Universal Human Needs
Abraham Maslow created a concept called the hierarchy of needs, placing physical needs such as “eating” at the base of the hierarchy, then “safety” above that, and then “belonging” above that. This theory purports that someone who can’t meet their physical needs will not be worried about feeling safe or feeling a sense of belonging.
I disagree with Maslow’s concept for one very strong reason: As a child, all of our needs are dependent on being loved by our parents. The younger the child, the stronger that dependency. This means that our most fundamental programming is, “I must be lovable,” because without that, we wouldn’t survive past childhood. The more conditional the love of the parent, the more deeply this concept will impact the child. If the parents were fairly loving regardless of the child’s choices, then the child will grow up feeling freer to “just be themselves.”
Regardless of the hierarchy of the needs in question, we all have the same basic, underlying needs. (We, of course, develop specific needs according to our childhood traumas. Someone with enmeshment trauma will have a strong need for space and independent decision-making as an adult, and this will need to be honored in order for them to heal. The needs of someone with abandonment trauma will be quite different.)
Stephen Reiss identified sixteen universal needs as a result of surveying thousands of people. Before I’d heard of Stephen Reiss’s work, in 2016 I wrote about my needs like this:
“To be heard. To be seen. To be valued, cared for, thought of. I crave people because I crave my own existence, and I feel my own breathing, resounding reality best when others affirm its reality with their response. I don’t need my friends to agree with me. I don’t need them to come at my beck and call. But I do need them to truly see me for who I am, value me for who I am, and care about my feelings.”
When I read Reiss’s work, I was confused where my desperate need to be seen fit in. Perhaps this comes under his category of “acceptance” which is described as “the need to be appreciated.” But I wouldn’t use those words to describe it at all. Merely being accepted doesn’t mean I was understood. Even when someone says, “I know,” they rarely actually grok what I have just communicated. And merely being told “I appreciate it,” when I do something nice for someone doesn’t give me fulfillment.
Would Reiss put my need to feel seen under “social contact” or “social status”? Simply being in contact with others doesn’t make them understand me. In fact, simple contact with others often leaves me feeling more lonely and isolated than ever because it proves to me how difficult a task it is to be authentic and simultaneously be socially conscientious. And while I find social status – significance – to be something else I crave, I find it hard to imagine that being understood falls under the scope of being significant. I could have social significance as an incredible painter of great skill who makes beautiful paintings without a single person ever understanding my paintings!
If we assume that Reiss had the final say on what all the universal needs of humans are, we could then assume that my personal desire to be understood is not a universal need . . . But with so many people feeling chronically lonely, closed-up, shut-out, shut-off, and isolated, I think it is fair to say that people are craving the deep, vulnerable connection that I’m craving. That said, the list you’ll find below has many overlaps with Reiss’s list, but is not identical.
Intimacy — the need to be heard, seen, felt, and understood by others.
Praise — the need to be appreciated through verbal or kinesthetic communication.
Curiosity — the need to gain knowledge.
Nourishment — the need for food or other material sustenance.
Family — the need to take care of one’s offspring and/or to be close to others and share burdens.
Honor — the need to be faithful to the values of one’s culture.
Justice — the need for a sense of balance, and rightness. This includes a need for vengeance, even if this is only acted upon in one’s imagination in order to create an emotional sense of balance.
Identity — the need to be distinct, and capable of relying on oneself.
Expectation — the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments and interactions.
Exertion — the need for diverse, vigorous physical movement.
Power — the need for a sense of control, particularly of oneself.
Sexuality — the need for mating, sex, orgasm, and/or expression of one’s sexual nature.
Preservation — the need to accumulate or preserve things, values, and/or places.
Socialization — the need for relationships with other people.
Significance — the need for social recognition, status, and/or appreciation.
Safety — the need to feel secure, protected, peaceful, and/or tranquil.
I still have a lot more to explore and contemplate about this, and hence, this article is still incomplete. (Updated July 22nd 2021.)