Working with needs and values is a central part of cultivating compassion for ourselves and others. Although everyone has needs and values, and they have such a strong influence on our lives, many people are unaware of what their needs and values are. Once we are more in touch with our needs and values, we can start to use them to guide our behaviour so that we are able to live more fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Our core needs tend to be universal - everybody has them, but we prioritise them differently according to how they have been met (or not) in the past. Identifying what our particular needs are can be tricky, but we can use our habitual behaviours and emotional experiences to help guide us. You can see a list of universal needs here - and an accompanying list of emotions we tend to experience when our needs are met or denied. You might like to reflect on this list and see if anything resonates for you.
Our habitual behaviours can also help to guide us towards our unmet needs. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, we tend to respond to unmet needs in one of two ways: becoming fixated on meeting the need at all costs, or denying it exists at all. For example, if I felt excluded from my family as a child and didn’t fit in well at school, it is likely that my needs for belonging and acceptance were not met. In later life, this might manifest as a tendency to try to fit in, please others, and become very sensitive to signs of perceived or actual rejection. I might sacrifice other needs, such as autonomy or self-respect, just so that I can feed my need for connection and acceptance. On the other hand, I might become extremely self-reliant and deliberately separate myself from others through judgment, anger, or mistrust. These patterns tend to operate independent of the circumstances I am currently in, because they are driven by a deeper need. They also operate to keep my needs unmet: by trying to “fit in,” I can never truly feel accepted for who I am; by keeping others at an arm’s length, I will never experience that sense of connection that I crave deep down. Moreover, our unmet needs can often give rise to difficulties with self-compassion - we can feel that there is something wrong with us for having needs that have not been consistently met, and we might criticise ourselves for the behaviours we engage in as a result of not having our needs met.
Understanding our needs gives us a new way of responding to ourselves. Instead of thinking that there is something wrong with us, we can start to realise that our needs for love, acceptance, belonging, connection, safety, and respect make us just like everybody else. We can start to have compassion for ourselves in the times that our needs weren't met. We can also get out of our own way and start to take responsibility for having our needs met in a more consistent and healthy way. For example, we might start to be more honest about ourselves, so that we can feel more seen by others, and accepted for who we really are, rather than who we pretend to be. We might brainstorm multiple ways of having our needs for connection met, such as seeing our friends, playing with our dog, listening to music, and helping others, rather than just relying on our partner to fulfil our connection needs at all times. Importantly, we can also look to see whether we are meeting our own needs - do we offer ourselves the acceptance and connection we so desperately crave?
Values refer to what we find meaningful in life; what makes our life feel fulfilling and engaged. Often there is quite an overlap between needs and values, and we can use our values to guide us in making choices about the most meaningful ways of having our needs met. You can see a list of common values here: you may wish to reflect on them, and see if anything resonates with you. You might also want to contemplate the following: at the end of my life, how would I like to be remembered? What would give me a sense of living a life of purpose and integrity?
Our values are connected to self-compassion, because living in line with our values is an act of self-connection and self-nurturing. Reflecting on our values can help us start to think about the areas of our life in which they are manifest, and the areas in which our values might be neglected. We can then start to think about ways of making small changes to bring our lives more in line with our values. This can also be about changing how we do things, as well as what we do.
We can become very intentional with our values so that we commit to trying to cultivate more of a particular quality in our life on a daily basis. It's tempting to think that we can do this without trying, but in reality it usually takes work - it is a practice in itself. It can be helpful to write down a particular intention that you hope to focus on for a day, or a week (e.g., "kindness"), and to make a note of when and how you are acting in line with it. When you notice this, you can reinforce it by giving yourself a few words of appreciation or gratitude.