At the heart of the process of psychotherapy is trying to see more clearly what our basic needs as human beings are and how they can be met. Most clients seeking treatment are feeling uncomfortable because of difficulties in this domain.
The sense of discomfort is often compounded because, without help, it can be hard to unravel what our core needs actually are. There is no simple users’ manual telling us how our brains and emotions work. This article is an attempt to shed light in this important arena, based on recent pioneering research work.
Our understanding of this subject has undergone a major revolution since, Sigmund Freud – in the 1890s until his death in 1939 – led the way in creating a theoretical framework of the workings of our brain. He postulated that if libidinal needs – such as for food and sex – are not met, the result was neurosis, repression, unhappiness and anti-social behaviour.
In the 1940s, a British psychoanalyst originally trained in Freudian theory called John Bowlby developed a revolutionary alternative framework.
He came up with the idea that, above all, during our growing up period, we need what subsequently came to be called ‘a secure base’. He concluded that more important than Freud’s libidinal desires was the requirement to be looked after, to be connected with others, to be loved and accepted and to be made to feel safe.
Bowlby’s pioneering research was conducted during the Second World War among children orphaned during the Blitz. He believed they were distraught to the point of inconsolability and felt totally disconnected because they were missing their parents’ love and care.
A seminal piece of research which further supported Bowlby’s main ideas was conducted in 1958 using rhesus monkeys. It was found that a distressed monkey infant did not go first to a mother model dispensing food, but rather to one covered in fleecy material which felt warm and comforting (1).
Parallel research also showed that those who did not have a secure base became less likely to explore the world, less sociable and more prone to mental and physical problems.
In an ideal world, our individual needs are met during our childhood by our parents or principal care-givers. But of course, parents often can’t manage. In the vast majority of cases, that’s not because they want to upset or harm us, but rather because their own needs have not been met and their ability to be emotionally available has been compromised. They can struggle to be able to express the right level of ‘good enough’ care.
Bowlby’s ideas have been hugely refined and expanded since his first research papers were published during the Second World War. A distillation of latest thinking in relation to our core needs and the ‘secure base’ is contained in a paper published Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck in 2017 (2).
She states: ‘. . . basic needs are present from very early in life and their criteria for inclusion include: irreducibility to other needs, universal high value from very early in life and importance for well-being and optimal development from very early in life’.
On the basis of her very wide research and reading, she postulates that three ‘basic needs’ – for predictability, acceptance and competence – are the primary components of the secure base:
competence acceptance predictability
To spell that out further, if we grow up feeling that the world is reasonably and broadly predictable – that we are looked after and loved, have food, that there is routine – then we feel fundamentally safe and secure; if we develop so that we believe we can do the tasks required of us, we feel able and equipped to deal with life’s challenges; and if it is communicated to us that we are accepted broadly for what we are in ourselves and in the family and in social settings, we feel comfortable in our interactions with the world and other people.
In turn, feeling ‘safe’ gives us the basis to be able to regulate our primary negative emotions – fear, anger, sadness and disgust – to a comfortable level.
Dweck further says that having such a ‘secure base’ generates further benefits.
- We feel can control events in our lives as a result of experiencing at sufficient levels predictability and acceptance;
- We develop self-esteem as a by-product of feeling that we are competent and broadly accepted for what we are;
- We feel we can trust ourselves and others more easily if we have experienced predictability and the feeling that we are accepted.
Finally if all these pieces of the jigsaw are broadly in place, then we also develop a sense of self-coherence.
In future blogs, I will explain on the basis of latest research how emotional regulation can be achieved through the therapy process.
David Keighley is a BACP Accredited counsellor/psychotherapist offering short and long term therapy to individuals and couples using a variety of techniques such as EMDR, CBT and Schema Therapy. He is also a trained clinical supervisor. He is available at our Brighton & Hove Practice.