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How to identify your unmet needs

We all have basic physical, emotional and psychological needs.

Yes, even the most high achieving, independent, do-everything-for-others amongst us.

When our fundamental needs are ignored, over time they present as thorns-in-our-sides and find sneaky little ways to make themselves noticed.

Unmet needs drain your energy and make it difficult to focus on what you really want in life.

You might find yourself stuck, unable to achieve those higher levels of fulfilment and purpose you're chasing (check out Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to explore this concept further)

And, given we're extraordinary creatures of adaptation, our brains will drive us to find ways to meet these needs. And sometimes those methods are not always in our best interests.

If you're frustrated and keep coming up against cycles of self-sabotage, exploring unmet needs can be a brilliant entry point to disrupt those patterns.

Needs are not just "nice to haves"

As Michael Stratford describes in his book Hungers: The Hidden Motivators, unmet needs act like hungers.

If we're truly hungry, we can't think straight, we get cranky, and we can't put our brains towards anything else until that need is met.

The trouble is, just like physical hunger, ADHD can make it hard for us to even notice when we have an unmet need. We might just feel a vague sense of something being "off," or find ourselves stuck in frustrating patterns without understanding the root cause.

Without consciously and deliberately meeting our needs, we can stay stuck in unhealthy patterns of behaviour as we try to get those needs met in less-than-ideal ways.

Why does ADHD make meeting our own needs so tricky?

The core characteristics of ADHD can contribute to our difficulty to notice, name and meet our needs that have been long neglected.

I share this list not to make everything feel hopeless, but to invite you to give yourself a big whack of self-compassion if naming and meeting your needs is hard! 

Just to name a few of the ways ADHD throws a spanner in the works:

  • Identity issues that have us believing that the only way to get things done is to work really hard, never drop the ball and push through messages that we’re exhausted 
  • Systemic access difficulties with getting your hands on medication, and expensive appointments with specialists
  • Challenges with interoceptive awareness - our ability to notice messages our body sends us that we're hungry, thirsty or in pain
  • The powerfully emotional nature of ADHD means that we sometimes receive messages so powerfully as a big emotional experience, and sometimes that message gets lost in translation
  • Even once we are aware of an unmet need and can articulate it, ADHD makes it difficult to consistently take action to meet our own needs
  • Lack of self-trust and self-worth to flag that we are worthy of our needs being met
  • Working memory challenges make it hard to remember what works to meet our needs
  • Difficulty with cognitive flexibility means it can be challenging to envision a different way of life
  • Difficulty to accept the truth of who we are and instead expecting ourselves to be a magical future version of ourselves, rather than meeting ourselves where we’re at. 

This makes it easy to lose sight of our underlying needs and get caught up in short-term coping mechanisms instead.

 

So how do we start uncovering our unmet needs?

  • Name it

    Articulate the unmet need in a specific way. Get clear on exactly what it is you're lacking - whether that's connection, autonomy, security, or something else. This will help you brainstorm potential solutions.

  • Accept the need with self-compassion

    Accept yourself for having the need, and give yourself permission to seek ways to meet it. Don't judge yourself or try to push through - that will only make things worse in the long run.

  • Experiment

    Brainstorm how you could meet the need in healthy, sustainable ways. This might mean carving out dedicated self-care time, having an honest conversation with a loved one, or exploring a new hobby or interest.

A few ideas to help you identify your unmet needs

Pay attention to the signs

First we need to become aware that a need is going unmet by noticing the clues. Pay attention to physical signs like chronic exhaustion or brain fog, as well as emotional cues like unexplained irritability or longing. These can all be indicators that something important is missing. For ADHDers, an outsized emotional response can signal an unmet need.

  • Physical signs - chronic exhaustion, brain fog, a sense of overwhelm
  • Emotional signs - perhaps you watch an loving and gentle interaction between a friend and her husband and have a big pang of longing or even jealousy. Or maybe you even find yourself annoyed by it. 
  • Pseudo-needs - We might be receiving messages that we need one thing, when there’s a bigger unmet need lying underneath that. For example, a need for validation from others might actually be covering up a deeper need for self-acceptance. In Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, the author distinguishes between strategies to meet needs and true needs. For example money is a strategy to meet needs such as autonomy, security and choice.

Engage in mindfulness practices

When a strong out-of-proportion emotional response comes up, simple mindfulness practices like box-breathing help to create  a pause so you can notice what you're feeling.

Ask yourself: “what am I feeling right now? What message is this sending?” 

Complete a simple life wheel

This helps you look at different areas of your life and consider where an area of your life might need a bit more attention. You can download instructions for this exercise here. 

Try this journaling prompt

Envision a day in your life that is your version of success and ease. This helps you create some distance between immediate challenges and automatic thoughts and feelings, and imagine what a life that works for you might look and feel like. 

A 3 step process for identifying & addressing unmet needs

  1. Articulate the unmet need in a specific way. Get clear on exactly what it is you're lacking - whether that's connection, autonomy, security, or something else. This will help you brainstorm potential solutions.
  2. Accept yourself for having the need, and give yourself permission to seek ways to meet it. Don't judge yourself or try to push through - that will only make things worse in the long run.
  3. Experiment with meeting the need in healthy, sustainable ways. This might mean carving out dedicated self-care time, having an honest conversation with a loved one, or exploring a new hobby or interest.

Uncovering our unmet needs is often the key to finally breaking free of unhealthy patterns and moving our lives in a more fulfilling direction.

And for those of us with ADHD, it's a powerful way to work with the unique challenges we face, rather than against them.

So take some time for self-reflection.

What needs of yours are not being met right now?

How might addressing those needs transform your experience?

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