A while back, I explored Don Riso’s “Levels of Development” in the free, IEA-hosted “Monthly LIVE” offering together with Rezzan Huseyin. One question that came up was around wants and needs — do they go away at the healthy levels, or change? Is detachment from wants and needs what we’re after in our strive for balance and diminished ego-identification? When I thought about it afterwards, I realised I wanted to probe a bit deeper into the topic than we had time for in the presentation.
The short answer is no, they do not go away. This is easy to see if we focus on very basic needs, such as nourishment and sleep, or even oxygenated air to breathe. If we go without the latter for more than a few minutes, we pass out; if conditions persist, the body dies. It does not matter if you are spiritually enlightened, or if you are wiped clean of any trace of neurosis; you will still suffocate if the body cannot breathe. The same goes for other physical needs; as long as we have a physical body, they come with the territory.
But something does shift when we live from the healthy levels, and this shift definitely seems to affect wants and needs, too. So what is that about? I can think of two important things that characterise the healthy levels and which affect how we experience and express our wants and needs. And as it happens, one of them has to do with what we experience, and the other with how we express it. Let’s start with the latter.
Expressing wants and needs in healthy vs average levels
As you can read more about in a previous article, in the average range, we have less distance to (i e, a stronger identification with) the ego. This means whatever we feel, think or experience, we will tend to see as mirroring absolute reality — and usually, whatever we feel, think or experience also has a generous amount of interpretations and conclusions that we also tend to view as How Things Are. More often than not, this includes the notion that it’s someone else’s job to satisfy our needs.
The history of wants and needs — how expression got derailed
This idea has its roots in early childhood, when it really was someone else’s job. From infancy and quite a few years on, humans are designed to develop relying on caregivers to supply sustenance, safety and guidance. But usually, while the majority of us got that (albeit of varying quality and to a varying degree), we did not get a very good education on how to take over this job ourselves. Our parents could not teach what they themselves did not learn, and so it follows that generation after generation learns to use various ways of manipulation, assertion and/or placating (of others, authorities, or “God”) to get their needs met. In short, we never really, fully, grew up.
Whether you agree with this perspective or not, you might find that you have not always communicated your wants and needs in a balanced manner. Maybe you haven’t said anything at all, and then felt misunderstood, neglected, or frustrated when your needs were not met. Or perhaps you were taught that expressing needs was selfish, so you learned to hint heavily instead of asking directly. Maybe you learned to state your demands loudly and make enough of a nuisance out of yourself that others accommodated you out of sheer self-preservation. We have all kinds of distortions to expressing what we need.
Relationships — the barometer of how we’re doing
By the time we get into various adult relationships, we usually have our style (which is likely to be heavily influenced by our Enneagram type, although which level we are operating from will still vary) worked out. Typically, we attract partners and friendships with what me and a friend once minted “compatible neuroses” — that is, people who have previous experience of our own brand of imbalanced expression and who themselves offer their brand, familiar to us, in return. It’s often said that communication is the number one factor in how healthy a relationship is, and usually, this communication tends to fail most miserably in the department of wants and needs. And all of this hinges on our identification with the ego; our belief that what we see and perceive is an objective view of what’s happening. Spoiler alert: it’s not 😉.
When ego-identifcation lifts, something shifts
When we come into the healthy range, we say there is a “shift in ego-identification”. This can sound like a lofty and abstract concept, but what it means is, among other things, that I do not automatically assume that my views, perceptions, conclusions, or experiences are proof of a wider truth than my own experience. Thus, when I have a want or need, this informs me that I have a want or need, and that I would prefer to have it satisfied. It does not automatically mean, however, that it is your job to do this. You might have your own wants and needs that contradict mine, in the moment or longer term.
But the next “however” is that I do not necessarily let this prevent me from asking. Bottling up our wishes is just another way of trying to escape owning them. Instead, if my preference includes you in some way, I can express it, hoping you will comply but still accepting your right to say no. This way, I can be true to myself without stopping you being true to yourself, too, as my true experience is only my want, not your obligation. And if this is not a good time for you to help grant my wish, I am free to find another way. But if we’ve chosen to be together, chances are that you still appreciate being asked.
The experience of wants and needs
As I mentioned above, there’s also another side to this, though: what we experience in the first place. What are in fact the needs we have been taking about so far? Obviously, if we consider those we typically would express (or not) to a partner or friend, they would not generally be about fresh air or basic sustenance, but rather more intangible things: support, a listening ear, tokens of affection, space to be alone, encouragement, pauses in the communication, stimulation, emotional intimacy; that category of things. So will those be the same on the healthy levels as they were in the average range?
Ego-identified needs: a direct transmission
Again, in the stronger ego-identification of the average range, wants and needs are perceived as more urgent. (Actually, a fair share of what would technically fall in the “want” category is frequently perceived to be in the more critical “need” category, and since I transferred my agency to you — courtesy of, possibly unconsciously, expecting you to take care of me — I also don’t really feel I any way of satisfying it myself) . And even if we just sweep them all into the same box, in the average range, we are less able to experience, sit with or look at our perceived needs before demanding that they be met, however we attempt to do that. It is like we can’t quite see ourselves and our own role in the equation, but instead, when a felt need arises, mentally regress to the stage of a three-year-old and immediately projects the agency onto someone else and expect them to take care of it.
Healthy level needs-awareness:
the ability to be with it
On the healthy levels, because of the diminished identification, there is more of a gap between the experience of a lack/want/need and attempting to address it. There is more space around the experience, some energetic wriggle room, which makes us able to perceive it for what it is. This could mean sitting with it in meditation or other inner work practices, but it could also just mean a natural ability to let a beat or two pass while we probe a step deeper and feel into what it is really about. It is not a big, complicated affair, but rather an increased capacity naturally establishing as our identification loosens.
When this happens, we might find that the “need” for a piece of chocolate was actually a feeling of dehydration and us wanting a glass of water, or the need for a few deep breaths, or wanting a hug and some help grounding ourselves. If any of the things we really find ourselves wanting is something that someone else can provide, we are in the scenario described above, where we can ask with an open mind and heart. And if not, or if there is no one to ask, or if the person we asked said no, we can still explore other ways to get the deeper need met. We can choose more freely, and we do not unwittingly cancel our own agency by handling the problem over to someone else and expecting them to solve it.
So, are the wants and needs in fact the same?
Now, coming back to the question of whether wants and needs change at the healthy levels, the answer is both yes and no. It’s no in the sense that they really were no different at the average levels, we just perceived them differently — and mostly, we expected them to be met from the outside and were thus left feeling insecure, frustrated, helpless, vulnerable, angry, deficient, lost, alone, or other uncomfortable emotions as a result.
But it’s also yes, in the sense that it is now easier for us to see our needs for what they are. We can put them in perspective — it’s clear to us they are not quite as urgent as they might initially have felt, and we can see how the need or want first perceived masks something else.
So wants, needs, problems, challenges and life lessons in general do not stop just because we achieve greater psychological balance. But our ways of experiencing them, being with them, and addressing them do. How that manifests in your particular case, only you will be able to find out. If you want to explore what different levels feel like and how you can navigate your inner growth in relation to them, please check out the online course Exploring, climbing and experiencing the Levels of Develpment starting September 4:th ❤️