Life coaching transformed my experience in several powerful ways. For me, however, there’s one central concept that underlies 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.
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, that 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 that points 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 that expresses 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 word that’s becoming severely overused). 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 that 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 that expressed 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 that 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 that to me again.
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 those 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 that masks the simple need for personal power.
As I said earlier, our relationship to power is so diseased and distorted that we’re all affected by a kind of cultural insanity. We believe that power-over will fill our need. We believe that 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 entity demonstrates persistent tactics that seek 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 communities of deep connection that include 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 deomonstrated by win-win. This is the environment of power-with.
One of my daily crimes is having 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.
Behold the elephant!
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