Flourishing with Sensory Processing Sensitivity
The Difference Between Needs and Wants
Often, we talk about our needs and wants interchangeably, as though somehow they are the same thing, mixing them up into one category. I believe there to be great value in distinguishing them from each other so as to set them up to serve the purposes they were created to serve. In general, having our needs met bring us to ground zero—to neutral. It put us at square-one. Brings us up to the plate. With our basic well-being accounted for, we can breathe better, relax more. Begin, somehow. Our survival is assured, and we can now look to the other areas of life that take us from mere survival to actual thriving. This is a true privilege and gift of being human. But it is by no means guaranteed: Whether for social, economic, governmental, or straight up developmentally-traumatized reasons, neither needs nor wants being met is ensured for so many of us on the planet.
As a baseline description, a need is a requirement or necessity for optimal survival. At the heart of codependency recovery (aka maturing/moving toward wholeness) there is an addressing (often, for the first time) of both basic needs and wants. But to start with needs, here are some of the basics we have as human beings: food; clothing; shelter; protection of emotional, physical (which includes sexual), intellectual, and spiritual safety (as kids, from our parents and caregivers; as adults, from our own selves and those we love); medical attention; appropriate touch; tenderness; affirmation; guidance; and limit-setting. The far-reaching impact when any one of these are not met can ultimately pave the way for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, trauma, disassociation, eating disorders, dysfunction in relationships (everything from incessant conflict to outright war), and a lack of a sense of self—among other forms of suffering—well into and throughout adulthood.
When all goes well, these needs are naturally addressed by our parents and other caregivers through their innate care and attunement. However, not all of us are so fortunate to be on the receiving end of this level of responsiveness, consciousness, and consistent care.
Nearly 75 years ago, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined the Hierarchy of Needs, which continues to brilliantly describe a layering of what we need not only to survive (the basic ones) but to thrive (of the more emotional, spiritual, and psychological variety). Meeting our essential needs for air, food, and water sustains us and allows us to eventually reach for other needs, like personal achievement and self-expression. When these five categories of needs are tended to, they form a kind of latticework upon which we can flourish like wild growing flowers:
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
- Biological and physiological needs: air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, touch, contact, sleep.
- Safety needs: protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, and freedom from fear (aka protection from the violation of boundaries).
- Love and belongingness needs: friendship, intimacy, affection, and love—which can be fulfilled by family, friends, romantic relationships, as well as work colleagues.
- Esteem needs: achievement, agency, mastery, interdependence, self-respect, and respect from others.
- Self-actualization needs: realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, and actively seeking personal growth and experiences of the achievement of self-expression.
Needless to say, chronically not having our needs met is a recipe for suffering and dis-ease. In an ideal world, our governments would take care of the most essential for everyone—a roof over our head, physical warmth, food, and clean water, and even have an eye toward (in the education system, etc.) valuing needs of the more social, emotional, and psychological variety. We would ideally and collectively corral around having these basic needs met so that we could ALL “step up to the plate” and begin to live, in earnest, who we each uniquely ARE.
Having unmet needs met in adulthood
If there were needs that were inadequately met when you were a child, there is hope: Each of us can move toward attempting to get those needs met in our adult relationships, especially our romantic ones. In our compulsion to repeat (the animal aspect of us that associates familiarity with safety, no matter how uncomfortable it is), however, we often find ourselves in dynamics with people who similarly don’t meet the same needs that were overlooked in childhood. This is where some interesting, growthful, and deeply healing games can begin. As Imago Therapy extols: The blueprint for your growth lies in the requests of your partner. If we can slowly stretch out of our old survival behaviors to stretch into new ones to meet our partner’s needs (often the ones that seem MOST important to our partner can require us to pull out of decades-old blind spots and survival strategies, and vice versa), then stretching to meet the requests of our partner is a recipe for moving, ever-so-slowly, outside of our conditioned wheelhouse and into a new way of living—and not incidentally, into our wholeness. So it is a double win: We heal parts of our partner in stretching into new behavior to meet their needs, and we experience the full breadth of our wholeness in so doing. Wow.
All the more reason to have clarity around what our needs are, so we can set our partners up to win in meeting them. This work is not for the meekly-intentioned, to be sure. It asks nothing less of us than to cull our own psyches and hearts to find the yearnings and hungers that have often been left to wail and resign for so long.
Author and educator Alison Armstrong made a vital distinction that helps when trying to identify whether we’re looking at a need or want: Meeting a need brings us to ground zero, as I mentioned above. Meeting a want brings us joy. And yes, it may be of the fleeting variety, but it is joy nonetheless—i.e., I don’t NEED to watch a movie tonight, but if I do, I might just feel happy about it (depends on the movie of course, ha). But I do NEED connection, sleep, sustenance on a more basic level. With needs addressed, we can springboard toward the fulfillment of our wants and begin to touch into our sense of this glee and even bliss of being a sensual human. Where meeting our needs gets us up to the plate, where we’re “okay with being here on the planet,” fulfilling our wants lets us enjoy the game, where we are “psyched to be here.” Contrary to a lot of spiritual writings that poo-poo the idea of desire and wanting (I believe they are alluding to hanging our sense of spiritual SELF on these fleeting yearnings and states, which I agree is not wise), desire is an ongoing invitation to experience the raptures and new-nesses of what life has to offer.
Wants add to our lives. In a sense, they are the decorations of well-being. A want is not an imperative, but it does increase the fun and sensual pleasure of life. When my son Ever needs a blanket because he is cold, that is a genuine need. If he asks for a lollipop, we’re pretty clear on where that one falls—a big, delectable (and sticky) want. As for me, it brings me joy in some moments to have chocolate ice cream, but I don’t need it (although of course I say I do, ha). Same with “fun shopping”—love it sometimes, but certainly don’t need it.
While we ARE pure perfection on a spiritual level—nothing to add, no identity or “thing”, emotion, role or desire could alter the perfection of the truth of who we are. Yes. Yet on a human egoic level, desires define the very self that allows us to move around and interact; to express and define and contribute our “us-ness” to the world at large. These desires are the compass that leads us to our next place in life!
So, I would say that it’s important to pay attention to both the spiritual and egoic sides of it. Amen to the interplay of both being celebrated.
Another way to distinguish whether something is a need is to ask yourself: Does meeting or not meeting this need affect me physiologically, psychologically, or spiritually? If it affects us in any one of those ways, or in all of them, I would say it is a need. Would having this thing or this experience be a nice add-on, something fun, something cool, something pretty? If so, I would say it is a want.
Depending on one’s temperament, some might say that wanting to be outside a lot could actually be a need. For example, as a sensitive, if I am not in nature enough, I start withering and can find myself getting sick. It affects me in all three ways—body, mind, and spirit, so I throw nature time into the category of needs.
Is it okay for you to have needs?
There was a particularly memorable moment during the week-long workshop I led at Esalen last summer. We had cleared the floor of all pillows, chairs, and notebooks, and it was suddenly a clean slate for looking at our relationship to our needs. Partly inspired by my having worked with Alison Armstrong, I asked everyone to step into one of four quadrants based on which of the following beliefs they most identified with:
- I feel entitled to my needs and to having them met.
- I feel that my needs are selfish.
- I am not worthy to have my needs met.
- I don’t have any needs. I am needless.
After everyone found their group, we took turns describing and articulating how that belief gets played out in our lives—the payoffs, the costs, the sense of identity gained from it, the impact on those around us. It was a powerful awareness practice. And as it turns out, there is no “right” relationship to our needs (sorry, even the entitled ones ). If there were any “right” relationship to our needs it would be that they are worthy of being met, to be sure; and that as an adult, their being met by another is a true GIFT from them, not a requirement.
I had many break-ups precipitated by my having shared certain needs with my then-boyfriends that they were simply unwilling to stretch into. This didn’t make my needs any less valid. It just meant they were not up for meeting them. And their relationship with their OWN needs, perhaps in some ways projected onto me, was fraught enough to seem have those needs seem dangerous. All of this made sense to me, of course. But I was very much looking forward to being in a relationship with someone who saw the value in stretching to meet each other’s needs. And knew that some of them would be harder than others to stretch into.
Stretching to meet your beloved’s needs is not leaving room for them to control or to ask you to be someone you are, at your core, NOT. It is about expanding your being into the fullness of who you ARE while shifting behaviors only. A very big distinction.
There is inevitable fallout when we either don’t have a sense of our needs and wants, or when we won’t admit to them and own them. An example is the person who gets hired for the job (a demanding one) and doesn’t ask for support or accept it when offered. Their new co-workers and supervisors extend their help. “Let me know if you need anything. Do you want a break? Did anyone show you where the supplies are kept? Let us know how we can help you to get acclimated here. Did you get any lunch today?”
“No, no, I’m fine. Thank you, though. It’s all good.”
A month later, they crash, burn, and quit. Their relationship with their needs might be such that they feel unworthy to have them met, let alone ask for help. So, one step in moving ever-so-slowly to getting our unmet needs in childhood met now is taking responsibility for them. And in order to do that it helps to identify what they even ARE—because they may have been kept out of our awareness for very good reason. Perhaps it wasn’t safe to have needs, perhaps our parents were narcissistic and our needs were never a consideration. So many reasons to have disappeared these needs into the back-pockets of our consciousness. But if we want true connection and interdependence and intimacy, we simply have to become aware of our mutual needs and do everything we can to meet them.
Speaking up for the self
To express what we want is a very empowered way of speaking. While we may not be invested in our every want being fulfilled, the knowing of our wants has a self-knowledge empowerment quality to it. It is unequivocal. Expressing what we want has healthy narcissism built into it. (If we have an underdeveloped narcissism, it will be tough to say what we want. And if we have too much narcissism, we are overly concerned with our wants, and not aware of any others in the room. Both ends of this narcissism continuum don’t leave room for real connection nor intimacy.)
Yes, this journey of self-knowing can be a long one. But moving in this direction takes us toward the life so many of us say we want. And in the back-and-forth of it all, I think The Rolling Stones hit the nail on the head:
You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes you might find,
You get what you need.
Written by: Alanis Morissette
Anyone familiar with Alan Watts? Thought provoking.
Grief and the Body
There is no other emotion I feel so viscerally, so deep down in the marrow of my being, than grief. The weight of loss can feel like cement pouring into me, settling into something hard and heavy that makes moving, breathing….living, an impossible, heroic effort. Grief may often first present itself in a protective veil of fear, as I fight to close off the deeper feelings of sorrow that leave me defenseless and vulnerable while threatening to drain my very life force. Because of my sensitivity and my tendency to absorb the energy of others, be it that of anger, joy, or even the energy of others’ death and decay, when I lose a loved one I must take extra care to hold onto myself, to separate, to let them take their walk to the other side without taking a part of me with them. I need to remind myself how to hold their hands and their heart, offer comfort and love, while staying rooted in my own life with hope, purpose, and a commitment to continue my own journey forward. I especially need to hold onto a faith in the basic goodness of life, and the knowing that through the seemingly senseless pain and suffering, there is divine order and beauty in it all.
Many have written of the risks of experiencing illness in the aftermath of trauma or loss, particularly a risk of cancer. In fact, one of my favorite authors, Bernie Siegel, MD, saw loss and trauma as an invitation to personal growth, suggesting if an individual does not answer the call to growth and re-generation in one’s own life in the period following a major loss, the unused growth force may manifest in a growth in the body (a tumor). I’m not yet sure I can commit to believing this psycho-physiological equation, but being highly sensitive and rather drawn to the more ethereal interpretation of life events, somehow I do believe this period of loss is a time of heightened potentiation, and can lead a life into greater opening and light or down a dangerous path of darkness and mire. I also believe that to remain healthy, grief must be encouraged to remain fluid, to move in and through me, to be heard, bowed to, and gently caressed outward, as waves of safe release, without allowing any barriers to interrupt this natural flow.
Another of my favorite authors, Carolyn Myss, spoke of the association between grief with specific parts of the body. Some have suggested the lungs are the seat of grief, and that whenever we resist letting go of someone or something when it is time for the connection to end, diseases of the lungs can often begin to form. Carolyn , however, went on to suggest that unresolved grief can manifest in disease not only in the lungs, but also the heart and the breast, especially when issues of abandonment are layered onto the grief. And when tears are perpetually repressed, chronic blocked sinuses may result until that sadness melts open and is allowed to fully move out…..
While I’m not aware of any science that supports these intriguing notions, again I am drawn to the idea that these connections of mind, emotion, experience do exist , and I have seen these patterns out picture in my own life particularly when dealing with my mother’s illness and death. I wish I’d had more awareness during that time that might’ve allowed me to more intentionally navigate through the difficult experience, but the ensuing suffering did lead me to explore the possibility of grieving well…that I might be able grow and thrive spiritually and maintain physical and emotional integrity following future losses, rather than unraveling and allowing them to take me down….
Though my mother was a smoker for many years and struggled for a brief period with alcoholism and depression (the latter likely due to the early loss of her father) , she had surrendered her cigarettes and entered AA years before her terminal diagnosis. As a person I was aware of her grace and her sensitivity, yet as a mother I felt the hollowness of her depression, distance, and overwhelm, and our relationship was often conflicted. She described me often as being “too needy”, following her around like her little “shadow”, seeking excess fortress in her while I constantly felt her pulling away. However, in truth I now realize it was her who had too great the needs – for interpersonal space, intra spiritual console, and the balm of the drink against the harshnesses of her life, raising 3 children with largely an absent spouse. Still, through the support of AA, she built a life finding meaning and value through writing, piano, volunteer work, and travel, until a series of tragedies struck. In a very short period of time, both her sisters died suddenly, the last of her family of origin, and then she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
While she seemed to face her disease with acceptance and stoicism, I was quaking, breaking, crumbling inside. I was working as a therapist in an outpatient program, ostensibly offering up strength, compassion, and insight to others, yet I did not know how to hold this new emotion and walk through this new experience that was suddenly being forced upon my family and I. I left the job, I thought, to help take care of my mother, when in truth I had to leave to take care of myself. I clearly recall the feelings when visiting my mother in her last weeks…As I climbed the stairs up to her bedroom each day …. my legs buckled, my stomach trembled, my pulse raced. I was more comfortable and familiar with the gnawing claws of fear, than with the suffocating pain of sorrow and grief. My already tenuous trust in a benevolent force – in some Good Orderly Direction providing a level of protection and mercy in this world- was suddenly punctured and losing steam. I felt I had nothing to hold onto as this tragedy unfolded. Reacting to the sight of my mother bed bound for the first time as I entered her room, my lips began to quiver, attempting to hold back a flood of tears, when she suddenly exclaimed, “Please don’t cry”, stating she did not want to have to take care of others’ feelings. At the time, I heard this as a reasonable request of a dying person. So, I tucked my tears away somewhere, both while I was with her and even when I returned to my own home and my own life. However, that heaviness of grief for which I’d not yet found a vessel to process began to seep deeply into me. My body was screaming the questions I had not answers to, nor could bear to confront…. “Where is the Grace in this ?!” “How could ‘You allow this tender soul blow after blow, loss after loss, who’s fought valiantly to overcome so much in her lifetime, and then leave her with only more suffering remaining?!” Even if my mother chose this to be her final letting go, I begged the skies, “Please show up in the midst of this so I can continue to believe!”
I was disturbed by my mother’s passivity in treating her illness. She didn’t care to take chemo and only took radiation when she was forced to as part of “palliative” care, always stating she wanted quality of life over quantity. But I sensed her fatigue from too many battles already fought in her 76 + years, and the loss of her beloved sisters a painful reminder of the sudden, early death of her father long ago. I found it peculiar that I didn’t hear my mother crying or reminiscing in the months following her sisters’ deaths. I secretly wondered if AA, with all its clever slogans and daily quips, had somehow reinforced a more intellectual approach to grieving, knowing it was a vulnerable time for relapse. I also quietly considered whether she missed her last call to growth, it subverting into this menacing disease, or was this a wanted permission to finally give up the life long fight?
In the midst of my musings…..I felt it….a large, movable marble in the deep of my left breast. I had left my job, was without income, without health insurance; my primary focus was my mother. In the days awaiting the biopsy, with no idea how I’d pay for it, I could barely eat, consumed by anxiety over first my mother’s illness, and then by this foreign monster growing inside of me, not yet certain how serious it might be. Suddenly, I felt that the ominous forces reigning over my mother’s world were now descending upon me. She tried to offer comfort stating if it turned out to be the big “C” then “we can go through it together”.
“No!” I screamed inside…. “No, I cannot do this!” I contemplated whether I had a choice in this or was IT already choosing me? Waiting, listening , in the stillness behind the chaos, a whisper rose up in me. Though my awareness of all these connections I speak here had not yet come into full bloom, I felt compelled to pen a letter to my mother that I would not give her. I needed to lovingly, firmly claim our separation. I needed to deepen the roots into the earth under my own life so that when the time of her death neared I could stand strong, draw in for eternity that which is of her beautiful heart, while releasing her soul and her worn, diseased body to her own destiny. I lifted a voice up to the Gods, “I choose my own life over joining her in death.”
The biopsy was negative. The hospital wrote off the bills.
In my mother’s last weeks, in her half conscious stupor of morphine, and in her language of AA, I had shared my “amends” with her, apologized for ways I’d hurt her over the years, and thanked her for her many gifts.
Weeks before my mother died she had shared with the hospice nurse she thought it’d be neat to die on her birthday, and the date was fast approaching. In so much pain, at one point she exclaimed, “Why is this taking so long?!” wishing the end to come swiftly. Then, on the evening of April 7th, 2007, her 77th birthday, she slipped into a coma, and quietly passed away.
Written by: Anonymous
On Why I Write
In the end, I love this work. I have always loved this work. My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results. Cast out your will, and then cut the line. Please try, also, not to go totally freaking insane in the process. Insanity is a very tempting path for artists, but we don’t need any more of that in the world at the moment, so please resist your call to insanity. We need more creation, not more destruction. We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope. If you decide to write, then you must do it, as Balzac said, “like a miner buried under a fallen roof.” Become a knight, a force of diligence and faith. I don’t know how else to do it except that way. As the great poet Jack Gilbert said once to young writer, when she asked him for advice about her own poems: “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.”
In this together,