Primal Needs

Courtesy of Uncommon Knowledge with a touch of copy and pasting!


  • The importance of remembering that people have conscious andunconscious minds.
  • The fact that sometimes people don’t know their own true motivations and feelings about things so the conscious mind comes up with a theory or story that is at odds with their real unconscious motivation. You can look for congruence between what people say and what they actually do and how they communicate non-verbally. Remember that leakage of true feelings from the unconscious mind may take the form of incredibly brief ‘micro-expressions’. So stay alert.
  • Peoples’ true feelings are often communicated metaphorically – remember the coughing psychiatrist I mentioned.
  • And, most important of all, how so much human behaviour is driven by unconscious attempts to meet the primal emotional needs which each and every human being shares, and how if these needs aren’t met healthily they can cause people to act in all kinds of weird and not so wonderful ways.

The ‘primal needs’ which need to be met to avoid psychological and physical distress are:

1. The need to give and receive attention

Attention is a form of nutrition and without the right quality and quantity we will suffer mental and even physical distress and illness. It’s vital to understand the importance of how much and of what quality attention we give and receive in life, if we want to feel happier and have the space in our minds to focus on long term dreams and goals.

2. Physical needs such as nutrition, sleep and exercise.

We evolved to move a lot, eat simple nutritious foods (not grains and sugar) and sleep a fair amount too. If you physical needs are not met properly, you won’t feel right emotionally.

3. The need for purpose, goals and meaning

We all need to feel life has meaning and that we have purpose. Some activities (such as ones that help others and/or develop new skills) will feel inherently more meaningful than others (such as hours of TV watching or doing work that doesn’t inspire you).

4. A sense of community and making a contribution

Research(1) (2) has found that social connection is a boon to both physical and emotional health. We evolved to connect to others and be part of a group. Low self esteem and anxiety may prevent us from connecting to groups until we stop feeling like that.

5. The need for challenge and creativity

We all need to feel stretched (rather than stressed) because when life becomes too easy or repetitous then it loses meaning for us (see need number 3). Creativity can be mis-directed as when people misuse their imaginations to worry. We encourage the productive enhancement of creative resources through our downloads.

6. The need for intimacy

We need to feel there is at least one person who accepts us and cares about us unconditionally “warts and all”. To truly feel close to someone is a huge life enhancer. Physical intimacy (not just sex) is important for health and happiness too. Some people need to learn to relax with intimacy so they can start to fulfil this need.

7. The need to feel a sense of control.

When we feel powerless to make a difference and to influence at least some events we become vulnerable to all kinds of fears, anxiety and also depression. Knowing how to feel more in control and how to relax during the times when all you can do is wait and see is a vital emotional strength – a strength that can be developed.

8. The need for a sense of status.

Status is important (it even affects our hormonal levels). It’s not that we all need to feel better than others, rather it’s important for physical and mental health, to feel we have a recognizable, valuable and valued role within a community. Shyness, lack of confidence, self destructive habits can all block us from attaining a healthy status in life.

9. The need for safety and security

We all need to feel safe in our environment so we can enjoy life and grow. Our environment may be safe but if we don’t feel safe on the inside (because of panic attacks, phobias or trauma from the past) then this vital need will still remain uncompleted until we learn to feel safer on the inside.

Many Needs, One Life

It may seem that a life that meets all of these needs would be intolerably busy. But of course, one activity can meet many needs. Charity work for example, could be said to fulfil 1, 3, 4 and 5, and could contribute to 6 and 7.

Walking with a friend as a pastime might go towards 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6.

Generally, what this suggests, and what has been borne out by recent research, is that a more complex life is a more healthy one. Then if one area of life fails or is taken away from you, your basic needs are maintained, at least in part, by those that survive.

So the message is…

If your progress through life has gone a bit awry for you or a friend, check if there is petrol in the car, and that the battery is charged before going to a mechanic to have the engine taken apart!

From survivors of torture, to someone losing their job, those who are able to maintain a sense of control somewhere in their life fare the best. This is why having a variety of interests and activities is so important.

If these needs are not met, people become unhappy and may become ill.

When they are met adequately, we feel fulfilled and have space in our minds for projects that extend beyond the immediate gratification of instant emotional fulfilment.

This is one of the most important things you’ll ever learn regarding psychology.

If people are not meeting their emotional needs – perhaps because they are not even really consciously aware of them – then much of their behaviour will be an unconscious drive toward fulfilling those emotional needs regardless of what they think or say they are doing.

Much strange or so-called ‘difficult’ behaviour becomes readily understandable once we consider what need that behaviour might be clumsily – and unconsciously – trying to meet.

Research References

(1) The toxic effects of loneliness are confirmed by insurance statistics and numerous scientific studies. For example, one study of 972 Johns Hopkins medical students used results of personality tests to classify the students into one of five types. Thirty years later, when they checked health status, they found that students classified as ‘loners’ had sixteen times more cancer than people who vented their emotions to friends. Study after study has shown that feeling connected with other people is extremely important for physical and mental health. Suicide, alcoholism and mental illness rates are much higher among people living alone.

(2) Researcher Oscar Ybarra and his colleagues at the University of Michigan explored the possibility that social interaction improves mental functioning. In a series of related studies, they tested the participants’ level of cognitive functioning, comparing it to the frequency of participants’ social interactions. They found that people who engaged in social interaction displayed higher levels of cognitive performance than the control group. Social interaction aided intellectual performance. “Social interaction,” the authors suggest, “helps to exercise people’s minds. People reap cognitive benefits from socializing.” They speculate that social interaction ‘exercises’ cognitive processes that are measured on intellectual tasks. “It is possible,” the authors conclude, “that as people engage socially and mentally with others, they receive relatively immediate cognitive boosts.”