All behavior is motivated by needs.
All of my studies in child behavior and discipline have been based on this premise. When I need to address Cat’s behavior, I look past the behavior and try to find the need that is motivating her, and suggest an alternate, acceptable way that she might go about meeting this need. This works very well. It’s the single most effective form of discipline I’ve ever seen, and involves no time-outs, spankings or even behavior-based rewards. It works because the above statement is true. Our needs motivate us, all of us, all of the time. There are the needs we always think of – food, shelter, etc. But our needs expand far beyond the physiological. And once those basic needs are adequately satisfied, our brains move on to the more complex needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs gives us an interesting snapshot of how this process works. We may not always think of things like community, contribution, and self-expression as being needs, but that’s what they are. That’s how our brains perceive them, and how we experience them.
When we experience a need, we take an action in an attempt to meet that need. We try out a strategy. When I’m hungry, perhaps I go make myself a sandwich. When I need company, I visit with a friend. When I need a break, I make a pot of tea or go browse at a favorite shop for a while. We all have strategies that we have developed over time that do a good job of meeting our needs. But then something starts to happen. We tend to stop thinking about the need that prompted our strategies. Instead of thinking “I need to take breaks from my usual routine, so I’ll run to the store”, we think, “I need to go to the store” The strategy replaces the need in our heads. We need to go to the gym. We need to go to the bar. We need to go to spend an hour or two at Target every so often. But none of those things are needs! They are strategies. I get a sandwich because I’m hungry. But I do not need a sandwich. I need sustenance, and it can come in a great many forms.
The impact the Covid-19 virus has had on virtually everyone I know is that it has had a devastating impact on the strategies we have developed over time that meet our needs. This is happening at every level of the hierarchy. It is impacting a great many on the most basic, physiological level. They can’t breathe. For almost all of us, our strategy of meeting our need for things like food, shelter and safety involves doing a job and earning an income. As the unemployment rate skyrockets, that strategy is under threat for more and more of us. Most of our strategies for meeting our needs to connect with others are shot to bits because we can’t get close to each other. This process continues for esteem needs. Perhaps we meet our need for esteem by being seen at the right places. But they’re all shut down. Perhaps our chance to shine is in our work, or at church, or at the club. Nope, sorry, none of that is available right now.
And this is a big, big problem, regardless of where on the hierarchy we tend to hang out. The consequences of not adequately finding strategies to meet our needs is bleak. At best, we go crashing down to lower levels of the hierarchy. If we don’t have ways to meet the needs on our current level, we will absolutely engage in self-sabotage until we have problems to face that we do know how to solve. And the other possibility is that we are swallowed up in anxiety and depression. This is exactly why suicides are predicted to rise as the shutdowns continue. The critical thing to do when our strategies fall apart is remember that we developed those strategies in response to a need. Because for any given need, there are a great many possible strategies. When we find ourselves desperately missing some element of our lives that is denied to us right now, we must look for the need. What need did that strategy fill? What can I do right now that might meet that need instead? I find this list helpful when I’m struggling to identify the need my brain is seeking to meet.
When we’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or unfocused, it’s time to find that need, and the needs of our families and children. Every need has innumerable strategies that can be tried in our attempts to meet it. If our usual strategy isn’t available, it’s time to try another, and another, and another until we find something that works. It’s easy to fall into the trap if getting fixated on the strategy that has met our need in the past. We get stuck believing that we’re faced with a dichotomy of either follow the strategy, or go with our need unmet. Not so. Remembering that a strategy is just that, and using all of our creative and problem-solving capacity to identify a new strategy that can work under the current circumstances is a critical process if we want to move past this traumatic time with our mental health intact.