What is Your Secret Need?

Jane Herman

July 07, 2010

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What is your secret underlying need - the one that flows like an underground river beneath your thoughts and actions, that influences how you feel about things, situations, and people and drives your actions? I know that you have one because we all do - that core need that morphs into a core belief about yourself that is so powerful it reverberates through everything you do and say, and affects your actions and your relationships often without your conscious awareness. Chances are those who know you well can see it or at least sense it unconsciously, and it's a good bet that even you are aware of it at some superficial and intellectual level. But it is also highly likely that you are unaware of its great power over you and the unintended consequences it creates in your life.

Here are four examples of key core needs that can easily become obsessive self beliefs:
  • I need to be self reliant (do it all myself; be superwoman or superman)

  • I need to be in control

  • I need to be right

  • I need to be great (good is not enough)
What is yours? Do you see yourself in the above, or is it something else? Whatever your particular core need might be let’s take a deeper look at how it can drive you, where it might come from, and how you can break free.

How Do Core Needs Drive You?

Core needs that morph into self beliefs exert tremendous power over your life for nine key reasons.

1. You feel compelled to prove they are true about you - for example, that you are self-reliant, in control, right, or great.

You likely feel a strong desire to prove their truth to yourself and others. You may crave, and struggle to get, acknowledgement from others that you are who you think you are " you want to be acknowledged for this “identity.” This drive to “prove” these “truths” can lead to all sorts of excessive and often self-damaging behavior. For example, taking on way too many tasks so you can “be in control,” “prove your self reliance,” or “prove you are right.”

2. They cause you to make emotional decisions

There are deep emotions and feelings linked to these core needs and self beliefs and they can unconsciously drive your decisions and actions. If someone were to ask you, “What are the key criteria you use to make important decisions?” (e.g., decisions about a career path or relationship) what would your answer be? For many people, the answer is, “I don’t know.” You may be perfectly clear about “what” you do, and whether you are happy or unhappy about the consequences of what you do, but you may not be in touch with what is driving you to do what you do because the motivating causes are simply feelings and emotions. As an example, you may choose to leave a job or end a relationship based on an emotional reaction such as, “I am better than this " I will show you!”

3. They come with associated beliefs about others

Ninety-nine percent of the time what you believe about yourself (e.g., I am/need to be in control; I am/need to be self reliant) comes with associated beliefs you have about others. For example, “I have to do everything myself because I work with a bunch of idiots. I am the only one who can do things right.” And these beliefs about others further constrain your actions. For example, you may not be able to appropriately delegate or share tasks at home or at work; or you may be able to lead a team but not be comfortable simply being a member of a team.

4. They cause you to take on things you really don’t want to do

Most of the time your core needs and self beliefs (such as “I need to be self reliant and do everything,” or “I need to be in control”) will cause you to take on tasks and responsibilities that you really do not want " you simply feel compelled to take them on. But when others obligingly relinquish these tasks to you, you may feel resentful and dumped on.

5. They won’t allow you to do things you do want to do

In much the same way that core needs and beliefs cause you to take on things you don’t really want to do, they also won’t allow you to do things you actually do want to do, or to change current behaviors you do want to change. A perfect example is delegation. Core beliefs such as, “I must be self reliant” or “I must be in control” simply will not allow you to delegate tasks to others (spouses, co-workers, or children) effectively. You may scour books for new techniques on how to delegate or take courses on the subject, and you may even make progress in small ways " but usually the changes won’t stick if you don’t change the underlying core beliefs. You can make changes but you can’t sustain them " you slip right back to your old ways.

6. They are about extremes

One hallmark of these powerful core needs and self beliefs is that they involve “extremes.” Although it may remain unspoken or unacknowledged, the real message is, “I need to be great, or be in control, or be right - all the time!” And since there is a part of you that senses this can never happen, there is a lingering feeling of “it is never enough” or “I am never enough.” These extremes can cause you to hold yourself to very high standards and to impose impossibly high standards on others.

7. They set the stage for a huge internal conflict

Even when one core need or belief is dominant " for example " the need to be self reliant " it is usually a fact that a conflicting need also exists at the same time " for example the need to be taken care of. This conflicting need, if not openly acknowledged and accepted, can lead to several uncomfortable and conflicting feelings and actions:

Internal feelings of conflict: I feel like I want to be taken care of but should not feel this way because I am self reliant.

Resentment of others: Why can’t he/she see that although I am self reliant I also need to be nurtured and taken care of?

Overwhelm: I take on all of these tasks because I am self reliant and competent and no one else can do them correctly " but I don’t think I can get them all done and I am panicking.

Actions you take are inconsistent with your self belief: For example, you say and believe you are superwomen but your house is a mess and your dishes are undone, or you say you want a full partnership with your spouse but will not let him/her assume an equal share of the duties or responsibilities.

8. Each comes with a very dark side

Often these needs and self beliefs can be the source of your ability to accomplish great things " but they are also your greatest weakness and keep you from being content and fulfilled. Here are some examples of beliefs and their potential dark sides:

I need to be self reliant:
  • You take on too much and sink into overwhelm; you can’t ask for help.
I need to be great:
  • You get wrapped up in results; you lose your sense of empathy and connection with others.
I need to be in control:
  • You disempower others and unbalance relationships.
9. They create a deep sense of restlessness

Deep needs and core beliefs such as the above can diminish your ability to be satisfied and content and cause conflict in your personal relationships. Because your decisions and actions are driven by the underlying feelings and emotions tied to these beliefs, it is common to feel an ongoing sense of restlessness " often causing you to move on too quickly in multiple situations (e.g., jump from job to job or relationship to relationship).

Where Do These Needs And Self Beliefs Come From?

The following are some of the common areas core needs and self beliefs can come from:

The messages you heard growing up (as you strive to be consistent with these messages). For example the messages, “You can do anything you put your mind to” or, “You can’t show vulnerability.”

As a reaction or rebellion against the messages you heard growing up.

From behaviors you observed growing up.

The most powerful and deep-seated often arise as a result of highly emotionally charged experiences that happened in the past and left an indelible impression on your psyche. For example, a divorce that left one parent struggling to survive financially can cause a child to desperately embrace the need to be self reliant.

How Can You Break Free?

Breaking free from the overwhelming power of these core needs and self beliefs requires seven steps.

1. Accept how deep and unseen they are

Most people don’t recognize their own most powerful needs and self beliefs " they don’t see them as assumptions or concepts they have adopted " they simply integrate them as their own persona " their unquestioned truth and reality. Or if they do recognize them, they do so only on a superficial “intellectual” level and completely miss the compelling emotional wallop they pack. These needs and self beliefs become part of their right-brain holistic view of the world " the context for all other decisions and actions that occur. The more logic-based left brain can make logical decisions within the established right-brain context, but it rarely questions the context itself and consequently the decisions and actions that result are often illogical. Thus, the first step in breaking free is to accept that core needs and self beliefs and their massive influence on everything you do are generally not self-evident.

2. Find out what they are for you

The second step in breaking free from unknowing and unquestioned subservience to core needs and self beliefs is to find out what they are for you. Because you may not be able to see them yourself you may want to partner with someone else to help you identify them.

Once you have identified some potential candidates you can use the following to make sure you are on target: You can usually tell when you are dealing with a core need or self belief if when you encounter or imagine a situation where something prevents you from being what you need to be (e.g., in control, self reliant, right) you feel threatened and experience unpleasant physical reactions (fear, anxiety, panic, etc.).

3. Look behind the superficial

Once you identify your core needs and self beliefs don’t stop there " you need to ask the core questions to confront the beliefs " for example:
  • What does it mean to be “x” " self reliant, in control, etc?

  • What would happen if you were not?

  • What do you think about people who are what you strive to be? (e.g., in control, self reliant)

  • What do you think about people who are the opposite of are what you strive to be? (e.g., dependent on others)

  • What would it take for you to feel in control ever?

  • What would it take for you to feel great ever?

  • Who are you being when you make your decisions?

  • On what are you basing your decisions?
4. Get clear on what you really want

It is important to get crystal clear and very specific about what you want. It is quite common for an underlying default belief to be the following: “What I really want is for everyone else to change!” (e.g., for other people to take back control of tasks that you have taken over, or nurture you despite your professed desire to be self reliant.) Unfortunately this is not likely to happen. So you need to get specific about what You need and what You can do. For example, if your core need is to be in control you might ask yourself the following:

“Under what conditions do I need to be in control? In the area of finances? Something else?”

“When do I need to feel in control? Only when there is ‘xyz’ (e.g., a large amount of money) at stake?”

“What do I need to feel in control?” And a related question, “What would I need to have in place to be comfortable letting go of some of my control.”

“What feeling am I really after (e.g., safety, security, competence) and what specifically creates or prevents that feeling?”

5. Ask for help in two ways

First, be willing to ask for what you need. Sometimes what you need is simply an acknowledgement of the need and self belief that is so important to you. For example, you may need to feel valued or recognized for all of the things you do so well. Sometimes when you are feeling out of control you don’t need someone to tell you what to do you just need someone to listen and help you process what you are going through. It is OK to ask for these things.

Second, ask for help in making a change. Most likely you will not be able to step away from your core beliefs/drivers by yourself " a partner will have to help. For example if being in control is your issue, you might say to your partner, “I need you to help me let go of these things and to let you take them on. Here is what I need you to do to help me feel comfortable letting go” " no matter how illogical. Admit it is not logical. Admit that you recognize that this is not about logic " it is about dealing with your feelings and emotional side.

6. Create new solid criteria for the decisions you make

To counteract the pull of needs-based emotional decisions you need to begin to construct solid criteria for your future choices based on an in-depth exploration of who you are (what you like and dislike, your strengths and weakness, you talents, abilities, temperament, and values) and how you work best. It is also useful to create a longer-term perspective of where you are going " a long-term vision or plan that can serve as an anchor to keep you grounded when you start to make impulsive emotional decisions driven by your needs - a purpose that will inspire and motivate you. And if you are not sure about how to create these criteria or build a long-term plan realize that it is OK to ask for help in these areas also.

As you begin to design your life based on more solid and thoughtful criteria the old power of your needs-based emotions will loosen their grip and you will begin to recognize that what it means to be in control, right, great, etc. is not an absolute " and it changes over time as you change.

7. Take action so you can collect evidence that your new way will work

In order to make long-term personal changes (e.g., to let go of trying to be in control of everything) you have to have evidence that doing something different is fun and can actually work. You have to see a payoff " which means you can’t just think about doing things differently " you actually must do them and get the experience of what it is like doing it differently and what the advantages are. For example, you might try letting go of control and just being part of a team, or try letting go of being right and really listening to, and hearing, other people’s perspectives.

The Bottom Line

When you understand your secret needs and self beliefs you can begin to take back control of your life and reclaim your ability to make clear, considered, and rational decisions based on what you really want to do and who you want to be. When you understand and gain control of “who you think you are or need to be,” you free yourself to become who you really want to be.


Jane Herman is the Personal and Business Success Coach who helps managers, executives, and individuals take control of their lives and reinvent themselves, their careers, or their businesses. To receive a complimentary 30-minute coaching session with Jane, and/or sign up for Jane's free Success Tools electronic newsletter, log onto www.PersonalAndBusinessSuccess.com or email her at [email protected].

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