Needs – my therapy “aha moment”

So, I started seeing my current therapist in early June, a few months after lockdown started. It took some time to develop rapport, and around the end of July I started getting more honest about my issues. That’s when I started making more progress, which I wanted to think through here.

The initial thinking in early August was for me to identify my needs better. I think of myself as a pretty introspective person, and I’ve been meditating mostly-regularly since 2014, so I was surprised to not be able to identify any of my personal needs pretty easily. Of course we all need food, water, shelter, etc., but what do I need that might not be true of others? I talked to multiple friends but made meager progress for weeks. My therapist and I also talked about perfectionism, which is probably worth its own post though it’ll be relevant here as well.

So, I wrote on a whiteboard near my desk: “Feeling sad / anxious / frustrated / mad / etc.? What do I need?” My plan had been, start figuring out my needs, and get them satisfied, potentially with help (and getting help is something I have to work on). That’s not exactly how things went though. What I found (and this is individual to me, YMMV) was that I was often frustrated by a feeling of needing something that I don’t really need.

Before giving an example, I want to elaborate a bit on what a “need” is. For me, it helps to think of them in terms of goals. I’m a software engineer so if my goal is “do a good job at work” then I need a keyboard. Perhaps our goal is to be happy, or even just to survive. For reasons I won’t get into in this post, my starting point was an erroneous “I don’t have a lot of needs” so being able to think of them in terms of goals helps me, since I’m more comfortable establishing a goal than a need.

So, let’s take the goal of being good at my job… I mentioned early being a perfectionist. This is at odds with deadlines at work, which I find I struggle to hit >50% of the time. Each time I found a deadline coming up and I wasn’t going to make it, I experienced so much constant anxiety. I dreaded telling the PM/techlead/my manager I couldn’t finish on time, and everytime it was awful.

My therapist thought something was up here. He asked me what actually happened when I told people I wasn’t going to make the deadline. My memory isn’t great, and it’s worse when I’m stressed. I said I wasn’t totally sure, but that I always felt terrible after. I think of myself as an (amateur) scientist, so we talked about running an experiment – missing deadlines has always been ok in the past (at least as far as, I’ve never been disciplined), so what if I tried not stressing so much, updating them like usual, and paying closer to attention to what happened?

So, that’s what I did. I obviously couldn’t turn off the stress entirely, but I tried to be mindful of the fact that things had obviously been ok in the past. The day came I missed a deadline, I told people, and I paid attention. Did anyone yell at me? Tell me I’m a bad engineer? Obviously not. They basically said thanks for the update, what’s the status and how much more time do you need? This is what always happened.

That moment was pretty life-changing for me, as silly as it may seem. I felt like I needed to hit my deadlines 100% of the time (goal: be a perfectionist). I felt like this pressure was external, but it was entirely projection on my part – none of the people I was afraid of did anything to deserve the fear. I think of myself as a very rational, logical person, and it was… weird, to realize that I had such an easily falsified belief for so long. A belief that had I just paid more attention earlier would have been corrected years ago.

It was around November that I had what I’ve been referring to as a “breakthrough” in therapy because it was a large, relatively discrete event, and it reminded me of early meditation where I saw another way of being, which felt like a “save point” I could come back to if needed (that is, I will likely backslide in progress at some point, but now that I know there’s another option, I’ll never go “all the way” back to how I was). My stress levels went down >90% (don’t ask me to justify this number). Since November, I have had some stress peaks but my ability to cope with them is like it has been at no previous point in my life. I’m obviously happier, but an unexpected consequence for me as well is that I’m not spending any mental bandwidth on catastrophizing, so functionally it’s like I’m smarter now because (1) I have more mental bandwidth to devote to things other than feeling bad and (2) I’m not context-switching into catastrophizing, which can be costly if it happens frequently for short times, not just for large amounts of time. I’m also finding that my memory is (slowly) improving.

Additionally, since senior year of college I’ve had this issue that physical/emotional stress can trigger dry heaving. I’ve seen multiple doctors, had at least one exploratory surgery, and we made basically no progress. It’s something I just live with, and people who spend enough time around me get to know that it happens sometimes. I also stopped doing Crossfit in college because of it, and it occasionally makes rock climbing less enjoyable. It’s decreased >50% since my therapy breakthrough, possibly much more – I used to track it but at its peak, it was onerous to track.

This has mostly been about needs, but I want to mention something adjacent before wrapping up. Now that I’m reflecting on my needs, I’m finding myself more intentional. I sometimes get caught in cycles where I’m reacting to something without really considering what I want and if I’m acting toward that goal. So, when I find myself feeling frustrated I try to ask: what am I trying to accomplish right now? Usually I don’t have an immediate answer to that question 🙄. I also ask myself, is what I’m doing working toward my goal? When I find myself asking that question, the answer is usually no. This check-in has certainly made me happier, since there are times that I would just kind of implicitly assume some need and be frustrated, but instead I find myself empowered instead of frustrated.

The last thing I want to say about intentionality, is that it can be exhausting to practice all the time. I think we all need to check in about our intentions regularly but my goal right now is to establish better habits, which are easier to do regularly rather than constantly thinking about what you need/want.

So that’s my short summary of my “therapy breakthrough” and a short story of something I’d be surprised if someone else out there couldn’t benefit from, even though I haven’t heard this exact thing before (specifically, non-needs).

EDIT: On April 4th I changed the title from “therapy breakthrough” to “therapy ‘aha moment'”