I’ve been thinking about the ancient temple at Delphi in Greece, where women played a key role in the spiritual life of the community. Once a year, leaders would come to the temple to receive guidance from the famous Delphi Oracle. To enter the temple, visitors passed through an entrance where three phrases were written. The first was, “Know thyself.”
To deeply know yourself is a powerful healing experience. It means having insight into your life’s experiences and how they shape your present. It also means understanding and accepting your gifts and your challenges. This is what I help people to do in my psychotherapy practice. To come to know yourself is a never-ending exploration that uncovers the truth of who you are.
When you know yourself, you also know your needs, even if you are struggling to meet them. A big part of self-care is getting your needs met.
Psychologists have been trying to understand human needs for a long time. A famous theory by A.H. Maslow introduced the idea of a pyramid, or hierarchy, of human needs. At it’s base, Maslow proposed that all humans need their physical needs met, such as food, water, and shelter. From there, he believed that people need to feel safe. Further up on the pyramid, once lower needs have been met, people strive to belong to a group and to have love. Next, people try to meet needs for esteem or respect, followed by the final concept at the top of the pyramid of “self actualization.” Self actualization refers to a person’s ultimate need for self fulfillment of the talents and nature with which we are all born.
Maslow’s theory was accepted and applied for many years before some psychologists began to doubt its relevance to today’s society. Some began to tweak the pyramid to include needs such as finding and keeping a mate and the needs of parents to care for their children. I’m sure you can think of other needs you have that fall outside these frameworks. The problem with models like these is that they just can’t capture everyone’s needs on all levels. “Higher needs” on the pyramid can change based on your age, gender, sexuality, circumstances, culture, and other factors.
When you know yourself, you also know your needs. …A big part of self care is getting your needs met.
Let’s agree that every person on earth needs food, water, shelter from harsh weather, and sleep. Once the physical needs are met, we venture into the realms of emotional, social, and spiritual needs, which can be highly individual. I personally agree that people have better lives when they feel safe and loved and have healthy social connections. These are things psychologists look for as emotionally “supportive” factors in a person’s life.
Beyond that, I view true needs as those non-negotiables, which if denied to us for too long, make us less ourselves. We don’t “need” some ice cream or a new purse, although these things might bring us pleasure. (The pleasure, not the thing, may be the real need.) Self care is not just an vacation indulgence or a Mother’s Day gift certificate for the spa.
When we frame our needs for pleasure, physical relaxation, or enhancing self-esteem as occasional activities, rewards, or gifts, it can feel as if these needs must be earned. Everyone deserves to feel good. If we don’t have the basics of what we need to feel good, we simply don’t function as well in our lives.
…true needs are those non-negotiables, which if denied to us for too long, make us less ourselves.
This is a good point for reflection: Make a list of your needs. Think about those needs that, for you, are simply non-negotiable. (For me, without good sleep, I eventually dissolve into a weepy mess.) Then consider whether those needs are being met or not. If they are truly non-negotiable, why are they not getting met? In other words, why are those aspects of self care being neglected — and how can you re-prioritize them?
When we ignore or can’t meet our needs for too long, we feel depressed, anxious, overwhelmed. We may even get sick. In fact, people newly diagnosed with chronic illness often grapple with new realities of self care and begin to reckon with a pile-up of unmet needs. Illness and self care can become an uninvited boot camp of self-knowledge, boundary setting, compassion, and self-advocacy.
When we ignore or can’t meet our needs for too long, we feel depressed, anxious, overwhelmed.
When I got diagnosed with some serious illnesses in 2015, my self esteem plummeted. I didn’t want all of my new self care needs. I embraced the need to research my diagnoses and stick to my treatments because it fit my comfortable academic/doctor persona. Googling medical information and speaking knowledgeably with my doctors made me feel more in control. I felt shame, though, about my fatigue and all its consequences: the unkept house, non-essential emails and calls unanswered, working (and therefore developing my career) less than my colleagues.
Family and friends who couldn’t understand or respect my needs began to fall away. I ended a few friendships, myself, that couldn’t evolve with my new self care reality. The experience of losing so much control over my body softened how I treat myself. Over time, I learned to accept my needs as truly non-negotiable — even with myself.