How to Meet Your Needs (Better)
Even your worst habits are satisfying a need you need met. Figure out that need, and you can meet it in a better way.
A few months ago, I replaced cigarettes with rock music. These days, when I get in the car or go for a walk and I’m feeling a little low, I throw on some aviators, blast Dorothy or All Them Witches and let the waves of electric badassery wash over me until my nerves are sufficiently cooled. That’s what cigarettes always did for me: they cooled me off. They gave me this cloud of protection from vulnerability. If I felt stressed or emotional or claustrophobic, I could go outside, light a cigarette and wall myself off from the world behind a hazy barrier that left me feeling, well… cool.
There’s a song I’ve been listening to a lot called “The Marriage of Coyote Woman,” because it feels just like smoking a cigarette. The sound of the music curls around me in charcoal gray wisps, with a dry, sleek ruggedness I can only describe as the musical equivalent of a light blue American Spirit. But more than the song itself, listening to it makes me feel protected, wrapped up in a cloud of that same dry, sleek ruggedness. I feel cool. I feel less vulnerable, less exposed, more protected.
This isn’t just about music, of course. The ability of wearing sunglasses to create a sense of power is well-documented. Wearing certain clothes can make us feel confident or vulnerable, professional or relaxed, secure or embarrassed. The view of Yosemite Valley tends to inspire a rather different emotional response than, say, a Walmart parking lot on Long Island. Certain foods might not do much to physically nourish us, but they remind us of childhood or a tropical vacation or a holiday. As mammals, we live by conditioned associations. We tend to like and seek out the things we associate with happiness, safety, connection or enjoyment, and avoid those we associate with less-desirable emotions.
Many of our problems arise when we start pursuing the things we associate with positive feelings, regardless of whether or not they still produce positive feelings. This blurring of the line between what we associate, and what we associate it with, is arguably the main source of suffering in our lives. This act of confusion produces cravings for certain things and the corresponding belief that we need those things in order to experience satisfaction.
The truth is, what we actually need is only ever a state of being, either physical or emotional.
If you are too cold, you do not need a blanket, or a campfire, or a heater, or the sun. You need warmth. You need to be in a state of experiencing more warmth. If you are too isolated, you do not need a girlfriend, or a night out, or a kitten. You need connection. You need to be in a state of experiencing more connection. Even the need for a particular vitamin is a need for a state of being; holding a bottle of Vitamin D supplements in your hand won’t help you if you’re deficient. You need to be in the state of having adequate Vitamin D in your body.
Depending on the need, we might be more or less able to see it clearly for what it is. For instance, when it comes to cold, or hunger, or the need to pee, I’d wager most of us are more adept at understanding those needs directly as physical states. I may prefer a sanitary toilet, but if I’m on a long drive and there aren’t any of those around, I’ll squat in the woods no problem.
We tend to be less adept at this when it comes to more emotional needs, like respect, self-worth, belonging, connection or trust. For example, how many of us have found ourselves miserable because our need for love and connection wasn’t being met by the one specific person we had in mind? How many of us have stayed in jobs we hate because the paycheck gave us a sense of self-worth? How many of us have denied our authentic selves to conform for a sense of belonging?
Everything we do, we do to meet our needs. The problem comes in when we think that what we’re doing is the need, rather than a strategy to meet it.
The second Noble Truth of Buddhism typically gets explained as, “The root cause of suffering is desire.” The original words are dukkha (suffering, anguish, unsatisfactoriness) and tanhā (thirst, longing, craving), so a more precise explanation would be something like, “The root cause of anguish is craving.” Craving is what you do when you have an addiction. To me, it is simply the act of believing that the strategy you use to meet your need is the need itself.
When we understand that our needs are simply states of being, they become far easier to meet. Rather than limit ourselves to one or a few options to meet our needs, once we understand what state it is that we actually need to be in, we can open ourselves to far more possible paths to get there. Likewise, when the strategy we have chosen to meet our needs is harmful to us, understanding what we actually need can help us find healthier strategies.
Coming to this understanding is not always easy, because it’s so alien to how must of us typically go through life, but it is a very simple process. The spiritual teacher Teal Swan says, “To heal is to experience the opposite.” From a biological perspective, understanding need as a state of being, this becomes obvious: when we are too far to one side of our ideal state of homeostasis, we need to move in the opposite direction to reach homeostasis. So, whatever state of being you find yourself in that feels “bad” tells you that you need to move towards the opposite state of being in order to feel “good.”
Simply put: What kind of bad do you feel? What’s the opposite of that feeling? You now know what you need. Now, come up with as many strategies as you can to meet that need, focusing on strategies that are healthy for you and your community, and that you can take action on now. It really is simple. Again: just because it’s simple does not mean it’s easy.
This practice can be difficult first because we typically have several needs at a given time. We might be feeling bored, hungry, lonely and worthless all at once, and so, we might think going out to dinner with a cute new date is the only way to meet all of our needs. But what if we ate a sandwich, did an interesting activity, called a friend and learned a new skill instead? Then, we might feel full and nourished, inspired, connected and worthy too.
The second thing that inhibits us from meeting our needs is our conditioning: we are used to certain patterns of behavior, certain ways of framing problems, certain thought habits, and so we may not notice that there are other ways to meet our needs. We may not even be able to notice what our needs are. The process of dislodging yourself from unconscious, conditioned patterns of thinking and behaving does not typically happen overnight. It can take years (some yogis would say lifetimes), but making the commitment to chip away at it, bit by bit, to come to greater consciousness is probably the single best thing you can do for yourself.
Finally, some of our associations come along with physical withdrawal symptoms, from the kinds of relationships to substances we’d scientifically diagnose as addiction. In quitting smoking, or alcohol, or heroin — the process is going to be difficult and physically painful. However, the physical withdrawals for most addictions pass quickly, in a matter of weeks at most. It’s the psychological craving — the emotional state that we used to meet with that habit continuing to go unmet— that’s what reels us back in.
What I know from experience is that nicotine withdrawals are tough, but the worst is really over after a few days. After two weeks, any craving left is psychological, and from there, the emotional needs that smoking was meeting for me can be understood, assessed, and met. The truth is, I never needed a cigarette; I just needed to feel safe and confident. So it’s out with the American Spirits, in with the sunglasses and rock n’ roll.
No matter what our addiction, no matter how little it looks to us like an addiction, this pattern holds true: the less we fixate on the specific things we crave, the easier our needs are to satisfy. The act of freeing ourselves from addictive relationships to ideas or forms — it’s also an act of reaching homeostasis, moving us away from astates of powerlessness and suffering and towards states of satisfaction, agency, consciousness, abundance and flow.
Whatever our craving, we’re all in recovery, taking it one step at a time. It’s not easy, but it is simple.