In a recent article (Why You Feel Down and What To Do About It), I made a link between feeling down and not getting our needs met.
To recap, when we don’t get our needs met, we feel a negative emotion. When we do get them met, we feel positive (or at least okay).
A reader asked a great question. What about a need that you can never get met? Do we stay feeling down forever?
I’m doubtful that there are needs that are impossible to meet. (Here’s a list of them in PDF format.) But I get the question.
At times, there are certain needs that stay unmet for long periods.
Needs like intimacy, love or sexual expression may be hard to meet for someone without a partner.
Others have needs for security, safety and peace unmet. People in war zones for instance.
The need for companionship may be unmet for those without strong friendship ties.
So how do we live a fulfilled life despite that?
The first thing to say is that negative feelings are a kind of helpful alarm system.
Often we chase bad feelings away. But that can be like putting earplugs in when the fire alarm rings.
The negative feelings are nature’s way of telling you that something needs addressing.
One way of putting earplugs in is to attack others. By going on the attack, we miss the message of the negative feeling.
When we focus on the badness of others, we miss that we have unmet needs.
When we miss that, we can’t address the root cause. Our attacking of others robs us of a key insight that would help us meet our needs.
If I don’t know that I’ve run out of pasta, guess who doesn’t buy pasta on my weekly shop!
Your evolution wants you to feel uncomfortable when your needs aren’t met.
That’s why we feel anxious when lonely. That feeling of discomfort is what got our ancestors running back into the safety of the tribe.
After all, it’s the straggler antelope that gets eaten. Not the one in the centre of the pack.
The bad feelings are your in-built survival mechanism asking “Hey, what can you do to change this?”
So you’re meant to feel restless or uncomfortable. Like when a car beeps if you have forgotten to turn your headlights off. It’s useful.
You Are Not The Problem
By thinking of mental well being as unmet needs, it also challenges that tired old idea that you are the problem.
Mental well being is not about something being inherently flawed about you.
Instead, it is about the interaction between you and your world. At times that interaction meets your needs. At other times, it doesn’t.
In narrative therapy there is a powerful idea that there is no such thing as a singular internal self.
Rather, self exists in the gap between us and the world we interact with. As such, we have many selves.
Check out the different selves we bring to different situations.
With some people I can be quite awkward. With others, I am the life and soul. At other times, I’m singing on a stage like I don’t have a care in the world.
The self is an interaction between me and my world. As the world I’m interacting with changes, we co-create a different self in the space between the two.
Think of the person who has depression.
Many of my clients have suffered this way.
They also report times when the depression never shows up.
Maybe it never showed up during their time at university. Maybe it is absent when they are with a particular friend. Perhaps it is when they are alone in the hills, communing with nature.
At first, they think of themselves as having depression.
Then they discover a version of their “self” that has never suffered from depression at all. Ever.
By thinking of well being as whether we are meeting our needs or not, we overcome the rigidity of the singular self. We realise there are other selves to bring into our story.
By finding the selves that do not suffer, it offers the possibility of expanding them into more of life.
It allows us to check what we did to bring that non-suffering self into creation. Then do it more.
It prompts us to check out those times when the need was being met, and see if we can recreate it.
Which is all very powerful. But still, what do we do when the need is simply not met?
I am reminded of the time I spoke to Dr Becky Simm. She is a psychologist at an NHS Pain Clinic.
She works with people who suffer chronic physical pain. The kind of pain that, without medical breakthrough, will never go away.
Their need for peace from their pain is never going to be met.
Yet, she works with them to create meaningful lives despite that.
For instance, she tells of the father who was in too much pain to play football with his boy anymore.
He found other ways to connect. His son loved Doctor Who, so he started building hand made Daleks with him instead.
You can hear that full interview here. It contains many relevant insights.
People are resourceful. Even when our needs are not met, we find ingenious ways to bridge them in the meantime.
This genius needn’t be at the level of Einstein. It can be fairly commonplace yet still genius.
As an example, think of the person whose need for human company and affection is not currently met.
Yet they bridge that gap with the companionship of a dog, or other animal.
These friendships are real and, at least partially, meet the need.
It may not be perfect. But they have responded to the need calling out within them, and made life better.