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As an addiction counselor, I’ve learned the importance of considering a person’s underlying needs. Addictions, as well as other mental health issues, are often the result of unmet needs. There are various theories of fundamental human needs, including Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the basic psychological needs theory. The approach I present here is based on the core yearnings in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
This approach is supported by over 330 clinical trials, providing a comprehensive understanding of our human needs that encompasses those provided in the previously mentioned theoretical models.
Our underlying needs consist of the following:
- Belonging and connection
- Meaning and self-direction
- Coherence and understanding
- Feeling and experience
Let’s delve into each of these six areas, exploring what each of them means and how we can meet these needs in more effective ways.
We need belonging and connection
Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. The need for belonging and connection is crucial for our mental wellness. Being one of the main themes in my articles, I’ve often discussed the power of social connection.
According to a Harvard study that followed a group of individuals for 80 years, the quality of one’s relationships is the best predictor of overall health and happiness:
“…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.”
When this need is not met, we often attempt to fill the relational void through ego identification. Inflating our sense of self through stories about our own “specialness,” continually comparing ourselves to others. As described in my article, Is Social Media Making us Less Social:
“Social Media is making us less social when used to compare oneself to others, contributing to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of well-being among frequent users. It can be social when used to connect with others.”
Our attempts to compensate for the connection through comparison drives us further apart. “I am” statements require social comparison, making us feel even more cut off from others. Clinging to the idea of our specialness gives us a seductive illusion of connection at the expense of genuinely meeting this need in the long term.
According to ACT, the yearning for belonging and connection underlies the process of “self as content” vs “self as context.” Rather than trying to fill ourselves with more identity content, we can more effectively meet our need for connection by letting go of the rigid ego identification. This requires recognizing we are not the contents of our thoughts, but rather, we are the space where the thoughts occur.
A useful metaphor consists of seeing ourselves as the sky rather than the weather. The sky is not the weather. Rather, it is the ever-present blue space that contains the weather. The sky does not attempt to control clouds as they come and go, nor does it identify with the clouds.
Sometimes our thoughts are like storm clouds, while other times they are like fluffy stuffed animals. We can more effectively meet our need for connection by simply noticing when you are having these difficult thoughts based on social comparison and letting them go. As Eckhart Tolle asks, “Can I be the space for this?“.
We need meaning and self-direction
Without a sense of meaning and self-direction, we feel apathetic, lacking motivation. As described in my articles on Veterans in Transition, This is a common theme among persons leaving the military where they gained a deep sense of meaning in their roles compared to the relative sense of meaninglessness in civilian life.
Others may experience a lack of meaning and self-direction in soul-destroying jobs where you feel like a robot, just going through the motions for a paycheque. Working in these deserts of meaning, we may feel tired all the time, only gaining the strength to complete the most basic tasks out of fear of punishment.
Meaning and self-direction are the most fundamental ingredients of motivation. As an addiction counselor, motivation is one of the most important variables I focus on. As described in my article on, How Motivation Works, we feel motivated when we have a sense of being in control of our actions.
When someone takes away your sense of control by telling you what to do, it provokes a reaction to do the opposite. This is why the collaborative technique of motivational interviewing is used in addiction counseling. Rather than telling someone what to do, we can help someone meet their need for a sense of self-directed meaning by evoking their values and collaborating with them to create an effective plan.
In ACT, the yearning for meaning and self-direction underlies the process of having a values orientation. This means gaining a clear understanding of what you value. Although many people tend to immediately focus on goals, they are distinct from values. Values are a “way of being” without a particular end-point. For example, if you value being “compassionate,” there is no end-point. You can always turn to your values to fill the motivational fuel-tank. As stated by Viktor E. Frankl:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Finding your “why” provides motivational momentum in difficult times. Gaining clarity on one’s core values allows for ongoing motivation, independent of one’s specific goals.
We need a sense of competence
A sense of competence, mastery, or feeling that we are progressing is another key underlying feature of motivation. Feeling stagnate in our lives deprives us of the natural rewards we receive when seeing progress.
Fundamentally rooted in the dopaminergic reward-centres of our brains, we experience pleasure when correctly solving a problem. This explains why we experience satisfaction after completing a check-list, solving a puzzle, or winning a game.
These tasks are engaging so long as they are challenging, but not so challenging that it begins to evoke feelings of incompetence. We naturally enjoy what we are good at, which is the core of developing a passion. As stated by Cal Newport in my article on What it Means to Follow Your Passion:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
We are often told to find our passion through soul searching, but this can often have the opposite effect. Rather than finding our bliss, we end up living in our heads, continually planning or strategizing without taking action. Without taking action, we cannot know what we genuinely enjoy since this enjoyment is dependent on developing skill in a particular area.
My personal experience with this occurred as I developed more skill in writing. I used to be terrified of a blank page, never knowing what to write. Throughout school, I would only write the bare minimum word-count for the assignment and always relied on several quotes to add more fluff.
Throughout the last decade of blogging, in addition to writing a doctoral dissertation, I’ve gained quite a bit of practice writing. This practice has led to quite a bit more competence, leading to an increased sense of reward and enjoyment.
In ACT, the yearning for competence underlies the process of committed action. This means building patterns of committed action, integrating them into your life over time. The most common barrier to committed action is procrastination, based on perfectionistic ideas.
Procrastination is perhaps more rooted in fear than laziness. Rather than beating ourselves up for not taking action, it could be more helpful to consider the underlying fears preventing action toward your valued goals.
We need a sense of coherence
A sense of coherence and understanding allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world. When this need is not met, we feel uncertainty and fear. A common way to cope with a lack of coherence is to impose false order, retreating into your head, and treating life like a problem to be solved. Common defense mechanisms include rationalization and intellectualization.
When the problem-solving mind takes over, we become fused to our thoughts, making it difficult to take a step back from them. For example, if a driver cuts you off, it is easy to immediately rationalize that this person is selfish and careless. Imposing false order onto the character of the other person allows the world to make sense again, amidst the driving chaos, neatly dividing the everyone into judgmental categories of “good” vs “evil”.
Although this form of black and white thinking provides an immediate sense of coherence, it causes us to react in anger, perhaps putting ourselves in further danger. Flexibly looking at the situation without clinging to our initial judgments allows us to be open to the uncertainty inherent in the situation.
For example, the seemingly “bad” driver may have recently received news that a loved one is passing away, and they are rushing to the hospital. Although this does not excuse dangerous driving, being open to these potential alternatives allows us to gain enough distance from our judgmental mind to be able to choose the most effective path forward, rather than merely reacting.
The purpose of stepping back from your thoughts about a situation does not have to do with the accuracy of those thoughts. Maybe you are right that the driver is doing something dangerous. Maybe you are right that what the driver did was illegal. Maybe you are right that they need to be taught a lesson. But at what cost?
Rightness does not equal effectiveness. If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s behavior by telling them that they are wrong, you will quickly see how your rightness does not translate into effectiveness. As described in my article on Motivational Interviewing, we can’t make people change by being more right. This same logic applies to our own minds. We may be right, but at what cost.
In ACT, the yearning for a sense of coherence and understanding underlies the process of cognitive defusion. When we are fused to our thoughts, we are entangled with them, unable to make space for potential alternatives. We create rigid versions of reality, supported by unconscious rules about the way things ought to be. Rather than genuinely meeting our need for coherence, we become further frustrated by a reality that refuses to conform to our expectations.
Stepping back from our thoughts requires opening up to a space of uncertainty in a way that allows for more practical ways to choose one’s path forward. My article on How to Stop Living in Your Head delves more into common thought patterns, in addition to offering some helpful exercises.
We need a sense of orientation
The need for orientation gives us a sense of place in the world. When suffering from a chaotic past, it is common to lose this sense of orientation, taking us out of the present moment. Constant thoughts of the past or worries about the future occupy our attention as we try to gain a sense of security in the present.
The more we live in the past or the future, the further we get away from the present, amplifying a sense of disorientation and disconnection. We may dwell on why something happed in the past, what we could do better in the future, and how it’s not safe to focus on the present moment because getting out of our head might result in some kind of danger.
In ACT, this yearning for orientation is based on the process of present-moment awareness. Mindful attention to the present moment allows us to meet our need for orientation because we can more effectively attend to actual events in the here and now rather than getting caught up in rumination.
The GPS metaphor is helpful to make sense of this underlying need. Imagine you are driving with a GPS and it tells you that you will need to turn right up ahead. Rather than looking at your current location on the road, you fixate on the GPS screen, missing all of the events happing around you in real-time. When you look up, you fixate on the rear-view mirror, analyzing all of the things you nearly hit while you were distracted. Realizing that turn is coming up, you turn your eyes back to the GPS screen, focused on the exact distance left before the turn.
Although it is useful to plan for the future, like using a GPS, and consider the past, like using a rear-view mirror, it can take away from genuine orientation by taking us away from the present moment, making us less effective as we navigate our path in life. My article on The Benefits of Meditation for Addiction delves into the power of mindfulness practice.
We need a sense of feeling
Our final underlying desire is the need to feel and experience life. Sometimes we feel pleasant emotions while other times we feel unpleasant ones. When the desire to avoid unpleasant ones takes over, we avoid situations that could potentially evoke discomfort. This means also avoiding pleasant situations.
For example, a person may avoid the joy of close relationships due to avoiding the potential pain that might result if the relationship fails. A person who values social connection may avoid the pleasure of connecting with others due to the risk rejection and the resulting disappointment.
In ACT, this yearning for feeling underlies the Acceptance process. A helpful metaphor includes having a tug-of-war with your unhelpful emotions. You may tell yourself, “Don’t feel anxious… Don’t feel anxious… Don’t feel anxious….” As you engage in this fruitless struggle, you become more anxious. Rather than choosing to do a particular meaningful task, you decide to avoid it, fearing these feelings will get out of control.
Avoiding situations reinforces the potential danger to your mind, strengthening its association with a fear response. Your mind says, “If you’re avoiding this situation, it must be dangerous.” Like an addiction, avoidance offers the temptation of a short-term gain at a long-term cost. Genuinely meeting one’s need to feel joy requires a sense of openness to feel painful emotions.
An openness and willingness to experience discomfort does not mean resignation or masochism. Instead, it means dropping the rope in the metaphorical tug-of-war, letting the uncomfortable entity stay where it is, and deciding to pivot toward a valued direction. Discomfort may come and go, but your ability to choose your way forward remains unchanging.
When considering the underlying factors driving addiction and other mental health issues, it is crucial to keep these needs in mind. Without considering a person’s unmet needs, we only see the symptoms of these unmet needs. Trying to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying needs does not get to the root cause of the problem.
A person can be supported in stopping an addictive substance or behavior, but they may still act in ways that a destructive to themselves and their relationships. When underlying needs are not attended to, a person attempts to fulfil these needs in ways that are ineffective, leading these needs to be even further unmet.
Here is a summary of the information conveyed in this article, describing the ineffective and effective ways one may attempt to meet each underlying need:
The need for belonging and connection
Ineffective approach: Constructing ego identities to demonstrate your superiority and receive external validation.
Effective approach: Noticing you are having self-critical thoughts rather than identifying with these thoughts.
Meaning and self-direction
Ineffective approach: Following what you think you “should” be doing, according to social standards.
Effective approach: Asking yourself what you value and what you want your life to be about.
Ineffective approach: Procrastination to avoid failure, protecting a perfectionistic ideal of your envisioned future self.
Effective approach: Building habits of committed action, developing skills over time, despite short-term setbacks.
Coherence and understanding
Ineffective approach: Engaging in rigid debates, focused on being right.
Effective approach: Stepping back from your thoughts/ judgments, flexibly attending to the present moment.
Ineffective approach: Analyzing past situations and worrying about the future.
Effective approach: Mindfully bringing your attention to the present moment.
Feeling and experience
Ineffective approach: Avoiding painful feelings and the situations that may evoke them.
Effective approach: Being willing to experience painful feelings and the situations that may evoke them.
For an in-depth exploration of these underlying needs in the context of the six processes of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), you can check out my article How to Improve Psychological Flexibility. In that article, I share more metaphors and exercises designed to help you meet your underlying needs more effectively.
If you are interested in taking a deep dive into ACT, I highly recommend the online ACT Immersion course by Dr. Steven Heyes, the founder of ACT. This course has been an invaluable resource for me personally and has informed many of the explanations provided in this article. If you are serious about learning ACT, this is the course for you. Check it out here for more information.
The Big Book of ACT Metaphors is another great resource I would recommend. It is a highly practical book full of explanations, metaphors, exercises, and ACT worksheets, ready to use in your everyday practice.
ACT Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris is another excellent resource, offering an easy-to-read summary of ACT. This book has recently been updated to include an ACT understanding of self-compassion and trauma, translating complex ideas into simple language.
If you would like to connect with a specialized ACT therapist, view the directory on the official ACBS website here.
I can always relate to what you write and your analogies are brilliant. I often use them when explaining things about my past addictions and recovery to other people. I’m 15 months clean and sober today and thank you for the articles they have helped in my recovery massively!
Thank you, Matthew! I’m glad you have found the articles useful! Congrats on the sobriety!
Do you mean that, in the Effective approach: Noticing you are having self-critical thoughts would lessen the need for belonging and connection?
Good question! What I mean is that noticing/ not believing the inner critic allows you to regain a sense of connection. Thoughts like “I’m not good enough” takes us out of connection and into shame/ isolation. Our underlying need doesn’t change. Our thoughts about ourselves may be one factor preventing that need from being met.