All of us, as human beings, have basic needs. Our very existence, both physical and psychological, is at risk if our basic needs are not met. Fulfilment of these needs is the basis for our ability to function in the world in good health. It is clear to most of us, for example, that we can’t exist for long without food, and that if we’re deprived of oxygen, we’ll die very quickly. These basic needs are vital for all of us.
Our basic needs are so basic that we’re not aware of them unless they are not met, and even then, it can take a long time to become aware of the lack. In addition, some of our basic needs are so hidden that it can take many hours before we realize that they have not been met, such as thirst, or elimination of waste from the body. With some basic needs, it can take even longer for us to become aware of the lack – sometimes months or even years.
We can live our lives without even noticing that basic needs such as a sense of belonging, intimacy or self-fulfillment, have not been met. But we should know that our physical health as well as our psychological health depends on the fulfillment of all of our basic needs, and it is of the utmost importance that we make sure they are not neglected.
In the distant past, meeting basic needs was probably seen as natural. Nowadays, however, the situation is different. It is not seen as natural that basic needs have to be met, and the current attitude towards basic needs may even cause harm.
- Sleep is a basic need, but many of us fight it and would rather do other things instead of “wasting” precious time on sleep.
- There are people who are considered anorexic. What happens to a person with anorexia? An internal mechanism interprets eating as a hostile activity, and the anorexic increasingly and dangerously reduces his intake of food until he goes below the minimum his body requires to function. Anorexia is seen a mental disorder because the person is treating his body as an enemy, acting against his health and his very existence.
It is important to remember that while fulfilment of each of the basic needs is vital for all human beings, the extent necessary for each individual may change from moment to moment and from person to person. That is why we have to listen to ourselves and constantly check our basic needs in the present moment and pay attention to the changes in our basic needs as they occur.
As a very sensitive person myself, I’m very aware of the slightest and most subtle sensations. This has helped me to explore the subject of basic needs in my own life: what happens to me when they are met and when they are not met, and what harm is caused to my body when I don’t pay them sufficient attention. Through my own explorations I have developed methods for functioning in the world, based on a balanced and healthy attitude towards the fulfilment of basic needs.
A significant part of my work as a coach is to connect people to their basic needs, to help them take better care of themselves and their health, to enhance the quality of their lives and even to improve how they manage their relationships.
The issue of basic needs and how we deal with them impacts every moment and every aspect of our lives.
Basic Needs – The Different Levels
Human basic needs are divided into three levels: physical, psychological and spiritual.
Basic Physical Needs
Our basic physical needs are relatively simple. It is clear to most of us why food and drink, sleep, air, movement, sexuality, touch, and elimination of waste from the body are important to us.
However, even though our physical needs are more concrete than other needs, and in the case of some of our physical needs it is also clear why they are important, this doesn’t mean we will all ensure that they are met.
What Happens When Basic Physical Needs Are Not Met?
Lack of food activates hunger, lack of drink causes thirst, lack of sleep causes fatigue, lack of movement will cause us physical pain and lack of touch, a physical element, will often be accompanied by psychological distress.
With babies it is very easy to notice when their basic needs are not met. Babies react immediately: a baby who has not been fed or is thirsty will cry, a tired baby will cry, a baby who is prevented from moving will rebel, and if a baby does not experience touch, his development will be affected, and he may even get sick.
Many of us are not aware of the damage caused to our bodies when basic needs are not met, and even if we know our needs are important, they often won’t get the attention they require. Some people are so busy during the day, that they will put off going to the bathroom, which can harm the urinary tract and exposes them to potential infections and even kidney damage. If this goes on for years, it will be very difficult to repair the harm that has been done.
Basic Psychological Needs
The basic psychological needs are safety, protection, boundaries, peace of mind, belonging, intimacy, love (to love and be loved), to be heard, containment and satisfaction.
The basic psychological needs can be divided into groups as follows.
Safety, protection and boundaries are needs related to our ability to preserve our physical and psychological space. If these needs are not met, we will remain in survival mode. For example, a child who has been sexually abused will constantly feel a lack of boundaries and safety in his personal space. In such a situation, he will see his life as a battle for his basic right to exist, and he will not be able to experience abundance. Someone who has experienced a massive breach of boundaries as a child will not know how to keep his own boundaries safe and will also tend to invade the boundaries of others. Such behavior self-perpetuates through intergenerational transmission.
Belonging, intimacy, love, being heard, and containment are needs connected to our relationships with other people. Even though our basic needs may be modest, and can be met in different ways, we often demand that these needs should be fulfilled by someone specific, a partner perhaps – without taking into account whether our partner is able to fulfil them. This demand will leave us with hardly any options for meeting our basic need – and a lot of disappointment. Although each person has the ability to contain emotions, this ability is finite and may be limited from person to person. If the individual we have chosen to meet our need to be heard and contained does not have the ability to fulfill our demands, our needs will not be adequately met. But there are other options we could explore, friends perhaps, who could easily fulfill our needs and would be happy to do so.
Our basic need for satisfaction and peace of mind are solely related to how we choose to lead our lives. Peace of mind is achieved when we are in a balanced relationship with ourselves, and satisfaction results when we act in a way that fulfills and satisfies us. Meeting these needs will keep anxiety and depression at bay.
Basic Spiritual Needs
The basic spiritual needs are self-fulfillment and personal development.
Spiritual needs may not be familiar to everyone, but Buddhism has been talking about personal development for centuries. Some people, such as artists, have always chosen to work in areas they felt were important, where they probably experienced self-fulfillment even if this occurred at the expense of their quality of life and meeting other needs. When we pursue self-fulfillment and personal development, we can advance our quality of life and strengthen our life force. But to do this, we have to put in the time and energy required for meeting these needs, when we or those around us may not realize just how important it is for these needs to be met. On the other hand, it’s just as important to make sure that our pursuit of self-fulfillment and personal development doesn’t take over and suppress other basic needs.
Now that we know what basic needs are – what about needs that are not basic? These are needs that we feel or think we need, but they are actually reflections or divisions of one basic need into a group of basic needs – we’ll call them “complex needs”. Complex needs are created by the way we present our true basic need to ourselves – we dress the need in some kind of story: we either add elements we think are essential for fulfilling the original basic need due to our lack of understanding of what is really required for its fulfillment, or we combine several basic needs together, perceiving fulfillment of one need as dependent on the fulfillment of the other needs.
- We may believe that we must have a million dollars to feel safe. I’m not at all sure that a million dollars really would provide safety, but meeting this embellished need is clearly a lot more complicated to achieve.
- Some people believe that if they had a lot of money, others would love them more. But having less money is rarely the element that keeps love away, and preoccupation with money, obviously, will not bring more love into their lives.
- Some people must be in a relationship to feel a sense of belonging. Here, too, there are many ways to achieve an experience of belonging, and relationships are not the easiest path to meet this need.
Complex needs are usually greater than the original basic need and are harder to meet.
Sometimes people feel that a larger story or an element of drama will justify the effort required to fulfill the basic need. They will look for a greater need that will be much harder to meet. For example, some people feel that they need more hours in the day to have enough time for sleep. The basic need here is sleep, and it obviously makes more sense to make time for sleep rather than trying to make the day longer. Some people feel they need fresh food every day, which makes it very difficult for those preparing the food. The basic need in this case is nourishment. There is also a connection between these two situations, since those who have to cook fresh food every day will have less time to sleep.
The more basic the need, the easier it is to meet it, so it’s important to unearth the real basic need from within our complex needs.
How Do We Know if a Need Is Basic or Complex?
To determine whether our need is basic, we can ask ourselves: why do I have to meet this need?
If someone says “I need a million dollars to feel safe”, this indicates that the basic need here is safety. If someone says “I need a relationship to feel loved”, the basic need to be met is to be loved.
The next need is a little more challenging to decipher: “I need children to take care of me in my old age.” There is really no basic need that says “I need to be taken care of in my old age”. So we ask “why”, again. If the answer is “to be sure I won’t become homeless”, that isn’t a basic need either. When we arrive at the answer “to feel safe”, which is indeed a basic need, we can find out if there are other, easier ways to meet it.
The more basic the needs, then, the easier it is to fulfill them, and the more paths open up for their fulfillment.
In our world, where everything is made up of many parts, there are correspondingly many ways to create the situations we want. We call these situations options. The more we know how to envision more options and play with the options that open up, the easier it will be for us to fulfill our needs.
The smaller the need, the easier it is to find options to meet it. Connecting several needs together or increasing one need and making it conditional on other elements will inevitably reduce the number of options to fulfill such needs.
Maslow's Pyramid and Changes in the Importance of Some of Our Basic Needs
The theory of needs was developed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, and deals with motivation and the individual. This theory has implications for many areas, including utilization of work motivation. However, “although widely used and researched, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lacks conclusive supporting evidence and the validity of the theory remains contested in academia.” (Wikipedia entry on Maslow’s theory of needs).
I don’t know how accurate Maslow’s pyramid of needs was in the past, but the people I meet today have other priorities for their basic needs. A central difference is that the spiritual needs – self-fulfillment and personal development – which are Maslow’s lowest priority, now sometimes take precedence, even over physical needs.
These needs have undoubtedly moved up in terms of their importance for many people, and today much of our quality of life depends on their fulfillment.
Sexuality as a Basic Need
Who Is Responsible for Making Sure Basic Needs Are Met?
What Happens When Basic Needs Are Not Met
When a person does not fulfill his basic needs, sooner or later both body and psyche will be harmed. For example – putting off going to the bathroom is harmful for the urinary system. Not eating regular meals will damage the digestive system and may even result in illness. Going without sleep impairs the healing functions of body and psyche that take place during sleep. In addition, lack of sleep harms concentration and functioning during the day.
In all these cases of non-fulfillment of basic needs, other functions and systems are also affected.
Some manifestations of anxiety are related to not paying attention to basic needs and meeting them. This is true of unmet physical needs, and even more so of unmet psychological needs.
In my opinion, someone who does not ensure his basic needs are met is showing a lack of responsibility.
Culture and Basic Needs
Nowadays – as has also been true in the past – most people don’t really think about their basic needs. They don’t understand that they must pay attention to these needs. They don’t respect them and certainly don’t listen to them. Life experienced without meeting basic needs will be hard and unpleasant, opening the door to smoking, drugs and diseases.
In the past, when life was more about survival, it was not always possible to provide the necessary attention for meeting all basic needs. On the other hand, the cultures we come from were built on exploitation, such as patriarchy, feudalism and slavery. It is clear that any priority given to meeting the basic needs of the exploited went against the interests of the exploiters and would have hindered the continuation of that exploitation. Therefore, basic needs were silenced.
Even as children, when we were taught to delay gratification, the message we were given was to ignore our basic needs: to put off or give up needs such as eating, acting on the urge to go to the bathroom, and more.
As a result, we have reached this point in history where we don’t really know or understand our basic needs and how to listen to them. We don’t know how to identify and fulfill them, and we are not even aware of the importance of our relationship with them.
Society and culture do not always work in the best interests of the individual. Children from the age of six are required to sit for hours in class without moving. This harms their development and their bodies, and even leads to psychological disorders and backaches. Learning, especially for children, happens through movement, but it is difficult for teachers to teach in this way, and children are therefore condemned to the harm caused by modern teaching methods in order for schools to run smoothly.
Responsibility for Basic Needs
Basic needs are of primary importance to us, to our functioning and health. However, the extent of fulfilment required by each need constantly changes. Only one person can know exactly what is needed at any given moment, and this is the only person who can ensure that the need is met. That person is me.
We are each responsible for paying attention to our basic needs at any given moment, and for looking for the best way to fulfill our needs at that time.
In most cases, when we don’t meet our basic needs, we become unpleasant to those around us. Hunger and tiredness, for example, will make us irritable and short-tempered towards others.
Nowadays, most of us are already aware that people-pleasing, as a psychological characteristic, is problematic. This is because a people-pleaser will constantly work on fulfilling the needs of others while neglecting his own basic needs. A similar situation is also produced by the victim mentality.
Managing Basic Needs
We have many basic needs, that tend to demand attention when our minds are on other things. For this reason, we must pay conscious and deliberate attention to our basic needs. We must give them priority, and take the action required to fulfill them.
If there’s something important that we want to bring into our lives, we need to set our intention for it to happen, and look for ways to make it happen. When we’re managing a project or have a task to carry out, that’s exactly what we do: we find out what has to be done, source the necessary resources and make sure it happens.
In our day-to-day lives, it is likely that our attention will be diverted from our basic needs and at least some of them will not be met in time, if at all. We see this very clearly with children – when they are busy playing, they are often not aware that they need to go to the bathroom, and don’t want to stop playing to take care of that need. In order for basic needs to be met, we must give them the importance they deserve and manage their fulfillment.
When we decide that it is important to prioritize our basic needs, we should also teach our children to do so, whether through personal example or in other ways, because this is something they won’t learn from others.
Our society is very fast-paced, and when giving priority to our basic needs, we may make decisions that will not be in line with the demands of the culture in which we live. It is very important for us to search for the best way to handle this.
Conflicting Basic Needs
There are also situations where certain basic needs conflict with each other, such as when someone is both tired and hungry. We’re the only ones who can know if we can postpone sleep, or if we’re too tired to eat.
Almost all types of basic needs can conflict with each other. For example, the need for connection may conflict with the need for peace of mind, which often requires that we take time for ourselves; the need for intimacy can conflict, in certain relationships, with the need for being protected, etc.
But our world also includes the dimension of time. Time often allows us to organize the fulfillment of our basic needs one after the other so that they do not conflict. Furthermore, our world is multifaceted and made up of a myriad of parts, enabling us to find many options for fulfilling all our basic needs.
What do we need to do to find the option that will suit us best?
- Take responsibility for our basic needs at every given moment
- Identify, out of all our needs, the basic needs that must be met right now (including those hidden within complex needs)
- Check which basic needs require fulfillment and can be met while they are still minimal
- Identify all relevant options for fulfilling our current basic needs
- Find the best way to organize our time and our basic needs to allow us to respond to each basic need when required
The “perception of abundance” can also help us find options for meeting our basic needs. According to the abundance approach, “we always have everything we need – and everything we have, we need”. This approach helps us to organize what we’re dealing with, so we will then be able to find the appropriate combination that will allow us to meet all our basic needs as required, knowing when we can defer fulfilment to a later time.
Sometimes I meet people who try to “prepare themselves”, to pre-empt possible scenarios where they won’t have what they need to fulfill basic needs that they believe will require attention. Trying to guess which basic needs will have to be met in the future usually stems from fear and tends to focus on complex needs rather than basic needs, thereby missing the point. Think, for example, of a person who plans to go on a year-long backpacking trip. When he packs his backpack, he should only pack it with things he’ll definitely need, and not try to stuff it with everything he may want for the entire year. If he takes more than he needs, he won’t be able to carry his backpack for long.
Basic Needs in All Areas of Human Activity
Basic Needs and Interpersonal Communication
When we are in communication with another person and we want to find a solution to a shared challenge, we will only be able to experience good communication and arrive at a real solution if we relate to the basic needs of both parties. A real outcome will be one where the basic needs of both parties are met.
This is the basis of a Win-Win dialogue. In order for people to experience a feeling of Win-Win by the end of a dialogue, both parties must feel their needs are being met.
Our basic needs are part of everything we do and plan, and when we don’t attend to them the discussion becomes futile and disconnected from reality. Where importance is not given to the basic needs of all participants in a conversation, participants will feel unhappy and dissatisfied, they will feel that they have not been seen. This is even if they themselves did not present their needs, and essentially were the ones ignoring themselves.
More on this topic can be found in the recorded lecture on “Harmonious Communication“. In the article I published on the same topic, the basic needs are presented as the main players in communication.
Managing Basic Needs in a Relationship
If it is hard for us to take care of and meet our own basic needs, when we enter into a couplehood relationship, the challenge of meeting the basic needs of both partners becomes greater and more complex.
In a relationship where both partners take responsibility for fulfilling their basic needs, when they respect their needs and communicate with them, addressing their partner’s needs will be natural and will create flow, making it easier to fulfill the basic needs of both. This is vital for the success of the relationship.
However, we must remember that, even in a relationship, each partner remains responsible for identifying and fulfilling his or her own basic needs. At least some of the basic needs of the couple can be fulfilled within the partnership.
Many problems arise in couplehood when people expect their partners to guess their basic needs and fulfill them. This doesn’t work in real life, and such an expectation will only hinder the relationship.
Basic Needs and Our Life Energy
Our life energy is finite. It is important that we use it in a way that will continue to fill our energy reserves. If we don’t fill our energy reserves after consuming a lot of energy in fulfilling various tasks, our quality of life and our productivity will deteriorate, our joy of life will be harmed, and depression may even ensue.
Fulfilling our basic needs is one of the conditions necessary for filling our energy reserves, and harm to our basic needs will cause direct harm to our ability to fill our reserves.
For example: hunger weakens us, fatigue weakens us, loneliness weakens us, lack of intimacy weakens us. Any unmet basic need weakens us – it lowers the level of energy in our energy reserves.
Using our life-energy while ignoring our basic needs or even only partially fulfilling them, leads to serious problems and disease.