Friends of mine with an infant daughter once told me the story of how their baby girl – and entire family – went through a long, scary night.
One evening, just after bedtime, the normally quiet child began wailing in distress. Her parents tried desperately to comfort their daughter – holding her, rocking her, changing her, feeding her.
But she just kept crying.
Her tears would ease up slightly every few hours, usually in response to nursing. But any signs of relief were fleeting, and soon the child was wailing once more.
My frightened, confused friends kept asking: “What does she want? What does she need? What’s wrong???”
Their baby wanted to nurse…and found temporary comfort in her mother’s arms. But she also needed something else, and no one knew what.
It was a very long night.
Thing is, knowing what we – or a loved one – truly needs can be tricky. But only after we identify and tend to that need is there hope of healing.
Perhaps, if you’re like many of my clients, this truth shows up in other ways. “Comfort eating” is a common one.
Most of us have been there at one time or another…turning to food for solace when something else was hurting. As a once-in-a-while thing, this can even be okay.
For many though, it’s more than once in a while. Often, this means true needs go unseen and unmet.
How might you work with this? Here’s one way:
Next time you find yourself reaching for food as a form of comfort – perhaps after a lousy day or when feeling angry, sad or lonely – just pause.
In that pause, ask three questions:
1 – What am I wanting?
2 – What am I needing?
3 – Are they the same…or different?
To the extent possible, ask these questions from a place of curiosity and investigation. Try not to have an opinion about your answers. Just notice what’s there.
After a heartbreaking argument with a dear friend, Tara returns home to an empty house. Sad, lonely and agitated, she heads for the ice cream.
Remembering this exercise, she pauses before opening the freezer. Standing in front of it, she asks:
What do I want?
Oh yeah – this part’s easy. I know what I want alright. In fact, I can already taste those chunks of fudge brownie scooped up with gobs of chocolatey ice cream goodness. My belly’s grumbling and my mouth is watering. Yep. Wanting. Nailed it.
Hmm, this is strange. But I think I feel a little on edge too. Anxious even. Seems weird to say, but it’s like the wanting is almost stressful.
What do I need?
That’s a good question. Maybe I just “need” ice cream with fudge chunks. But I guess there might be more. What am I really needing?
Well, having a friend I could trust would be nice. Or a partner to take care of me. You know – someone who wonders how I’m doing. Someone who really listens.
Sounds silly, but I feel myself tearing up when I think about that. Yeah, it’s something I’m needing. Hadn’t noticed it before.
Are what I want and what I need the same?
Uh, no. What I want (ice cream) isn’t going to give me what I need (a true friend…someone who cares).
Seems as though what we want and what we need should be straightforward, right? After all, we’re big people (not infants) and bring big people experience and means of expression.
Thing is, discerning wanting from needing isn’t always so simple (especially if we don’t stop to ask).
What about my friends’ little girl?
The morning after that sleepless night, the child’s parents bundled her up and took her to a doctor. Upon examination, the doctor diagnosed an inner ear infection and prescribed medication.
My friends took their baby home and administered the remedy. Within hours, the child was calm and sleeping. A day or two later, she had fully recovered. Only after the child’s true need had been identified and treated did she find lasting relief.
What are you really needing? Are you feeding that need…or something else?
And yet, just asking such questions with curiosity and mindfulness is a solid starting point. One that, with practice, can help us name – and care for – our true needs.
. . .