When I begin working with people with dysfunctional life inertias, I ask them what their needs and NEEDS! are. Most often, they are unable to describe either. Many people don’t know what drives them to think, feel, and act in unhealthy ways. They also are so far out of touch with their real needs that they can’t think of what they are. Yet, knowing both your needs and NEEDS! is essential for finding meaning, satisfaction, and joy in your life.

Learning what your needs and NEEDS! are and how they developed has many benefits. It makes your needs and NEEDS! more tangible and real. In this more concrete form, NEEDS! seem less mysterious and fearsome, and needs seem more clear and reachable. Understanding your needs and NEEDS! often brings some sense of relief because you have greater clarity in your life—you finally see why your life inertia has placed you on the trajectory you have been on and, more specifically, why you have thought, felt, and acted as you have all of these years. You also feel motivated to address your NEEDS! because these insights—and the hope that they bring—offer you greater commitment and resolve to change your life inertia. And this relief offers new positive emotional energy to fuel your quest to shift your life inertia.

Identify Your NEEDS!

The process of identifying your NEEDS! involves peeling away the layers of the onion of the unhappiness and dissatisfaction in your life. Begin by examining what lies on the surface of your life: how you behave. What precise actions do you take that sabotage your life? For example, when a colleague was complimented for a job well done, a former client of mine, Eric, would belittle him to other co-workers and tell them that their boss didn’t know anything. This behavior made Eric feel better, but it hurt his relationships at work—no one likes people who speak badly of others—and his chances for a promotion—because he wasn’t enjoyable to work with, he lost out on several higher positions in his company.

With the self-defeating expression of the NEED! identified, peel the onion back further to reveal the emotions you experience in these situations. Eric would be consumed with righteous indignation and anger at the unfairness of his life. Anger is an especially useful clue in discovering your NEEDS! Whenever you feel anger, don’t assume that it is the real emotion you are experiencing. Rather, anger is a defensive emotion that protects you from facing much more painful emotions (e.g., sadness, fear, or loneliness) related to those NEEDS! that were not adequately met as a child. If anger is your dominant emotion, peel back the onion still further to uncover the primary emotion related to your reaction. Through our explorations, Eric learned that his life inertia had been propelled since childhood by fear. What emotions emanate from your life inertia?

You are now one step closer to identifying your NEEDS! Your next challenge is to explore the thoughts that led to the emotions you just isolated. In Eric’s case, he would think, “He doesn’t deserve that. I am so much better than him.” But these thoughts don’t get to the heart of Eric’s NEEDS! Here’s a clue for you. If your thoughts focus on someone or something outside of you, then you haven’t yet arrived at your underlying thoughts connected to your NEEDS! Instead, just as anger is a protective emotion, these “externalizing” thoughts safeguard you from painful thoughts that are closest to your NEEDS! You have to ask yourself what you think about you, not others. Eric discovered that “I’m incompetent and worthless” was the most powerful reflection of his NEEDS! (and, not surprisingly, a message he received often from his parents when he was a child) and had been the driving force in his life inertia for years. Once you identify these thoughts, your NEEDS! are within reach.

The next step is to specify which NEEDS! lie at the heart of your self-defeating life inertia. Refer back to my list of needs (i.e., need for love, security, competence, control, and positive emotions) and choose the needs that are most connected with the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that you have just identified. Eric’s unmet needs to feel loved and competent turned into NEEDS! that became the dominant force in his life inertia. Its purpose was to cover up his sense of inadequacy and worthlessness and the feelings of hurt and sadness that accompanied it. Eric channeled his feelings of sadness and pain into righteous anger. In devaluing others, Eric built himself up in his own mind, thus relieving his feelings of inadequacy.

The final step in this detective work is to understand how these NEEDS! developed. This requires you to return to your childhood and confront the painful demons that originally propelled your life inertia. Looking at yourself so closely may provoke trepidation and avoidance. Yet this step is essential because it brings to light the connection between who you were then and who you now are, and reveals the source of your life inertia. But take comfort in the fact that, as an adult with vastly more capabilities and resources than when you were a child, this uncovering will not be nearly as painful as you think it will be.

Eric described how, as a child, he had felt stupid and incompetent compared to his older sister who always did better in school. Their parents seemed to give her more attention causing Eric to feel worthless. In response, Eric became an overachiever, maniacally driven to succeed to feel capable and to get his parents’ attention. He also became hard edged and unforgiving with people. When people he studied or worked with didn’t perform up to his expectations, he became furious. Through high school and college, Eric hated when others did better than he, and always reacted the same way, by demeaning their efforts and trumpeting his own accomplishments. He simply couldn’t stop himself even though he knew his behavior was often self-destructive.

From the first step of identifying the unhealthy behavior you now have found the NEEDS! that have been causing your dysfunctional life inertia for so many years. You will likely feel that, because you know why you are who you are, there is hope to change your life inertia. But knowing your NEEDS! isn’t enough to leave them in your past. The next step is about letting go of those NEEDS! that have set your life inertia to this point and charting a new life inertia that is grounded in your healthy needs as an adult.

Identify Your Needs

Identifying your needs can be more difficult than recognizing your NEEDS! because you may not have experienced your needs since childhood. Needs as an adult are paradoxical in some ways. Your needs as a grown-up should differ greatly from your NEEDS! as a child. When you are young, you have little ability to meet your own needs and are at the mercy of your parents and others to satisfy them. As an adult, your acquired experience, knowledge, skills, and resources make you, at a very basic level, less needy and more able to satisfy the needs that you do have.

Even though you are a very different person as an adult than you were as a child, if you have an unhealthy life inertia, you still respond to the world based on the same NEEDS! as when we were young. By the same token, even though you are very different, you have many of the same needs as when you were young. Recall those five needs—love, security, competence, control, and positive emotions—and you’ll see that you still have those needs, in fact, they are a normal part of being human.

What then are your needs specifically? You can use much of the “onion peeling” process to help you identify your needs. Think about what brings you “warm fuzzies” in your life, in other words, meaning, satisfaction, and joy. It may be, for example, your work, avocations, or relationships. Eric enjoyed renovating the house he had just bought; doing his own carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. He would spend hours in the evenings and on weekends on various projects to make the house his home.

Then ask yourself what emotions those experiences generate in you. Experiencing these emotions is a essential step in this discovery process because it allows you to reconnect with emotions (and the experiences that caused them) from your early past before your needs became NEEDS, for example, love, excitement, pride, or contentment.

From here, look at the thoughts that emerge when you are immersed in these activities. What ideas, impressions, images, or memories come to mind? Eric would have flashbacks to when he was a child playing with his toy toolset. These memories conjured up thoughts of competence, accomplishment, and completion in the fantasy tasks in which he engaged.

Next, what need does the experience and the related emotions satisfy in you, such as a need to help others, to create, to challenge yourself, or to feel an adrenaline rush? Making these connections will show you what your needs are. You may have different activities that cause different emotions, each of which tap into a different healthy need. The more needs you can identify and bring to the fore, the more readily you’ll be able to reduce the influence of your NEEDS!, allow your needs to reassert themselves, and generate sufficient new force to shift your life inertia permanently.

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