What You Really Need

“We have been raised to fear . . . our deepest cravings.

And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect,

keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for . . .

many facets of our own oppression.”[1]

—Audre Lorde, The Uses of the Erotic


I used to think it was indulgent and selfish to acknowledge my needs and desires, especially when so many people in the world suffer so much more than I do.

I grew up with few models of self-love and care, and I was painfully aware of my white privilege from an early age. In my teens and early twenties, my reluctance to take good care of myself and my white guilt mixed together into a brew of savior mentality. I showed up in less-than-helpful ways and lived on the brink of burnout.

Luckily, life sent me a wake up call at a relatively young age. My moment of truth came while lying on my bed in Oaxaca, Mexico, thirty-six weeks pregnant. I’d just returned from an appointment with my midwife. The hospitals in Oaxaca had extremely high rates of medical intervention in births, and I wanted a home birth. My midwife told me that my baby was breech and that my son would need to turn soon in order to have the birth I was hoping for.

Lying on my bed, I placed my hands on my belly and asked my baby what he needed. I sensed his response immediately—Settle yourself.

I’d been through a lot in the year leading up to that moment. My partner, who was undocumented at the time, was racially profiled while driving to work, and six months later, he was deported to Mexico. I had transferred with my job with the hotel workers’ union from New Haven, Connecticut to Phoenix, Arizona to be closer to him.

A few months after that, I discovered I was pregnant, and I spent my pregnancy bouncing back and forth across borders, trying to figure out where we’d live next. Finally, at seven-months-pregnant, I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico.

With my hands on my belly, I realized that to be the mother I wanted to be for my baby, I needed to feel settled in my body, which meant doing many things differently. I promised my son that I would learn to take better care of myself, and that started my journey to share this with you today.

Now, it wasn’t an immediate jump from A to B—from neglecting my needs to honoring them at all times—and I am definitely still a work in progress, but I am so grateful to my son for the wake-up call and for starting me on this path toward aligning my life with my deepest needs and values.

So, now that you know a bit of my story, let’s turn to you.

How would you describe your relationship with your needs?

When people ask you what you need or want, do you know exactly how to answer? Or do you struggle to respond?

And, if you do know what you need, do you prioritize your needs?

Would you like some acknowledgement of how hard it can be to meet your needs, with all of the demands that are on you and the lack of support we receive in our splintered society?

Or would you like some acknowledgement that no one ever taught you to meet your needs well?

One reason I see that many people struggle to understand and prioritize their needs is attachment wounds. So, before we go further, I want to take you on a brief detour to explore attachment theory and how babies learn to honor their needs—or not.

Although most of us come into this world with the capacity to express whether or not our needs are met, we are not born with the ability to meet our needs. Instead, we rely on our caregivers to teach us to meet our needs.

Here’s how we ideally develop the ability to identify our needs and feel safe, seen, soothed, and able to trust ourselves and others, an ability known as secure attachment:[2]

Secure Attachment

Let’s imagine that there’s a baby. The baby wakes up after a nap and starts crying. The caregiver comes into the room, coos lovingly to the baby, picks the baby up, and rocks the baby back and forth. The baby stops crying. The baby realizes, in perhaps not so many words: “Oh! That feels good! I felt lonely, and now I’m held. I needed attention.”

After a moment, the baby starts to squirm with discomfort. The caregiver checks the baby’s diaper, realizes it’s wet, and changes the diaper. The baby realizes, consciously or unconsciously: “Oh! That feels good! I felt wet, and I needed to be dry!”

After a few more moments, the baby begins to cry again. The baby hasn’t eaten for a couple of hours, so the caregiver offers the baby a breast or bottle. The baby eats, feels sated, and realizes: “Oh! I felt hungry, and now I feel full. I needed food!”

In the ideal scenario, we humans develop the ability to honor our needs through being in relationship with people who attune to our needs and offer solutions that match. Babies develop secure attachment when caregivers consistently and effectively attune to their needs.

However, if babies don’t receive attunement and repair consistently enough, they are less likely to learn to interpret, trust, or effectively respond to what they feel and need, and they are more likely to develop coping strategies including avoidant attachment and preoccupied attachment (also known as anxious or ambivalent attachment).[3] Let’s explore each of these now.

Avoidant Attachment

Let’s now imagine that the same baby cries, but the caregiver consistently does not attune to or match the baby’s needs. The caregiver may be hostile toward or critical of the baby or absent for reasons such as an illness or preoccupation with work or other responsibilities. The parent may also appear involved but only become excited about a shared interest with the child or the child’s high performance.

This baby still experiences feelings of distress from their unmet needs, but it seems pointless to the baby to even pay attention when there’s nothing they can do to meet their needs.

To make their needs manageable and turn down the pain of consistently unmet needs, they learn to ignore their body’s signals, turn away from their longings, act as if they’re getting what they need, or convince themselves that they don’t need anything at all. They may develop a tendency to flee the right hemisphere and the parts of the brain that signal unmet needs and to become highly cognitive and task-oriented instead.

If you developed an avoidant attachment style, you may now have a harder time identifying your feelings, needs, and desires or even relating to the idea that you have needs in the first place. You may feel a sense of embarrassment or disgust when considering your longings, look down upon others for their messy emotions, feel irritated at the hassle of having to add your needs to your to-do list, or think you should need nothing at all.[4]

Because avoidantly attached people had to rely on themselves to meet their own needs, they  tend to believe that other people won’t or can’t help them, that they shouldn’t trust other people, that they can only rely on themselves, or that their vulnerability might be used against them. In order to protect themselves from being hurt again, they often refuse help from others.

Avoidantly attached people may show up as the most competent person in the room and become highly respected yet lonely leaders.

Preoccupied Attachment

Now, let’s imagine another baby. This time, the caregiver occasionally attunes to the baby and matches their response to the baby’s needs, but most of the time, the caregiver offers the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, the baby cries out of loneliness, but the caregiver gives them a bottle or the baby feels overtired, but the caregiver sits them down in front of the tv.

Preoccupied attachment often emerges when a primary caregiver relies on the child to meet the caregiver’s emotional or physical needs, and the child learns that their needs are more likely to be met if their caregiver’s needs are met. As a result, the child learns to be preoccupied with others’ feelings and needs, prioritize other peoples’ needs before their own, or hide their own feelings and needs in an attempt to please others.

Preoccupied-attached people often do not trust themselves and can develop a pattern of seeking advice from others rather than following their own inner guidance. This lack of trust sometimes develops because the caregiver expected the child to handle adult responsibilities, so the child expects this of themself as well, but no matter how hard they try, the child doesn’t have the power to meet all their needs effectively. As a result, the preoccupied child is likely to blame their inability to meet their needs on themselves and thus not trust themselves.

Additionally, due to the fact that even when the child’s needs were met, the child came to expect that their needs soon enough would not be met, so preoccupied-attached people often learn to anticipate disappointment and feel a sense of foreboding, like something’s about to go wrong even when things are good.

As adults, they may say “yeah, but” after sharing good things that are happening or explain why the good things aren’t as good as they could be. They might be on high-alert to every little feeling and struggle to soothe themselves effectively. To avoid the pain of rejection or disappointment, preoccupied people sometimes appear to become avoidant.

Although I had learned about attachment theory before, I didn’t really get it until taking Carmen Spagnola’s course, Secure, through her online membership site, the Numinous Network. For a deeper dive into healing attachment wounds, I highly recommend taking her course or reading her Medium article, Portrait of A Marriage (Yes, It’s Mine).

To get a clearer picture of how these attachment strategies show up in your life, I recommend taking these free assessments: dianepooleheller.com/attachment-test/ and yourpersonality.net/attachment. You can also take these assessments repeatedly over time to track your healing.

These assessments will likely show you, like most people, that you use both an avoidant strategy and preoccupied strategy to varying degrees. For example, after doing a lot of work on myself for over fourteen years, I am primarily securely attached, but I still have consciously avoidant tendencies with my parents and occasionally experience preoccupied attachment in friendships which masquerades as avoidance.

Now, if you’re a parent, please know that your parenting doesn’t need to be perfect for your children to develop secure attachment. Research shows that when parents attune to their children about thirty percent of the time, children will likely develop secure attachment.

And repair is key. If we’ve caused harm—even in the distant past—healing can come from naming the harm and its consequences, offering a sincere apology without caveats, and changing our behavior.

Now, let’s say that you grew up in a mostly secure and loving family, but you still struggle to acknowledge your needs. Why might that be?

Attachment wounds can happen at any time in our lives—on the playground, in the classroom, on the sports field, at work, in romantic relationships, on the campaign trail, or in any other situation. Any time someone who we thought we could trust acts in a way that breaks our trust,  we can form an attachment wound and find it difficult to trust again.

No matter how supportive our family of origin is, larger systemic factors can make it difficult to honor our needs. If you are poor or on the margins of systemic power, it may feel too painful to pay attention to your needs. Or if you have a relatively easy time meeting your needs when so many other people do not, you might think it is selfish or even unethical to pay attention.

And if you’re experiencing heartache in your life right now, like grieving the loss of a loved one or the state of the world, living with illness or disability or poverty, or otherwise grappling with needs that are currently impossible to meet, acknowledging your needs can seem pointless.

Knowing what we need is often not a quick fix. And so it makes complete sense to distract ourselves from our needs. Sometimes, distraction actually meets our needs for ease and comfort. However, while distraction can help us cope with pain in the short term, ignoring our needs rarely helps us feel good in the long term.

When we don’t pay attention to what we need, it becomes harder to make choices that honor our needs. We’re more likely to react in ways we’re not proud of, achieve what we think we want but still not feel satisfied, burn out and change paths but then burn out all over again, struggle to set priorities or boundaries, and regret lost opportunities for joy.

So what exactly do I mean by needs?

When I ask you what you need and want, I’m not talking about following your bliss at another’s expense, endlessly pursuing material possessions, or believing you have a right to own something just because imperialism and capitalism says you do.

Instead, when I ask you what you need, I’m inviting you to tune into the life energy that is coursing through your veins and to tell me about your deep-bellied yeses, the callings that summon you to act in solidarity with yourself, humanity, and the planet.

The Latin root of the word desire is de sidere—from the stars,[5] and I believe that our needs and desires are sacred expressions of life living through us.

I use the definition of needs that comes from the Nonviolent Communication lineage—Needs are the underlying values and longings that motivate all human action, the qualities necessary to be well and whole. Needs are universal to all human beings, living creatures, and ecosystems.

Having needs is simply part of the equation of being human, and even if we convince ourselves otherwise, our needs are necessary for being truly alive, just like eating. To get a sense of what I mean by needs, I invite you to take a look at the non-comprehensive list of universal needs below.

But what if you still feel slightly repulsed by this idea of needs?

What if you’re turned off by status quo conversations about self-care, which ignore the systemic roots of our dis-ease and perpetuate the cult of individualism?

If that’s you, I get it. Over fifteen years since that conversation with my soon-to-be-born son, the activist in me still sometimes grimaces at the notion of self-care.

So if self-care turns you off, I invite you to view your needs through the lens of solidarity.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, solidarity entered the English language in the early 1800s from the French solidarité meaning “communion of interests and responsibilities, or mutual responsibility,” and solidaire meaning “interdependent, complete, or entire.”[6]

In contrast, many of the words we use in the English language to express supporting each other are rooted in separation and supremacy culture. Check out these entries from the Etymology Dictionary:

  1. Serve: late 12c. “to render habitual obedience to,” from Latin servire “be a servant, be in service, be enslaved”[7]
  2. Volunteer: c. 1600, from the French voluntaire, “one who offers himself for military service”[8]
  3. Impact: c. 1600, from Latin impingere “to push into, drive into, strike against”[9]
  4. Support: late 14c., “to hold up, prop up, put up with, or tolerate,” from Old French suporter “to bear, endure, or sustain”[10]

No wonder we feel exhausted!

If you hear a voice in your head asking—Who am I to have needs?— or doubting your right to have needs when others needs are not met—I invite you to consider the words of Lilla Watson—Murri artist, activist, and academic. She writes:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.[11]

Whether we believe we should have needs or not, every human being on this planet has needs, including you and I. If we only focus on others’ needs and ignore our own, then we’re operating from a place of saviordom, not solidarity. And we’re more likely to burn out and drop out of the fight altogether, which ultimately benefits systems of oppression.

And as Audre Lorde, philosopher, intersectional feminist, and activist wrote in The Uses of the Erotic, ignoring our needs benefits systems of oppression. She wrote: “We have been raised to fear… our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.”

In the face of a dominant culture that denigrates desire, denies our agency, and makes it so hard to meet our needs, honoring our needs is not selfish.

To act from a place of solidarity, we must honor our mutuality, our interdependence, our shared humanity. Honoring our needs is a radical act.

Each time we choose to honor our needs and desires in the little moments—eating when we’re hungry, sleeping when we’re tired, moving our bodies when we feel sore or stressed, speaking up when we need to say something, and so forth—we strengthen our ability to make bigger decisions that help us align our lives with our values, nourish our joy, and make the impact we’re called to make.

For support with recognizing and making choices to honor your needs more, I encourage you to print out the list of needs below, and put it on your bedside table or somewhere you’ll see it often. Then, refer to it whenever you’d like support articulating your needs or figuring out a next step.

The (Non-Comprehensive) Needs List


[1] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.)

[2] Although I had read about attachment theory many times, it wasn’t until I took Carmen Spagnola’s course, Secure, that these teachings clicked for me. I learned these teachings about attachment from her course. If you struggle with anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment, I highly recommend Spagnola’s course, which is available on an ongoing basis as part of her Numinous Network.

[3] While most people refer to these strategies as styles, I use the word strategies to underscore that these are ways we attempt to meet our needs and that we can learn new strategies to meet our needs.

[4] All of these are signs of an avoidantly attached strategy for coping with unmet needs. I’ve learned a lot from Carmen Spagnola about avoidant attachment and needs, and I highly recommend reading her Medium article Portrait of a Marriage (Yes, it’s mine), which informed my sharing here. https://medium.com/@carmenspagnola/portrait-of-a-marriage-yes-its-mine-b824784820f7

[5] David Whyte. Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2002).

[6] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=solidarity

[7] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=serve

[8] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=volunteer

[9] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=impact

[10] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=support

[11] Watson was heard delivering this quote at the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi. “Etiquette for Activists by Michael F. Leonen – YES! Magazine”. 7 August 2011. Archived from the original on 7 August 2011. Retrieved 1 December 2020.


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