Conflicting Needs

Feeling absolutely stuck is a pretty common experience for many of us with mental health challenges. Sometimes we feel stuck because nothing we’re trying is working. Sometimes the limitations brought about by chronic difficulties such as severe anxiety or dissociation can make us feel absolutely trapped. In some cases we feel stuck when we have more than one conflicting need. Feeling pulled strongly in very different directions, we’re under constant pressure we can’t seem to alleviate. Moving in any direction makes the pull from the opposite even worse. It’s a difficult place to be in.

Image courtesy of Adrian van Leen,

People in chronic emotional pain and those who’ve been traumatized often struggle with these kinds of polarizations. There are many paired and opposing needs, that when felt strongly at the same time can immobilize us. It’s deeply frustrating and upsetting and can lead to a spiral of intense distress and chronic anxiety that makes it even more difficult to think clearly or communicate about. Some common examples are the need to talk about something and an equally strong need to keep it secret. A need for social contact and a need to be alone. A need to break out of the routine and a need to stay with the familiar.

Something I found helpful when this gives me trouble is to realise that paired contradictory needs are actually common to all people. Granted, most people don’t feel them quite so strongly at the same time, but all people need things like social contact and time alone at different times and in different amounts. Some of the child development frameworks (particularly the attachment ones) talk about two of the basic needs of growing children; a need to explore, experiment, try new things, and a need to be nurtured, to feel safe, to be bonded. Children routinely switch between these two needs, how much of either they need is determined by their temperament, the environment, parenting approach, and experiences.

Children who are frightened, stressed, or traumatized will often experience less interest in exploring, and a much stronger need for nurturing and safety. Sometimes they will ‘regress’ to an earlier level of development for a time, they might stop speaking or sleeping independently. Usually once the stress has passed that need to adventure will come back and they will regain those skills and set out to investigate their world again.

I found it very helpful to realise that not only are contradictory pairs of needs quite normal, but that both are equally important to meet. In fact, their contradictory nature is actually complementary – they balance each other out. If children didn’t feel a drive to explore and master, to taste, hold, throw, build, dig, investigate, and learn they wouldn’t grow up and develop into adults. If they didn’t feel a need for safety, security, familiarity, nurture and bonding they wouldn’t learn empathy, love, social connection and kindness. These needs balance each other out.

With that in mind I found myself looking at this stuck place in a different way. Instead of asking myself which need should be met, I started to look for ways to meet both of them. I know that it can feel completely impossible to do that! Sometimes one could be met in a small way, then a little of the other, then back to the first. Children run out to explore, then come back to check family are still there, then run off again. It’s absolutely fine to take turns. Part of the nature of those of us who are in chronic pain is to start to think in very absolute terms. It can be difficult to think in small steps – today I’ll go out to that art opening and see people, then this evening I’ll turn off my phone and stay in and read.

Sometimes it takes some really creative ideas to find ways to meet opposing needs. Sometimes the way the needs are framed makes it impossible, but if you can dig a little, you might find another way to look at them. For example – ‘I want to see a therapist/I don’t want to see a therapist’. They can perhaps be expressed as ‘I need some help/I need to stay safe’. Once you reframe them that way it starts to become possible to meet both – for example going to see a new therapist, but deciding not to talk about certain things until you get to know them and develop some trust. Promising yourself that you wont keep going if they are not safe, or that you will look for another therapist instead of opening up is one way of meeting both needs. Or deciding that for the moment, seeing a therapist would be too distressing, and deciding to use anonymous helplines on occasion, or read a book about your difficulties instead are other ways of meeting both needs; getting help and staying safe.

Once you start to move out of the either/or mindset and see both needs as important, you can start to unpick the knots that keep you feeling stuck and find a way to move forwards. Over time I’ve found that my brain has come to understand this approach and work with me much more. As long as I’m reliable about doing things like taking turns which need I’ll meet, the intense feelings start to settle down. It’s a little like having two dogs that can’t be walked together. At first when you take one out, the other barks and whines and makes a huge fuss. But if you’re reliable about taking the second one for a walk too, after a while the one left home trusts that you will come back for it and it settles down and lets you get on with things in peace.

People with parts can sometimes find that different needs are compartmentlised within different parts, which can set the scene for a lot of internal conflict. Treating all these needs as valid and valuable, and understanding that a lack of balance is the result when they get cut off from each other can make a big difference to restoring some calm and safety to warring multiple systems.

A final note – we can also get very stuck when one of a complementary set of needs is completely suppressed. If we only feel the need for safety and familiarity, and never the need to adventure our world can become very small. If we only feel the need to be social and never to be alone with our thoughts we can lose our chance to learn about and care for ourselves. Again, small steps towards the other need can be better than huge changes. Little moves in the other direction can help to unfreeze us and wake up that other need in us. We all naturally have a different balance of needs as part of our personality. Some people love comfortable holidays in five star hotels, others spend their free time white water rafting. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s part of the marvellous diversity that makes up the human race. But if you’re feeling unbalanced and stuck, it might help to spend some time with or read about people who exemplify the need you’ve lost touch with. Just a little love of home can stabilize chaotic wanderlust, just a little curiosity can inspire a recluse to try something new, just a little sharing can reconnect someone isolated by secrets.


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