Beyond Basic Needs

blue jade flower

We often think of our needs as being solely the basic survival needs of air, water, food, clothing and shelter. However, there are a series of needs which emerge when these basic physical needs are met. These higher needs are psychological and if not satisfied can result in depression, anger, anxieties, confusion, isolation and even violence. Before these psychological needs can be satisfied, they must be known. If we know we need food, we can get the food. But, if we don’t know what we need to eliminate the hunger, or the depression, we cannot satisfy that need. So, what are our psychological needs?

The most basic of psychological needs, and it overlaps with physical needs, is the need for Security. We seek not only physical security through our shelters but also through the establishment and enforcement of boundaries. The concept of boundaries also applies to us psychologically as we have an individual self which requires security. Our security and safety needs are satisfied through a variety of protective measures and much of our behavior is geared towards providing us with some semblance of psychological protection. For example, the child who consistently refuses to go to school may be, in their mind, trying to protect themselves from something. That something may be to avoid being bullied at school or perhaps this child’s single mother is ailing and the child wants to stay home to take care of her as she is the main source of protection and by assuring her well being, the child assures their own protection. As adults we also engage in behaviors which serve as psychologically protective mechanisms and there is certainly nothing wrong with this…unless the behavior is actually causing the reverse effect, which can often occur when childhood protective behaviors continue on into adulthood.

When our psychological needs for security are relatively satisfied, yet another set of psychological needs become dominant. These needs are about Connection. We strive to be connected to others, related to others…to have friends, to give and receive affection and caring. We need to belong, to love and to be loved. To meet these needs, communication, negotiation, dialogue, discussion and conflict resolution skills are very important. Just as a child needs to activate motor skills to walk to the kitchen to get some food when hungry, so too must we engage communication skills to meet our needs for connection with others.

When our needs for connection are satisfied, even in part, the needs for Value arise. Some of our greatest joy comes from being valued by others for who we are and what we do. Yet, even more important than being valued by others is our own sense of our own value…self value, self esteem. To the degree we estimate our self as valuable; to that extent we are healthy and productive. The golden rule, “do unto others as they do unto you” may in fact not be an injunction but rather a statement of fact. For, indeed, we do treat others as we treat ourselves and the more we value ourselves the more we value others and the world around us. It is not difficult to see how a person who met their needs up to this point and is not aware of this need for Value may begin to find a general malaise in their life, a gnawing hunger or thirst that nothing seems to quench. But, once they understand that this need to value…to value the self, as it is, to value others as they are, to value the world, and, in turn, to be valued, has been neglected, steps can be taken to address that lack.

The need to actualize one’s inherent potential arises when the previous needs are largely met. However, these needs are somewhat systemic and do not simply arise one after the other in a linear fashion. They overlap and can ebb and flow. A middle aged business person in the prime of their life, with a comfortable home, numerous friends, meaningful and productive work can become only focused on the basic needs of water, food and clothing in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The higher needs of connection and value vanish as the needs for security and survival take precedence. However, when this business person, or anyone who has found their needs for connection and value satisfied, begins to feel the stirrings of a deeper and more profound need, it is the need to actualize the potentialities inherent within the individual mind. Often referred to as Self Actualization, this need is rarely recognized let alone activated as the previously mentioned needs are almost universally not satisfied to the level required to allow the emergence of the need for Self Actualization to any significant degree. In fact, it is estimated that most people continue to seek satisfaction of their connection needs throughout their adult life. Perhaps because our communication skills are so poor, our ability to connect with others leaves much to be desired. Fighting, abuse and violence of all sorts may be the last attempt of an unskilled mind in trying to make connections with others.

Did You Choose To Be Here?

sunset at keawakapu beach

I have often heard from some, as you may have too, that you chose to be here, on this planet, at this time, in the circumstances you find yourself. And why did you choose to be here? To learn lessons. Do you believe that? If so, I am going to suggest that you are misinformed. You did not choose to be here, you are here by the inescapable results of consequences. Granted, you may be learning lessons here, but that is not what brought you into this world. What brought you into this world is the inexorable unfolding of consequences. Just as a person may find themselves in prison as a consequential result of their actions, not their choice, so too we find ourselves in this world. We did not choose to be in this world. We are here as a consequential result of actions and deeds from the past. And, just as a person who finds themselves in prison can choose to use that experience to learn and grow, so too we have choices we can make in this world by which we can learn and grow. But, the fact that we have choices now does not mean we chose to be here. Some would say, and rightly so, that regardless of our conditions, be they pleasant or bitter, by being here, and having choice, we are empowered, for it is our capacity to make choices, and enact those choices, that builds consequences.

Consequences are the natural results of actions. The sequence of events which has lead to our present circumstances can go back very far, even long, long before our birth into this material world for, indeed, we are far more than the transient body we inhabit or our temporary personality. We are an active energy system that animates the mind and body we inhabit. That energy system, like all energy, is, according to the first law of thermodynamics, neither created nor destroyed. It only changes form. Energy, as the poet William Blake stated, is ‘eternal delight.’ The third law of motion, postulated by Isaac Newton, states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, or, in other words, an effect, a consequence. Long before Newton, the law of cause and effect was understood as an underlying force responsible for bringing about the conditions of our experience. You cannot throw a rock into a pond and not have ripples rebounding from the farther shore, returning to its source. Every action has reverberations, consequences. To say that we choose to be in this world in the circumstances we find ourselves is to disregard this fundamental law of cause and effect.

Many people are relatively familiar with the concept cause and effect, or consequence, also known as ‘karma,’ which is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘action’ or ‘deed.’ What is less well known is the Sanskrit word ‘phala,’ which means ‘fruit’ as in the result of action. There are no actions or deeds, no karma, without phala, the fruits of those actions or deeds, which eventually ripen – and fall upon us. Yet, despite the commonly understood, and accepted, doctrine, or law, of cause and effect, many well intentioned, though misinformed people, continue to expound that we chose to be in this world with the circumstances which permeate our lives. There are problems with this line of thinking beyond the mere disregard for the law of cause and effect. For example, if a person suffering with a terminal disease is told they chose that, the presumption is that they can choose to not have that. And when the disease continues, or worsens, the person can feel guilty or ashamed for not choosing health. If a person is born into this world with significant deficits, either physical, emotional or social, or any combination of those three, they may be told that they chose this because they have lessons to learn. When these deficits continue, they can become guilt ridden and ashamed of themselves for not choosing to get better, or not learning their lessons. To say that those interned in concentration camps chose that is to seriously question the mental health of such people. A person would have to be crazy to choose to be placed in a concentration camp, or in a refugee camp starving to death, regardless of what lessons might be learned. It is far more sane to suggest that current conditions, no matter how beautiful or ugly, pleasant or painful, are the ripened fruit of past deeds, past actions. It is accurate to state that we do have choices in the present; we can make choices about the consequential conditions we find ourselves in. One of the principle tenets of Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy is that people have the freedom to make choices in which they can find meaning in any circumstance, including the most wretched. People can choose what to think and how to act, and interact, in any given situation.

It is far more compassionate, and accurate, to recognize that although we do have choices in this world, the conditions we find ourselves in, no matter how satisfying or frustrating, are not of our choosing but rather brought on by the law of consequences. We did not choose to be here in this world; we did not choose to be in the circumstances we find ourselves. We are here as a result of consequences. We are the ones ourselves, as a system of active animating energy, that brought on the consequential conditions we find ourselves in, both individually and collectively. And, so often our actions have been, and still are, unfortunately, short sighted, selfish, and even malevolent. Despite that, we do have choices now as to how we interpret and respond to our circumstances, how we behave and communicate, how we live, and love, which then does contribute to future consequences. The active animating energy that has brought on these consequential conditions, and which underlies our current mind and body, is channeled into action through a mind that is often still heavily conditioned with erroneous beliefs, skewed values, emotional debris and intellectual blockages. Short sightedness, selfishness and malevolence are still quite prevalent in this world. But, we can choose alternatives. That requires a consciousness at least willing to accept the idea of a law of cause and effect, and a consciousness that can delay gratification, for consequences may not, and often do not, arrive immediately. It is not a matter of figuring out what to do, the multi-dimensional cosmic mechanics of cause and effect are unfathomably complex. It is sufficient to act….from the heart.

Anticipating Anticipatory Anxiety

green ti  liear

You’re going to the dentist – and you feel anxious. You’re about to go take a test, and you feel anxious. You’ve been asked to have a meeting with your supervisor, and you feel anxious. You might just be anxious anticipating another day! Anticipatory anxiety is a common discomfort for millions of people. Some people can even get anxious anticipating the arrival of the anticipatory anxiety! Anticipatory anxiety is the physical symptoms of increased heart rate, increased pulse, shallow rapid breathing and increased tension which can cause upset stomachs and headaches and perhaps increased sweatiness, all of which arise when thinking about an upcoming event.

General anxiety is also often caused by thinking; however, the thinking may be about anything: a past relationship, ongoing financial issues, problems on the job…. Anticipatory anxiety is specifically about some particular event about to occur. What we think might happen can cause great anxiety. If we magnify the potential problems of the event to such an extent that in our mind it becomes a catastrophe, our anxiety could reach such levels that we become dizzy and may even pass out. If we imagine the upcoming event as being uncomfortable or embarrassing, then our anxiety will be less severe, though still quite noticeable. The difference between anticipatory anxiety that is incapacitating and merely moderately uncomfortable is entirely rooted in what we are thinking about the upcoming event.

Truly, any thinking about an upcoming event is conjecture. We really don’t know what will occur. We guess, we fabricate, we imagine and yet we don’t know, which in itself can be a cause of anxiety – especially if we think not knowing somehow equates to instability. Nevertheless, we do fabricate outcomes of upcoming events and those outcomes are generally negative which causes the anxiety. If we were to imagine positive outcomes we would be much less anxious, maybe even excited. Also note that anxiety and excitement can share the same kinds of symptoms: elevated heart rate and pulse, shortened and shallow breathing, tension….Before a person diagnoses themselves with anxiety, they might want to explore the possibility that they are actually excited.

The key to lowering and perhaps even reducing anticipatory anxiety is an awareness of thinking. If we can capture those fleeing internal sentences and/or internal images which we have created about an unknown future, we can analyze them. More often than not, these internal fabrications are not realistic. We may see ourselves at the dentist and in excruciating pain. We may imagine ourselves taking a test and totally unable to answer any question. We foresee the meeting with our supervisor as ending up in being reprimanded or even fired. All of these scenarios take place in our mind often without a shred of evidence. Yet, the mind reacts as if it’s a fact and the body reacts accordingly.

So, how do we combat anticipatory anxiety? First, be aware of the physical symptoms and then take a moment to relax. You can do this by taking a few deep inhalations and exhalations. Then examine the content of your thinking, your internal dialogue and your mental pictures, which occurred at the onset of the anxiety. Counter the unrealistic and irrational thoughts with more realistic and evidence based thoughts. For example, if you see yourself in excruciating pain at the dentist, counter that with the knowledge that you will actually be feeling no pain due to the Novocain or other pain inhibitor you will receive. Test anxiety can be countered with envisioning yourself answering the questions rather than not – it’s purely a matter of imagining something negative vs. imagining something positive. And, if you have studied for the test and know the material, then it’s far more realistic to have a positive outcome than a negative one. If you find that the holiday’s when family gatherings are common cause anxiety, examine what mental pictures you are holding that might generate that anxiety. Sure, maybe you are recalling past holiday’s that were terrible, but that does not necessarily mean that the upcoming holidays must be that way. You can envision and imagine alternatives which are more pleasant and that will reduce the anticipatory anxiety.

Why the mind tends towards the negative rather than the positive is a mystery. Yet, there is no doubt that anticipatory anxiety is purely a mind game. You can win the game if you are aware of your thinking and able to challenge the irrational, unrealistic thinking and replace it with more realistic thinking. Realistic thinking is not necessarily positive thinking, it is more objective thinking sometimes called scientific thinking because it is based on evidence, not conjecture. So, next time you start to feel anxious, become a scientific thinker and examine the evidence. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised to find the source of your anxiety vanish like a clouds dispersing after a storm.

The Seventh Cardinal Sin of Thinking

water lilies

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule. It’s the same idea in just about every religion. But, consider this. What if the original translation was more along the lines of a statement of fact than an injunction: “You do unto others as you do unto yourself.” We treat others as we treat ourselves. If we are kind to ourselves, we are kind to others. If we are self degrading, we degrade others. If we accept this as at least a reasonable possibility, and if we look at the brutality of the world, it’s not difficult to see that we don’t treat ourselves very well.

The history of self belittlement is lengthy and complicated. It has roots in both religious and secular thinking. It is sometimes considered kin to humility and therefore not only tolerated but encouraged. But, like the overly exaggerated self promoter hiding a sense of inferiority, humility can too be a sign of an over active ego. As the saying goes, “don’t humble yourself, you’re not that great.”

But, not being great or successful or wealthy or healthy or smart or…whatever desirable trait we might imagine, is no reason for self belittlement. There is no rational reason for engaging in the kind of self talk which demeans or degrades us. It’s bad enough that others may belittle us. In fact, we often learn how to do it to ourselves from others, in particular parents, teachers and others who are close to us and in a position of perceived authority. The litany of phrases used on misbehaving children is extensive. In many cases, the phrases would fall into the category of verbal abuse. It’s easy to recognize how a child can become an adult with a poor self image.

Self image is the foundation of our psychological life. Although it is just an image, it nonetheless exerts tremendous influence over our emotions and our behavior. There is hardly a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor educator, sociologist or philosopher who would deny the importance of self image. Fortunately, because the image of our self is an image, a mental concept, it can be changed. It is not a fixed, concrete formation. Our self image has been built up largely through our own self talk. Year after year, layer upon layer, the experiences, the interpretations and evaluations, the meanings, the sentences…they all combine to form a knot of self. Tight. Tense. Defensive. Yet, not without creativity, spontaneity, insight, tremendous potential…Coming to understand and accept ourselves may be our life work – for each and every one of us.

Our path towards a new, improved, better self image need not be based on repeating a string of affirmations about how positive we are; it is not, necessarily, about being “ok.” We might not be ok, we might be a wreck. But, that is no reason for self belittlement. Regardless of how bad off we might be, how screwed up, how confused, how conflicted, how much in debt….none of that is reason for self belittlement. Yet, our upbringing has likely trained us to do just that: belittle ourselves when we are not living up to expectations so often set by others – which we often internalize as our own.

Our task, if we choose to take it, is simply to refuse engaging in any self talk which is degrading, demeaning, debasing, disparaging, deriding, or denigrating. Using positive self talk is certainly helpful; however, it is more important to stop the self belittlement as what good would it do if we tell ourselves how positive we are when underneath, quietly and secretly, we are telling ourselves just the opposite. We can also practice avoiding belittlement of others. There is enough research to strongly suggest that people respond better to encouragement than belittlement! And the same is true within us. Encouragement is more productive than belittlement. Stop the belittlement. Increase the encouragement.

We need to pay special attention to our own negative self talk, catch it in the act and gently acknowledge the untruth of it. The habits of negative self talk can be deeply entrenched. It may take years of diligence to uproot self belittlement. The result, however, is a much more natural, healthy, easy going, unfrightened and generous self.

It all comes back to our thinking. Our thinking can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Our thinking can make us healthy and happy or sick and miserable. Unreasonable, unrealistic and irrational thinking doesn’t work to anyone’s benefit. There is no better time than right now to begin the task of making our mind a more heavenly place.

The Sixth Cardinal Sin of Thinking

close up of pink flower

“I can’t do it !” It’s certainly a common enough phrase; I can’t do this, I can’t do that. It probably gets run through much more inside our mind than out. I’m not going to tell you it’s not true, that you can do anything you set your mind to. There are some things you can’t do. I know there are some things I can’t do. The problem is that when we use that phrase “I can’t” it suggests that we are not able to do it at some time in the future; that we are not able to learn how to do it. So, using the “I can’t” phrase doesn’t really do our potential any justice. And regarding our internal self talk, there is no distinction between fact and fiction. So, when the mind hears the self talk “I can’t” it simply says “ok.” There is also no time frame involved our self talk, the “I can’t” phrase has no expiration date. As far as the mind is concerned, “I can’t” means you never have been nor will ever be able to. That’s not quite accurate.

Many in the field of mental health or self improvement suggest that “I can’t” be replaced with “I won’t.” In some cases, that is a good suggestion. There are quite a few times when a person who says “I can’t do that” is really saying they choose not to do that. In such cases, saying “I won’t do that” is not only appropriate but more accurate and more empowering. You can try this out for yourself. If you can catch yourself about to say “I can’t” when in fact it’s a choice on your part not to do it, simply say “I won’t” or “I refuse” or “I choose not to.” Don’t say “I can’t” when in fact you can but don’t want to.”

But, what about those situations when in fact you really are not able to do it. You don’t have the skill, the experience or the capacity? In those cases, it’s still much better to use an alternate phrase. For example, if someone asks you to help them edit a book in a foreign language that you don’t speak, you can say something like “at this time, I am not able to” or “I have not yet learned how to speak that language.” By avoiding the use of “I can’t” we don’t shut down the future possibilities. The mind remains open to the potential.

But, what about a person who is clinically depressed, severely anxious or diagnosed with terminal cancer or some other serious physical condition. Are they not justified in saying “I can’t get better?” It would be somewhat cruel to suggest to them it’s their choice and they should say “I won’t get better.” The latter statement is not just a choice based phrase it is also very deterministic. It could itself be cause for depression as it is an affirmation of the problem. Yet, “I can’t get better” isn’t that accurate either. There are anecdotes of individuals who have overcome these types of problems and if any one individual can accomplish something, it is at least in the realm of possibility that others too can. So, more realistic self talk than either “I can’t” or “I won’t” is called for. What might work? Well, this is the kind of thinking that is required of a person interested in adjusting their self talk. They need to think about alternative phrases and then begin to use them when they catch themselves using the old more irrational or less than realistic phrases. Before reading on, think for yourselves what might work in this situation…..

Because the issue of choice is somewhat secondary in these kinds of situations; that is, we can assume that nobody consciously chooses to be depressed or terminally ill, the “can’t” and “won’t” don’t quite apply. Willpower is not the issue either. According to Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, the beginning of real change occurs when we acknowledge and accept where we are right now in the present moment. So, perhaps we can take the “I can’t” and make it into an “I can” if we “can” simply accept our present condition. “I can accept my problem” or “I can accept my illness” can be the precursor openings which may prove helpful and perhaps even somewhat healing. Of course, acceptance of an illness is itself not a task which is accomplished right away. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has delineated the stages of loss and acceptance is near the end. Nevertheless, we can transform our “I can’t” into an “I can” by changing what it is we think we can or can’t do. “I can’t get better” can become “I can accept this.” Here, of course, the initial response to terrible news or a fatal illness is “I won’t accept this” which is the first stage of loss, denial. But, the truth is, it can be accepted and, as one passes through the stages of loss, is accepted. And then, there is often much more peace, less resistance and openness to the possibilities so often found in “I can.”