So, a couple weeks ago the wife of a male client I’m working with, whom I’m also meeting weekly as we work through the process of healing the family unit, asked me how I know so much about helping them communicate better. A few things had fortunately fallen into place for them and things were beginning to progress really well after several years of struggle.

Specifically, we had been talking about needs and feelings and developing a literacy for both. To her question, I let her know that it was because I was, and still sometimes am, a bumbling, illiterate male who had a woman in my life about a decade ago who I cared a lot about who pointed out to me, quite poignantly, that I didn’t know anything about needs or feelings.

One morning as we both got ready for work and to get on about our day my girlfriend asked, how do you feel about us? It stopped me in my tracks. Well, not then but it would in a minute. How do I feel about us? “Good.” I said, “Things are good.” Looking at her for some confirmation.

She asked me to say more, I really couldn’t. I knew happy, mad, sad, glad – those are most of the feelings, right? She asked if I could elaborate about how I felt about our relationship? “Do you feel like you’re getting your needs met?” Woah. What are my needs in this relationship? What are my needs in general. Wow, I really have no idea. As the blood rushed to my head and I scrambled like someone trying to cram for an exam that they have the next morning, I realized this wasn’t something I could b.s. my way through. This was something that I really didn’t want to b.s. my way through. This seemed like something that might be essential to thoroughly explore.

This was a woman who had been in therapy as a teenager and who looked at that as the beginning of a healthy introspection, exploration and growth process that she was gifted to be introduced to early in life. She maintained this level of curiosity and self-exploration throughout her life and brought that gift into our relationship. It was at this moment that I realized, I didn’t speak this language. I also knew her well enough to know that I couldn’t move through this without giving it the right attention. And that, honestly, beyond this relationship, I knew that this was going to be something way more important than whether or not we were going to stay together. This would significantly impact my life moving forward.

We agreed to talk more about things later in the day. The second I got to my office I Googled “needs and feeling list”. I looked at them, printed them out, folded them up and put them in my back pocket. At lunch that day I took out my phone and looked at the website where found these worksheets. The website was Marshall Rosenberg’s Center for Nonviolent Communication. I read a little bit about his research into the “why” of the work that he was doing. In short, as he was working on his Ph.D in psychology and he wanted to find “the reason” for religion. He wanted to find the why at the foundation of all religions? What he discovered was that religion, for hundreds and thousands of years, has helped people get their needs met in many, many ways. His realization was that one of the most fundamental and profoundly impactful things in human history was rooted in us trying to get our needs met.

What I discovered, as I grabbed a slice of pizza around the block from my office on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, was that I had never really looked at my needs, nor been able to articulate them to myself, let alone communicate them to someone with whom I was in a relationship. When I circled the top 5 needs that seemed most fitting to me so many things began to make sense. I looked at my personal narrative and history of trying successfully and unsuccessfully to get my needs met (through many various means). I was also better able to take a look at my current relationship as well as my relationship with myself as it relates in terms of me learning to get my needs met.

Exploring further and looking at the feelings lists (one listing feelings when you are getting your needs met, the other listing feelings when you are not getting your needs met), it became very clear that all the positive feelings and all the negative feelings I was experiencing were directly related to me getting or not getting these needs met that I’d just circled. I felt in that moment that I had discovered a key to life that no one had every shown me. I had discovered an equation that made so much of my life and way of being in the world all make sense. All the negative feelings (frustration, anger, loneliness, etc.) indicated that I was not getting my top needs met. And all the positive feelings (joy, satisfaction, excitement, etc.) were directly related to me getting my needs met. This was an Aha! moment that continues to reverberate for me and my clients on a daily basis.

Every day, both personally and professionally, helping people further cultivate a feelings and needs literacy is a primary driver and reward of the work that I do. Anyone who’s ever worked with has heard my constant refrain which is this:

“Everything everyone ever does his to get a real or perceived need met. Feelings are just a barometer, or indicator, of whether or not we are getting those needs met. So in this sense, bad feelings are good news if we are able to keep our needs in perspective. Feelings and emotions and are not permanent. We should listen to them and be informed by them but we should work to refrain from solidifying them and creating a personal identity around them. If we can use bad feelings as a rudder, or a pause button, to reorient toward prioritizing and getting our needs met, our life becomes much simpler and much more fulfilling.”

Without feelings and needs literacy it’s quite difficult to have a healthy relationship with our self or a healthy relationship with anyone else. When I dig into drug and alcohol histories with my clients and we start to unearth needs and feelings and develop more understanding in this area there often emerges a clear narrative of attempts to get needs met through the substances being used or misused. Almost without fail, the substances provided some relief that is a conscious or unconscious movement toward getting these needs met but is often a shadow side of that. Or, we often see the displacement of needs and a movement toward instant gratification rather than taking the longer view of more sustainably, wholesomely and holistically getting our needs met which is more inline with positive mental health and recovery best practices and outcomes.

When somebody exits treatment, has an intervention and goes to treatment, gets on Vivitrol, Antabuse or stops using, very often the first work that we will do is to explore their needs and feelings. We look at storyline of their attempts to get unrecognized, unarticulated needs and feelings met and work to redirect these efforts with more skillful means. Clients very often take a big breath, and an even bigger exhalation – voicing a sense of relief in making this discovery. A similar realization to the one I had in that pizza shop on a cold winter day in Colorado more than a decade ago.

This is exactly what we had been doing with both the husband and the wife I mentioned above. Once the alcohol was out of the equation (even temporarily), there was some space to begin relating to the relationship that had been nearly dead for a decade. There was finally the opportunity to re-build and old friendship, to explore shared meaning, shared hopes, shared dreams. There was room and a foundation upon which to rebuild the sense and meaning of a healthy relationship and a thriving family.
We’ve set aside a mini retreat for them to be able to articulate and share their own needs to better be able to rebuild their relationship and friendship, to discuss their “Love Languages” and to explore and utilize other tools that might be helpful.

I was recently urged by another client to say something about my work with needs and feelings literacy so she could pass it on to a couple of her friends who are also struggling with drug and alcohol issues as well as a marriage and a relationship that are currently pretty rocky. So, here it is. May it be of benefit.

PS.. I highly recommend each of you going to the websites listed below and utilizing the needs and feelings lists. Circling your top three to five needs folding it up putting it in your pocket. Any time you feel any of the negative feelings on list, pull it out and use it as a pattern interrupt and a tool to remind you to hit pause and to help you consciously reorient toward getting your needs met. I guarantee this little tool will change your life. It has for me and for so many others.