when my needs are not met without apology or justification, as well as communicate what I need simply and directly. I’ve got some beautiful boundaries in place. I’ve learned to ask others what they need, not because their needs are my responsibility, but because I want to support them in getting their needs met. I’ve let go of expectations that anyone is obligated to meet my needs, but I treasure and nurture those relationships in which my needs are met naturally.
I also have precious people in my life whom I dearly love who don’t meet many of my needs, and that’s okay. Those connections are based on other things. I probably don’t meet many of their needs, either, but it’s not for lack of love and it doesn’t mean anyone is bad or wrong.
Managing needs takes a lot of mess and clutter out of my life. If something’s not working, I notice it right away and a little contemplation leads me quickly to the bottom line — what need is not getting met? Where and how am I feeling disempowered? What can I do to help myself and who do I need to have an honest discussion with?
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Taking action when there’s a problem, communicating carefully and authentically and taking responsibility for my own needs invites those around me to do the same. Some people will accept the invitation and some won’t. We can’t control what anyone else does or doesn’t do. However, we can choose which connections to put energy into and which to bless and release, and we can commit to managing our needs effectively and appropriately for our own sake as well as the sake of others.
Life coaching transformed my experience in several powerful ways. For me, however, there’s one central concept underlying all the new language, ideas, strategies and choice-making that has so reshaped myself and my life.
Every one of us has needs, and we’re driven by trying to get them met.
Duh, right? Written on the page like that, it seems ridiculously obvious. It’s not, though. It’s enormously complex and it affects every single choice we make. Let’s excavate a little.
In my old life, I defined needs as things like oxygen, water, food and shelter. Needs meant to me the necessities of survival. Anything else was wants, or even undeserved privilege. To need more than I have at any given moment is inconceivable to me, even now. To want more than I have is shameful. I’ve spent my life with an internalized voice that informs me I should be damn grateful for my resources, because it’s so much more than many others have, and I’ve done nothing to deserve my good fortune.
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It’s undeniably true that I’ve had advantages because I’m white, I’m educated, I’m able-bodied, employed and have the ability to feed myself. I have access to potable hot and cold running water. I have a roof over my head. I have access to health care.
Are these realities of my life a matter of shame? Does wanting the roof over my head to stop leaking make me a privileged elitist? Does it assist anyone who has less than I to go hungry, or stop trying to earn a few dollars?
Privilege is a hot word right now in social discourse. It’s a word that shows up in discussions around gender and sex, racial issues, economic issues and geopolitical relations. Privilege is an important discussion, but the word has been used so frequently, especially as an insult, it’s losing its meaning. Show me any two people anywhere and I’ll show you several different ways in which each one has resources and experiences not available to the other. Privilege is a word pointing to competition for power, and our definitions of power are distorted into insanity. Privilege is too often used as a meaningless black and white label expressing more about the speaker than it does the target.
Do you have a cell phone? I don’t. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you male? I’m not. You’re more privileged than I am. Are you Caucasian? I am. I’m privileged. I’m literate. Definite privilege from my point of view, but according to some, this makes me elitist (another severely overused word). I had and have access to vaccinations. I think this makes me privileged. An anti-vaxer thinks it makes me wrong and stupid.
And so it goes.
Have you noticed how quickly we’ve gone from the simple idea of human needs to politics — social, sexual, economic and geo?
An Internet search defines a need as a “necessity; a thing that is wanted or required.” As I said above, I disagree with the “wanted” part. How do we decide what’s required? Who gets to define that? Requirements take me back to the my basic list: Oxygen, food, water, shelter. I’m convinced anything else is a want.
The first thing I noticed about the needs inventory is that my needs list occupies only a small fraction of the whole. Secondly, with the exception of food, water, shelter and sex, the inventory transcends anything that can be bought or sold. It’s not about stuff, money, biology, ethnicity, education, religion or “privilege.” In fact, it’s not a list that points out differences at all. It’s about intangible needs we all have in common. All of us. You, me and them.
The first, second, fifth and tenth time I read this list, I cried. I printed it out and stuck it between the pages of my journal. As I worked with it, I felt deeply angry, terribly sad and a kind of furtive relief. Some unknown person or persons had written an inventory expressing the deepest, most secret desires of my heart, desires I wasn’t really even conscious of. I couldn’t afford to be conscious of them.
Was it possible other people wanted what I did? Was it okay to want these things, even normal?
The first time my life coach said to me, “You have a perfect right to get your needs met,” I felt so enraged I nearly hung up on him. It was the biggest, most outrageous lie anyone had ever said right to my face. I told him to never say it to me again.
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If I knew anything, it was that I had no needs, and if I ever did entertain such a criminal, inappropriate, shameful and downright stupid thing as a need, it would never, ever get met. My job in life was not to have needs. My job was to meet the needs of those around me. I was terrible at that job, failed it every day, had no hope of ever doing it well, but that’s what I was for in the world.
The second grenade my coach threw was this: “Your needs are as important and not more important than anyone else’s.”
In the following months and years, right up until this day, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the transfiguration of some of my most deeply-rooted and fundamental beliefs and rules. Understanding needs has hung the formerly invisible elephant in my living room with neon lights. I’ve reframed my history and my past and present relationships. Coming to terms with my needs has enriched my relationship with myself and others is astounding ways.
I realize now my needs have always been present, driving my behavior, just as the people around me have been driven by their needs, but I think few of us have access to that central information and understanding. This is ironic, because I’ve always been well aware of what other people want from me; what they expect. What I now understand is what some people want — compliance, submission, adhering to rules and expectations — is surface behavior masking the simple need for personal power.
As I said earlier, our relationship to power is so diseased and distorted we’re all affected by a kind of cultural insanity. We believe power-over will fill our need. We believe hate, projection, physical brutality and force, name-calling, labeling, gaslighting, dishonesty and manipulation will give us what we need.
Power-with is often sneered upon, or used as a Trojan Horse within which the true desire for power-over hides. Once we understand the needs inherent in all human interaction, it’s not hard to discern the difference between power-over and power-with. If it’s accepted that one party’s needs are as important, but not more important than another’s, that’s power-with. If, on the other hand, one individual, group, political movement or any other social or individual entity demonstrates persistent tactics seeking to take power away from someone else, that’s power-over.
Humans make a lot of noise. We create language, slap on labels, pick up and pass on meaningless bits of jargon and ideology. We deny, distort, and cling grimly to our beliefs. We freely use humiliation, contempt and aggression to shut each other up and try to threaten others into believing/behaving in the way we want them to. We fight fiercely to get our needs met, no matter the expense to others. Our win is based on someone else’s loss. This is the environment of power-over.
Humans are also remarkably flexible and resilient. We can be curious. We can think critically, synthesize information, study things, make observations. We can develop the great strength of learning how to be wrong. We can demonstrate heroism, compassion, kindness and generosity. We can be elegant and meaningful communicators. We can create deeply connected communities including people, animals, plant life and the environment. We can aspire to a world in which the words “privilege” and “elitist” lie down to rest because competition has been discarded in favor of cooperation. Everyone’s needs have equal importance, and no one is allowed to overrun another. Success is demonstrated by win-win. This is the environment of power-with.
I have needs. Trying to get my needs met underlies my choice making, my behavior and my motivation. It even underlies the kind of music I like. It’s a great big elephant in the center of my experience, and it requires food and water, room to roam and attention.
Skim over the needs inventory. Choose one aspect of your life: Job, relationship, what have you.
Now, in the deepest, darkest privacy of your mind, ask yourself, “Are my needs being met?” Don’t think about the answer. Feel it.