The Needs Wheel

As a youth worker at nineteen years old, I remember learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, you are probably familiar with it, pyramid with five distinct sections, starting at the base and building upon each other, are needs that drive people to the elusive point of obtaining self-actualisation. Self-actualisation being the fulfilment of potential, self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose, and creativity; however few are aware that Maslow later amended this pyramid, and the top was no longer self-actualisation but self-transcendence, the idea of moving beyond the ego to a place of altruism, social growth, and the like; forgoing the self in favour of the collective.

I have always had a bit of a problem with this. Firstly, I am not a fan of a hierarchy, it doesn’t feel right when I visualise the journey of an individual. It conjures pictures of scaling a mountain, and every time something slips you fall back to the previous section. When I picture what a journey of personal growth would look like, I imagine something cyclical, the world moves in cycles after all. Everything from seasons, to birth and death, all dancing in an endless loop. I visual a wheel. Furthermore, to my objection to the hierarchy is the idea that you can only obtain transcendence by moving beyond the self. I disagree, an individual is best equipped to become a truly integrated and contributing member of the collective/community when they honour the self, when self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-worth are continually honoured.

My reason for this belief is simple. We cannot give to others that which we do not give to ourselves, and we cannot give to ourselves that which we have never received from others.

The end goal therefore is not related to the self or the collective, but rather the self AND the collective. I consider interconnection to be the ultimate driving force behind any individuals journey; interconnection being the marriage of connection with self and connection with community, the environment, the spiritual and all that is external. The integration of the extrinsic and intrinsic contributors to this sense of fulfilment.

Inspired by the work from Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Aletha Solter, and Marshall Rosenburg (and likely others not named simply because so many have influenced my thinking) I have come to understand that there are six areas of need, falling under three categories, that all contribute to the internal biological imperative to maintain and develop interconnectivity. These needs move upon a wheel that drives, maintains, and grows interconnection. When a need goes unmet the wheel is temporarily stopped until the need is met. Here is a very basic example:

You have reached a place in your life where your personal life is full of positive and healthy relationships, you are close with your family, you have supportive friends, and a sense of deep connection with those that matter. You are also doing your dream job, with the perfect number of hours to maintain a balance between home and work (though it does not feel like work). You are working on a project, your ultimate project, and you have been writing and creating all day. You feel your stomach start to grumble and realise you forgot to pack your lunch; thinking you’ll buy lunch you realise you don’t have your wallet on you, and everyone is out so you can’t even ask to borrow some money to grab a quick bite, and nothing is available to tie you over. You try to keep working but the hunger is really getting to you. You are finding it hard to concentrate and are becoming irritable and clumsy in your work.

In this scenario your need for food is momentarily unmet, you have no way of getting food, and no one around to help you. You feel powerless because there is no way to meet that need for hunger. The wheel of needs halts and you are, albeit very temporarily, unable to focus on that which maintains and grows your sense of interconnection (at this time your project) and you become agitated and unfocussed.

The longer the needs wheel is halted, and the more impacting the need, the harder it will be for it to get moving again. The state of being “hangry” is very mild, though commonly experienced, it only pauses us in our pursuits; the kind of long term trauma of unmet needs such as homelessness, abuse, neglect, war, and so on, bring the wheel to a grinding halt until the needs themselves are met as well as the need for healing. However, the beautiful thing about this being viewed as a wheel, is that once the wheel does starts moving again momentum builds; and it becomes easier (over time) to continue to develop and maintain interconnectivity. Yet we never “lose” progress, we don’t “fall” to the lower rung, or become unable to “progress.” Just like when a need goes unmet the wheel halts, once it is met, we start moving again. Just like a car that runs out of petrol does not return to its starting point, neither does our potential and drive for interconnectivity.

The Six Needs

As stated above there are six needs that contribute to the needs wheel, and each one can be categorised into three areas of need. They are as follows:

Developmental Needs

Information Needs

Safety and Security Needs

Physiological Needs

Esteem and Worth Needs, and

Love and Belonging Needs

As you can see, they form an acronym “DISPEL.” I love this acronym for a very particular reason. The work that led me to the discovery of this wheel was work around helping parents to “dispel” the myth of behaviour. The myth that behaviour is something that needs to be controlled, that we need to punish bad behaviour and reward good behaviour in order to “raise good people,” and that children behave badly because they want attention; and so, the needs wheel was born, and the acronym created. In order to DISPEL the myth of behaviour we must look beyond the behaviour to the underlying need.

As stated above each area fits into a specific category of need, and each category I also link to stress in a particular way.

Needs For Understanding (Stress Relating)

These are needs based on developmental milestones and being given and making sense of types of information. Not only do these needs relate to the person themselves being able to meet milestone etc. but also to those around them. The need for understanding is (as with the others) about the mutual and interdependent nature of needs, particularly regarding children. For instance, a child does not have the knowledge or the capacity to give themselves understanding about ability and skill development; what they need from care givers therefore is consideration for what is age appropriate expectations.

Needs For Understanding are considered stress relating, because there is no way to truly mitigate the stress that comes with developing skill or gaining knowledge. Learning and growing by nature are stressful processes, therefore they are related to (connected with) stress. Furthermore, what is needed in those moments is the for others to understand/relate to the situation of the person experiencing the stress, and make sure an expectations present are realistic. For example, not expecting a two-year-old to be able to “stay calm” and “be good” and play independently after being trapped in a trolley in a shopping centre for hours.

Developmental Needs

  • Time for developmental goals to be achieved according to the timeframe of the individual
  • Consideration, regarding children, that early years are an almost constant process of development (not leaps and lulls) especially when we consider the five areas of development (gross/fine motor, language, social/relational, cognition, and physical growth spurts)
  • Age appropriate expectations

Information Needs

  • Insight into situations e.g. looking before crossing the road, perspective taking
  • Knowledge about how things work
  • Guidance for application of knowledge (practice/how to)
  • Basic information about “why” e.g. why we brush our teeth, or why climate change is a significant issue

Needs For Wellbeing (Stress Reducing)

These are what we would consider basic needs, that of safety and security and for physical needs. Again, especially when we consider children, this model is fundamentally about the relational nature of human beings. Whilst adult individuals may be physically capable of meeting needs for safety, or feeding themselves, it is important to acknowledge that we can’t really do this without others. Even safety depends on living in a place where such a thing is possible, a peaceful community for starters. Children, of course, cannot achieve this on their own.

Needs For Wellbeing are stress reducing when they are met, when unmet they are stress inducing. Giving the example above we can see how this can play out in an “every day” type situation. However, as mentioned, these needs going unmet for long periods, or in experiencing traumatic moments such as a car crash (where safety and security is destroyed), can contribute to significant and chronic stress (trauma). In a family/parental setting, coming back to these basic needs is important to consider especially when children are behaving in challenging ways.

Safety and Security Needs

  • Safety and security of self, persons of importance, and of belongings/resources
  • Health
  • Predictability
  • Sensitive attunement – The importance of attunment is both a need in itself, and a component of meeting basic physical needs. It is one thing to throw food down in front of your child yelling at them (which will not intone a sense of safety and security) and quite another to be aware of your child’s nonverbal language being communicated so the need can be met in a timely fashion and with gentle consideration.

Physiological Needs

  • Sleep
  • Food
  • Water
  • Excretion
  • Physical touch – this is not often considered a basic physical need, however in the world of human development and wellbeing we know that physical touch (e.g. holding a baby, hugging our child and others) contributes significantly to not only an infant’s ability to grow and thrive, it also significantly impacts a person overall life expectancy, health, and sense of wellbeing.

Needs For Connection (Stress Releasing)

This category of need is ultimately about connection to the self, and connection to family and community; and the underlying needs that contribute to connection. This is also the part of the wheel that is forgotten the most often, as it encompasses a great deal more that what have previously been considered.

Needs For Connection are considered stress releasing, in other words needs that, when met, allow for deep healing from other stress inducing (and traumatic) experiences, the strengthening of attachment, as well as fostering a positive and beneficial internal dialogue. When unmet (especially consistently), these needs become stress compounding as loneliness, shame, isolation, withdrawal, depression, and negative self-talk generate and perpetuate a toxic self-destructive cycle.

Esteem and Worth Needs

  • Mastery of skills
  • Empowerment to speak your personal truth and be seen
  • Autonomy
  • Choices
  • Self-determination
  • Mutual Respect

Love and Belonging Needs

  • Connection with family, community, and others
  • Mutual trust (trusting others and being trusted)
  • Acceptance and belonging
  • Empathy and healing – This is the component most often overlooked, misunderstood, and impacting on emotional, psychological, and social development. Receiving empathy is necessary for developing the ability to self-regulate for instance, as well as developing that healthy internal dialogue. It is essential for us to be able to seek out and offer support, as well as being able to engage in meaningful and healthy relationships. The trouble is that society is often far from empathetic, preferring to publicly shame, punish, and manipulate people (especially children) in order to gain compliance. Yet unwilling compliance is a blight on society that harms so many. The wheel that turns without empathy and healing is the one that perpetuates pain, power-over, and personal agenda.

It is my hope that the Needs Wheel will help people, especially parents, to better understand the underlying drive behind behaviour. When needs go unmet, stress (and other challenging and uncomfortable feeling) ensue, this then result in hurtful and challenging internalised (withdrawal, secretiveness, depression etc.) and externalised (aggression, yelling, violence etc.) behaviours that can often be failed attempts to try to meet the underlying need; or if they are successful may leave/cause another need to go unmet. Needs lead to feelings, and feelings drive behaviour, it is the difference between meeting a need and ignoring a need that makes the world of difference in who we are able to be. 

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