Learning to Pay Attention to My “Basic Human Needs”

The first time I wrote this blog post, it came out hot. And not in a good way. 

It read like a diatribe against millennials (like me) who stubbornly refuse to get their lives together and who fail to prioritize the things that really count. I was judgmental, harsh, and angry. 

Reading over my words, I realized that every time I wrote something judgmental of others, I was really just judging myself. Go figure. So we’re gonna start this post over again and see where it goes. 

Pyramid collage art of Maslow's hierarchy of needs

How I Realized That I’ve Been Neglecting My Needs 

I always roll my eyes when people bring up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maybe you do too. 

They’re just so clinical. So basic. So unrelatable and lacking in nuance. Without those all-important nuances, Maslow seems downright irrelevant. 

Here’s why: At any given point in my life, I would’ve sworn to you that my basic needs were being met. I had a roof over my head. I had clothes, I had enough to eat, I had money. I had relationships with people I care about. I thought I had my bases covered. 

But I also struggled with severe mental health issues that never seemed to go away. 

Sound familiar? 

In therapy over the years, I kept learning the same infuriating lesson again, over and over and over and over: I cannot keep ignoring my basic needs. 

As an enneagram 3, I’m usually great at focusing on myself (ha). But I tend to ignore the basic necessities, or take them for granted, because I’m in such a rush to get on with my life. To get on with “fixing myself” or “meeting my goals.”

Maybe you do the same thing? 

Regardless, 2020 stopped us in our tracks. This year taught us that our basic needs—for food, shelter, financial security, and safety—are vastly important to our overall wellbeing. And if you’re anything like me, this year taught you that you’re probably not meeting your basic needs as well as you could. 

As we leave 2020 behind and walk into a future that’s guaranteed to be brighter (because honestly how much worse could things possibly get??), I’m taking a moment to prioritize my basic needs. And I’m doing whatever it takes to make sure they’re being met. 

Triangles collage art

Learning to Eat the Right Food 

I’ve been blessed with food my entire life. 

I grew up in a family of amazing home cooks who spoiled me with delicious homemade meals three times per day. I’ve never known the acute pain that comes from not having enough food in the pantry. Or never having enough to go around. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had a problem with hunger. 

People who know me know that my hunger is a very serious deal. I get angry, irritable, exhausted, scattered, unfocused, and downright mean when I’m hungry. And since I’ve never been able to eat a ton of food in one sitting, hunger hits me all the time. 

I never struggled with hunger more than when I was vegan. 

As a complete noob who knew nothing about nutrition and grew up exclusively eating Southern Living recipes, it was quite a shock. My digestion suffered, my mental health took a serious dive, and I dreaded every single meal. 

Even worse, I spent nine tortuous months hungrier than I’ve ever been in my entire life. 

At some point I could no longer deny that my dogmatic diet was hurting me. I listened to my therapist and decided to loosen up a bit. I allowed dairy into my diet again. I thought that I could still help the planet by being vegetarian. And I also thought I’d be a little kinder to myself by allowing meat consumption on rare occasions. 

Unfortunately, that was even worse. 

Every time I ate meat as a vegetarian, I got crippling stomach pains that kept me up all night. I kept a ready stash of ginger ale, cool washcloths, and Pepto on my bathroom counter for months because I knew I would suffer multiple days after eating one quarter-serving of chicken. 

It took many months of eating like an omnivore again before I could finally eat food without pain. 

Never again. 

If you’re eating a diet that makes your life worse, you’re not meeting your basic needs. It’s that simple. But it took me over two years to figure that out and get back to eating healthfully. 

Now listen: I know that a plant-based diet is “supposed” to be “healthier.” But that logic only works if the diet is actually healthy for your body. I’ve seen friends commit to the keto diet for the same reason, and end up in a similar miserable place.  

This year, maybe take a little time to consider your food choices. See if they’re actually healthy for you, or if they’re just causing you more stress. Then respond accordingly.  

Spiral triangles collage art

Learning What “Shelter” Really Means

Millennials are often willing to settle for less. We’ll take the drafty studio apartment in a bad part of town, as long as it gets us close to work. I’ve actually had friends tell me that car break-ins and drug busts aren’t really that bad, since they love living close to downtown. 

But ask yourself this: how much stress does your home cause you on a daily basis? 

I’ve spent a ton of money on apartment rent over the past few years, and let me tell you something: I should’ve paid more attention to my needs. 

I spent years at war with various apartment neighbors, who were so loud that I could hardly sleep or work. 

I paid extra to live in top floor units so I could avoid their noise, but it really didn’t help. It just meant that I had to climb 3 flights of stairs to take the dog out. 

I’ve lived with roommates who made my life a living hell (and one fantastic one who, bless her, turned out to be a lifelong friend). 

I really never met this basic need until a year ago when I moved into my first house. With a yard. In a quiet neighborhood with no parties, no college kids, and no huge family barbecues. 

It was pure bliss.

One other thing we often forget about: how’s the weather? Because it’s really hard to be happy when you hate your life every time you look out the window.   

Personally, I like the climate here in Texas. I live my best life in the spring and fall when it’s cool enough to hike, but I honestly don’t mind the blazing heat. I love the feeling of getting into my car on a 104-degree day and just sitting there with no AC on, letting the heat seep into my bones. 

A friend of mine moved to Boston a couple of years ago and has hated the weather ever since. She misses that hot car feeling almost as much as she misses Tex Mex. And ever since she got to Boston, she’s been trying to get back home.

I’m not saying you should move. But if you live in a place that sucks the life out of you, you should really just move. 

Many triangles collage art

Financial Security Really Does Matter

I’ll start this section with a sweeping generalization that I pretty much 100% believe: Too many millennials are underpaid in their careers. And they are far too willing to accept that. 

I thought I was ok with it too. 

A few years ago I accepted my first big girl job at a company. Since I had always planned on being a public school teacher, I thought the corporate salary was AMAZING. More than I could ever need. I thought I was financially secure.

So I remained at that company year after year, way longer than I should have stayed, and got lured into complacency. 

It never occurred to me that I was paying way too much of my income on rent in a city with a super high cost of living. 

I paid an arm and a leg in credit card payments every month, but I thought that was fine. I could barely save anything, but that was a “future” goal, not a “right now” goal. 

It wasn’t until I got really dissatisfied with my job that I realized I was being vastly underpaid. Other jobs with my title earned 20% more—and they had way better benefits. So I bit the bullet and took on the grueling work of finding a new position.

It paid off. 

By getting a new job at the same experience level (a lateral move, as they say), I finally got a raise that put me solidly above my cost of living. I was finally able to take care of my needs. 

Now, after a year at that new job, I’m grateful to say that I have over a month’s worth of expenses in savings. I’m not going to be derailed by a vet bill or replacing my tires or a big doctor’s visit anymore. And I’m working on building an even bigger safety net for the future.

I even have a small travel fund set aside for whenever it’s safe to leave the country again. 

Hear me when I say that I’m a straight up beginner when it comes to financial security. Even so, I’m unbelievably grateful for the privileged position I’m in, and that I was able to get a new job in the first place.  

The point is, I thought I had financial security before. And I wonder how many other millennials think they’re financially secure, when they’re really not. 

If you’re working a fulfilling job but you can barely afford an oil change, you might be surprised how much that’s eating at you. It could be more fulfilling in the long run to work a job that’s a little less “exciting” but a lot more financially secure. 

It could change your entire life. 

Pyramid collage art

Safety Isn’t Just Physical 

We all know that physical safety is important. You can’t possibly function as a human if you’re in constant danger of physical harm. And thanks to the pandemic, we know that health and safety are inextricably tied. 

But over the past few years, I learned that emotional safety matters a lot too. 

It’s not ok to live in constant fear from people in your life who hurt you emotionally. 

I spent years in situations where I had to walk on eggshells. Where even walking into a room felt like playing a game of russion roulette. I chose to stay in those relationships and deal with the consequences, but I had no idea how much that was hurting me. Or how much it would impact my life in the long term. 

When I finally did the research on what emotional abuse looks like, I was stunned.

We’re not taught this in school, or by our parents. Nobody tells you what gaslighting looks like or what “emotionally absent” means. But emotional safety is so desperately important that we really should take the time to learn. Here’s one place you could start

It’s insane to me that people experience this kind of trauma every day from their spouses, their moms, their bosses, and their “friends”. Maybe we think it’s ok because it’s common. I know I didn’t think anything of it at the time either. 

In 2020, we all faced challenges when it comes to relationships. At some point, we had to decide which relationships we were going to put effort into, and which ones we were going to let go. Because let’s be real—keeping up relationships in a pandemic felt like an absolutely monstrous burden. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that.   

Because of the isolation we already lived through, now might be a convenient time to take stock of the relationships in your life and to consider whether they’re helping to increase or decrease your sense of emotional safety. 

If you find yourself with more bad apples than good, maybe you can thoughtfully consider how to build healthier relationships elsewhere—or at least how to minimize the damage to yourself. 

It’s crucial that we meet our need for safety. Without that, it’s really hard to be happy. 

The Basic Need That I Missed in 2020

Speaking of relationships, I’m not really sure where “socialization” fits in Maslow’s Hierarchy, but it really should be in there somewhere. 

I’m not talking about building strong one-on-one relationships—I’m talking about the basic human need to be around other humans. To talk to people. To ease the negative effects of social isolation. 

The extroverts in our midst must have died over the sudden lack of parties, bars, and social events… but I think the isolation probably affected everyone, including more introverted folks like me.  

The truth is, I am not meant to work full time from home. I was not made for hours of zoom calls. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m so grateful to work in an industry that allowed me to work from home and prioritize my health and safety. I will continue to work from home as long as it takes for us to be safe. 

But after another year of remote work, I am so done with the isolation. 

I need to go back to work in an office where I can say hello to people and have lunch with my teammates on random Fridays. I need to meet new people and explore my city and the bigger world around us. 

I need to get the heck out of my house, for goodness’ sake. And I need to not feel that subtle, existential fear toward every other human I see when I step out the door. 

This is the need that didn’t get met for me in 2020. And I realized how really, really important it is. 

Big and small pyramids collage art

What’s Coming in 2021

I’m not feeling the usual “new year, new beginning” vibe right now.

The beginning of this year kindof feels like an unfortunate continuation of the worst year of our lives. That’s just the reality—the unexpected houseguest who burns your entire house down and won’t GTFO when the night is over. 

I know that it’s hard to find jobs, and to move, and to build strong relationships, and to stay safe. Harder now than ever. But I think these things matter more than ever. 

Here’s me learning this lesson one more time (for the people in the back): Those “basic human needs” that Maslow talks about are actually really crucial to our everyday happiness—especially during a pandemic. 

It could change everything if we could focus on them a little bit more. 

PS: What basic needs do you think Maslow forgot about when he made that quintessential pyramid? I’m thinking “nature” might be another one… but I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

― Charles Bukowski



Comments are closed.