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I Need, I Need!

March 6, 2020
Image result for bob wiley

One of my all-time favorite movies is What About Bob. Anybody who’s ever done any counseling would probably like it. Bill Murray plays the role of a neurotic client named Bob Wiley. One of the funniest scenes for me in the movie is when Bob follows his therapist to his vacation home to seek more therapy. In a desperate voice, Bob cries out, “I need! I need.” You’re not laughing if you haven’t seen the movie. But if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and I’m thinking you’re laughing a little. Here’s a YouTube link in case you didn’t see What About Bob:

Needs. Years ago, my mentor, Willard Black, introduced me to the idea that conflict is the result of unmet needs. As I look back over my life’s experience helping people navigate conflict, Willard’s idea has proved out. Unmet needs, or what we feel are unmet needs, always create conflict of some kind. I try not to use the word “always” very often, because it doesn’t apply that often. But in this case it applies. Always.

The problem in life is that there are two broad kinds of needs. There are Real Needs, and there are Felt Needs. There are needs that, if unmet, will cause a negative outcome. These are Real Needs. And there are needs that we only feel (often strongly) we want them to be met.

Let me muddy the waters a little more by adding that sometimes Felt Needs are Real Needs, but not all Real Needs are Felt Needs. Not quite like all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs, but close. Both kinds of needs are powerful. Sometimes even compelling.

Young kids are almost incapable of parsing out what is a Felt Need and what is a Real Need. Even adults misidentify Real from Felt Needs. Kids (and often adults) need help with this. But them (and us) knowing the difference between the two sometimes has little bearing on how compelling the need is for them (and us).

I think the ability to recognize and identify Real Needs and Felt Needs is one of the primary marks of maturity in people. Immature people can’t, or don’t. Mature people do.

One of the questions I left unanswered last time is “How do I know if it’s a felt need or a real need?” And then there’s its twin, “How do I help my kids know if it’s a felt need or a real need?” Both questions are central to you guiding your kids toward maturity.

The answer to the first question is simple. A Real Need is a need that, if unmet, will bring a negative outcome or cause real harm to the individual or situation. Here’s an example. I need a certain amount of calories per day to be healthy. I’m most healthy when these calories are wisely distributed between a variety of foods and low in carbohydrates. If I don’t get enough calories, things in my body don’t work right. My brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to function well, and I’ll make poor decisions and find myself unable to respond to life around me very well. So a certain amount of the right kind of calories are needed for me to function at my best levels.

But I often feel I need a half-dozen Krispy Kream donuts. They really are the closest thing to Manna known to man. Umm. That’s not a need. It’s only a want. A half-dozen glazed Krispy Kreams might fall within the calorie limit, but not having them won’t cause me harm. In fact, having them will probably eventually result in causing me harm. Kind of a stupid illustration, but you get where I’m going with this.

To decipher the difference between Felt and Real Needs, you have to project outcomes into the future. This is very hard for children to do. Children are now-focused. And understandably so. They haven’t been around long enough to contextualize life and events in a broad perception of time. This is why you, as the parent, will need to shepherd them toward having their Real Needs addressed and sometimes away from getting their Felt Needs met. They’re not likely to be able to tell the difference between the two until they develop out of the concrete stages of development.

There are those happy moments when a Felt Need is actually a Real Need. This is when a Real Need is compelling and presents itself as a Felt Need. In some seasons of family life these times are rare, but when they happen, it’s pretty wonderful and you should celebrate.

Before your kids are in the abstract thinking stage of development (which happens in the late childhood/early adolescent years, generally), your job is to identify Real Needs and Felt Needs, and make a judgment call as to whether and to what degree the need should be met. Real Needs should be met. That’s probably obvious. But not all Felt Needs should go unmet. And this is where it gets really tricky.

How can you know which Felt Needs are good for you to do what you can to meet them? There’s no formula for this, unfortunately. My best answer on this is to project the results into the foreseeable future. What do you foresee as the outcome of having this Felt Need met? Of course you can’t know for sure. But you’ll have a pretty good idea. My theory is that if the projected outcome is either potentially good, or at least benign, and if meeting the Felt Need is within your power and means, I’d say it’s fine to meet it. Frankly, a whole lot of this is simply trial-and-error. If you don’t get a positive outcome from meeting a Felt Need, log that in to the memory back and remember it for reference the next time.

Right. “But what do I do about it when my kid is going postal about a felt need that I know they don’t need me to meet? Or one that I know I can’t meet?” This is more difficult. Let me give you something NOT to do when you kids are young. Don’t try to explain to them why you can’t or won’t do for them what they’re all postal about. It won’t do either of you any good. I know this sounds old school, but the best answer when they’re young is, “Because I’m the Mommy (or Daddy),” and leave it at that. They won’t like it one bit, but you trying to give them an explanation for it won’t change things. It’ll probably only frustrate both you and them. At this point it moves away from a reasoned explanation to simply obeying or disobeying. Seems harsh, doesn’t it? Sorry. I don’t know how to fix that.

When they’re older, when they can think in abstract terms, having a discussion of your reasons is, well, reasonable. Help them connect the dots between what they want and the outcome of getting what they want. Talk in terms of Real and Felt Needs. You already know that even when you can have a reasonable discussion with your kid, the bottom line may still be, “Because I said so.” Don’t go there too quickly, but don’t be afraid to go there at all.

Can you see that this is a subject with lots of fuzzy answers and lots of potential frustration? It also happens to be one of the most important things about helping your kids mature and grow to be responsible people. Modeling for them how to draw the line between Real and Felt Needs in your own life is possibly the most important thing in this. Processing through this in their presence, in their hearing, is a very good thing, essential, even. So let them in on your own mental wrestling with identifying whether what you want is in the category of Real or merely Felt Need.

And do all of this using the tool I list in almost every one of my posts. Call out to God for His wisdom. Lean into James 1:5. God wants to make you wise. When you pray for His wisdom, you’re praying a prayer He wants to answer. So start there, and partner with God to shepherd your kids toward the maturity to know Real Needs from Felt Needs, and knowing what to do about them.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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