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posted: 5/9/2013 10:42 AM

We all have basic needs that must be met to fuel our growth

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We all have needs. That's obvious. Sometimes what we need isn't so obvious.

Take kids. Certainly they need food, clothing, shelter, protection. But there are a whole host of other needs, emotional or psychological needs, which are less easy to recognize.

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For example, a 9-month-old needs to know the world around him is safe and secure, and especially that Mom and Dad will take care of him. That basic sense of trust is crucial to his healthy psychological development. In fact, only if he naively trusts everybody and everything now will he be able to deal with reality later (i.e. that the world is not always safe and secure and that Mom and Dad can't always protect him).

Or take an 11-year-old. Her needs are quite different. She needs to know she is competent: that she can do things, make things, take care of things (not necessarily perfectly, but good enough). Only if she experiences enough success (and praise) in doing things at age 11 will she have the confidence to succeed, and fail, in the future.

Though different theories suggest somewhat different needs, almost all models of human growth and development agree that there are such basic psychological needs at each stage of our development, and that it is crucial that they are met.

In fact, if they are not completely met (or not met at all), we are very likely to carry these needs over into our adult relationships. And that can be disastrous, especially if we are not aware of it.

Think for a minute about our basic need to trust. If we fail to have this need met, we might spend the rest of our lives seeking out somebody to make us feel safe and secure, to take care of us. Or we might decide we really can't trust anybody and wall ourselves off from people that might try to get close to us.

In a marriage, we would perhaps be very dependent on our spouse, always wanting him or her to watch over us. On the other hand, we might never risk marriage, or if we did, always keep our "untrustworthy" spouse at a safe distance.

We might play out our failure to meet our need to feel competent in similar ways. We could shy away from any challenge, any new experience, convinced we aren't good enough to even try. Or we might choose only those things that we feel totally confident at, doing them over and over again, needing the constant reassurance that at least we can do something right.

But we might also constantly put ourselves at risk, always biting off more than we can chew, doing anything and everything to finally prove to ourselves that we are good enough. Our life could be predictable and dull at one extreme, downright dangerous at the other.

I imagine that it is becoming obvious just how powerful our unmet childhood needs can be and how much they can influence our adult lives. And there is yet another way in which they exert their power. Very often we carry with us emotions of hurt, anger, resentment, fear, despair ... all rising out of such unmet childhood needs. These, too, can get acted out in our adult lives in destructive ways.

For instance, as adults, we may resent those very same people who we desperately depend on to be trustworthy. Or we might let people behind our walls of mistrust, then push them away in panic and anger.

Or our shying away from challenges and our choosing a safe routine may be accompanied by feelings of despair or resentment at those who are more adventuresome. And our reckless risk-taking might carry within it undertones of anger and self-destruction.

Some psychotherapists suggest all adult problems, especially in relationships, are simply the result of people trying to meet unmet childhood needs. Though I suspect it is more complicated than that, I would agree that all adult problems are effected by such unmet needs.

With all this in mind, it is important that, if we sense we are struggling a bit, we do some exploring of such basic developmental needs and how they were met, and not met, as we grew up. That doesn't mean years of therapy, it does mean risking some time and energy to get to the bottom of things.

When we do, we can better understand what is going on in our lives and what we can do as adults to deal with our needs in an adult way. We cannot go back and redo childhood, but we can claim our power to do adulthood better.

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