By Fiona Robertson, Senior Facilitator/Trainer
I’ve been thinking recently about need, and how need, want, desire, and compulsion often become bound up together in a confusing way. We often say that we ‘need’ something as if it were essential to our survival, when clearly it’s not. And we often have no idea of what it is we really need.
As young children, our needs sometimes went unmet. Even the best parents are sometimes un-attuned to their children, and many of us have experienced shades of neglect or worse. We often find it hard to name or identify what we need, let alone ask for it. So we reach out for substances or become fixated on activities that we feel or believe will give us what we need.
One of the first times I worked with a client using the Compulsion Inquiry on overeating, for example, we reached a point in the session where she connected deeply with her childhood longing for love. She saw an image of herself as a little girl, reaching out her arms. As she looked at this and other memories, and felt the long-buried feelings, she was able to connect with a love far more powerful than she’d felt before, coming from within. Her compulsion reduced after she realised that food didn’t contain the love that she needed.
I smoked for many years, off and on. Eventually, I got more and more curious about my seemingly addictive behaviour. I concluded early on that I wasn’t physiologically addicted, as I could easily go a number of days without smoking, if the conditions were right. For example, if I was at home with my son, focused on being a mother and on my studies, I didn’t feel like smoking. As soon as I was in a social setting, or having an intimate or intense conversation with someone, I’d reach straight for the tobacco pouch. I realised that for me, the smoking habit was related to my unmet and unacknowledged need for closeness or intimacy, and my simultaneous fear of it. Every time someone came close, I’d surround myself in a cloud of smoke. Interestingly, I finally stopped altogether shortly after beginning a long-distance relationship, which for a while fulfilled my need for connection without challenging my need for space and autonomy. Once my need for connection had been met in a way that felt right, my need for tobacco fell away effortlessly.
One of the things I love about the Living Inquiries is the way that we discover, often very quickly, what lies behind our addictive or compulsive behaviours. By looking very specifically, as we do in the Living Inquiries, to see if we can find what is compelling us to use or act, we get to discover the needs that have been previously suppressed or unseen. There’s no formula here – each session is a unique journey in itself – and yet there are common threads for all of us. At their root, our compulsions are a misunderstanding, a mistake. We’ve come to believe that we’re missing something, that we haven’t got something we need, and so we go looking for it in substances or activities. When we look, we discover that fundamentally there’s nothing missing, and that our needs – our totally understandable human needs – can or are being met without recourse to our substance or activity. We can also, if we’re inclined, question the very notion of the self with needs. Where is the one who needs?
Paradoxically, when we dive right into the heart of our supposed needs (and our neediness) we become much more able to do what’s right and healthy for ourselves, without being rigid about it, and simultaneously we free ourselves from addictive or compulsive behaviour.