The Best Approach to Self-Care: How to Attend to Your Unmet Needs

“Caring for your body, mind, and spirit is your greatest and grandest responsibility. It’s about listening to the needs of your soul and then honoring them.” ~Kristi Ling 

There’s something I haven’t told many people. I kept it to myself because it clashed with my “identity” and the image I hoped to project (hello, ego!).

I’ve been creating content and working in the spirituality and personal development fields for a number of years. Although I don’t strive to become like Buddha, there’s a part of me (call it my spiritual ego) that expects certain things of me, such as to remain at peace, content, and emotionally well-regulated most of the time. After all, isn’t it what meditating daily is supposed to do?

Well, last year, I did not feel that content or peaceful. I felt quite depressed, and rarely did meditation make me feel better.

So I turned to wine. Most evenings, I had a couple of glasses of wine (sometimes three or even four) to forget how bored and unhappy I was.

“I’m a fraud,” I kept thinking while sipping on the red liquid.

I tried other things (besides wine) to feel better that helped, like gratitude journaling and spending more time in nature. Although these things did improve my mood, there was still a void within me that even gratitude didn’t manage to fill.

It was when I read an article about humanistic psychology and the use of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs in therapy that I became aware of the real cause of my “wine habit”: unmet needs.

“What do I really need?” I started asking myself every time the impulse to pour a glass of wine arose.

At first, I’d still give in to the wine, probably out of habit. But eventually, using Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs as a guiding tool, I was able to identify which of my needs weren’t satisfied and what actions I needed to take to fulfill them.

That’s true self-care,” I thought.

I realized that a self-care plan requires more than a checklist downloaded from Pinterest. It demands a life inventory, identifying our unmet needs, and taking the right actions to fulfill them.

Simply put, a bubble bath isn’t the best solution for everyone or any issue.

I’d like to share with you my new approach to self-care that aims to satisfy our deepest needs rather than providing short-lived comfort.

Step 1: Become aware of your unmet needs.

The first step is awareness. Although it’s not necessary to use Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs to identify what we want, it provides a helpful framework to guide our reflections.

I recommend going through each level of the pyramid and taking the time to reflect on your life. A good way to do this is through journaling.

Below are a few reflection questions for each category of needs to help you identify what’s missing in your life and may be preventing you from thriving.

Physiological Needs

These include basic physical needs like eating, drinking water, and sleeping. Self-care at this level comprises rest and giving our bodies the proper fuel and nutrients to function optimally. You could ask yourself:

  • Am I eating enough whole and nutritious food to nourish my body?
  • Do I feel rested when I wake up in the morning?
  • On a scale of 0-10, what’s my energy level most of the time?

Although most of us have no issue feeding ourselves, a deficiency in rest and nutrients is fairly common. For example, after running a few blood tests, I discovered that my iron levels were too low, which explained my low energy. After supplementing for a few weeks, I started feeling better.

Security and Safety Needs

Safety includes income and job security, health, and the environment in which we live. Questions you could ask yourself are:

  • Do I have sufficient financial resources to sustain myself and feel comfortable?
  • Do I often feel stressed and anxious? Do I have tools to help me relax?
  • What’s the state of my physical, mental, and emotional health?
  • Overall, do I feel safe?

Social Needs

These are the needs for love, acceptance, and belonging, which include friendships, romantic love and intimacy, and family life.

The void I felt in the past two or three years mostly came from unmet needs in this category. Several people I knew moved away, and my relationship with a partner ended. Plus, after a year of isolation, I forgot how to connect with people, and the idea of socializing almost gave me anxiety (even though that’s what I needed the most).

Here are a few questions you could ask yourself to uncover unfulfilled needs in this category:

  • Are there people around me whom I can count on?
  • Do I feel accepted and supported by the people around me?
  • Do I regularly interact and bond with people, or do I often feel lonely?
  • Overall, are my relationships satisfying to me?

Esteem Needs

These are the needs for appreciation and respect, which include having a healthy sense of self-worth and feeling valued.

I worked hard in my twenties and early thirties on improving my self-esteem, but I can still remember the destructive impact of low self-worth on my quality of life when I was younger. Self-esteem needs are foundational for having healthy relationships, taking care of our bodies, and pursuing our goals and dreams.

Questions you could ask yourself are:

  • Do I feel appreciated at work, at home, and within my group of friends?
  • Is my self-talk mainly positive or negative?
  • Do I believe I have good qualities? Do others appreciate those qualities?
  • Overall, do I feel good about myself at work, at home, and in social circles?

Self-Actualization Needs

Maslow defined self-actualization as “fulfilling our potential.” It includes feeling a sense of purpose and growing and evolving as a person.

For most of my life, I had “purpose anxiety.” Nowadays, living my purpose is one of the most important aspects of my life and what sustains me in difficult times.

Doing what we love and using our gifts toward a vision that matters to us gives us fuel to move through challenges.

You could ask yourself:

  • Do I feel like my life is meaningful and has a purpose?
  • Does the work I do fulfill me?
  • Am I using my skills and natural strengths in ways that are enjoyable to me?
  • Am I constantly growing and evolving?

Self-Transcendence Needs

Self-transcendence is about feeling connected to others and all life and acting accordingly. At this level, we have a desire for contribution, service, and impact. The need for a spiritual practice and connecting to a higher power are also part of self-transcendence.

Questions you could ask yourself are:

  • Am I making a positive impact on others and the world?
  • Do I feel connected to others, nature, and perhaps a higher power?
  • Am I satisfied with my spiritual practice and/or the legacy I’m leaving?

Leisure Needs

I’ve added this category to the list because I believe play is another important contributing aspect to our well-being.

A lack of fun and laughter can negatively impact our mental health—at least, that’s been my experience in the past few years. Along with unmet social needs, a lack of play was my biggest source of dissatisfaction. I had become overly serious and forgot how to have fun. I couldn’t even remember that last time I had laughed.

Questions you could ask yourself are:

  • Do I have fun at work, at home, and in my free time?
  • How often do I laugh?

Step 2: Identify what requires your immediate attention.

After going through these questions, I rated each category of needs on a scale of 0 to 10, assigning 10 to the areas that most required my attention. For me, those areas were leisure and social needs.

This meant that doubling down on my meditation practice or having a daily green smoothie would likely not be enough to break my “wine habit.” Or, better said, they weren’t what I truly needed.

I needed to have more fun, laugh, and play. I needed to bond with people more, have deep and meaningful conversations, and expand my social circle.

Once you’ve identified which of your needs aren’t fulfilled, you’re ready to brainstorm solutions.

Step 3: Brainstorm ways to fulfill unmet needs.

Once we know what’s “off,” we can think of ways to improve the situation.

“How can I have more fun?” I asked myself.

I reflected upon times when I had the most fun in the past and wrote those down. I also wrote any other ideas that came to mind, from watching funny dog videos to going to a comedy show. I made a list of ways to have more fun in my journal and made an effort to do at least a few of them every week.

Step 4: Choose one small action and schedule it.

After brainstorming, it’s time to take action. I recommend picking at least one idea on your list and scheduling it.

A few weeks ago, I decided to attend a Kundalini yoga class followed by a dinner with the teacher and fellow students. It was an opportunity to meet new people.

I knew that, as an introvert, the risk I would cancel at the last minute was high. Therefore, I immediately purchased the ticket and scheduled the class in my planner. I’m glad I did; I met new people, laughed, and had interesting conversations.

Self-care activities are more likely to happen when we schedule them.

. . .

I could summarize this article with one question: “What do you really need?”

Taking the time to make a life inventory, identify our unfulfilled needs, and then take action to satisfy them—that’s proper self-care.

The difficulty is that, sometimes, we don’t even know what we need! I find Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs a helpful tool to guide our self-reflection.

I hope it can help you too.

About Emilie Pelletier

Emilie is a certified coach specializing in positive psychology, a spiritual entrepreneur, and a creator. She helps people gain clarity on their purpose, create their life’s work, and pursue their goals and dreams with clarity and confidence. You can get her FREE JOURNALS—The Soulful Bucket List Journal, The Blissipline Journal for Daily Happiness, andThe Life Purpose Formula—or connect with her through her website.

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