Tag Archives: basic needs

Trauma and basic needs

It occurred to me last week that trauma can be understood as what happens to us when our most basic needs aren’t met. I’m finding this a helpful re-framing because ‘trauma’ as a word suggests drama, but it might not always register that way. Sleep deprivation is considered traumatic enough to count as torture under international law. One or two bad nights clearly don’t impact traumatically, but when your sleep is consistently undermined over longer time frames, it becomes maddening. A few missed meals aren’t traumatic, necessarily, but starvation certainly is.

In really mundane ways, we can lose our safety. Being shouted at every day. Being threatened and harassed. Not being allowed to rest. We experience damage from trauma not when there’s some abnormal drama that we can understand as exceptional, but when the trauma becomes normal. One loud explosion probably won’t traumatise you. Dealing with it every day was what gave soldiers shell shock. Once trauma becomes normal, the world no longer feels safe and everything is potentially threatening and more dangerous.

It is also fundamentally dehumanising not to have basic needs met. These include basic needs for emotional security and comfort, for shelter and dignity. Emotional abuse – especially in childhood –  can rob a person of their sense of personhood.

Basic needs are essential things that we can’t do without for any length of time. These include our physical needs, our emotional and our social needs. How we experience losing those will vary, but the harm is considerable. In my experience, one of the problems is how easy it is to have genuine need start to seem trivial and not to be fussed over. The need to feel safe becomes being fragile and over-reacting. The need for anything can be minimised and treated as unimportant, adding a gaslighting element to an already problematic situation. When you start to believe that your basic needs don’t matter, that you don’t count in the way ‘real’ people do, you become incredibly vulnerable.

I’ve realised in recent weeks that one of the long term consequences of such experiences, is that I don’t know how to reliably prioritise my basic needs. I don’t know how to feel safe flagging up problems when they happen. I don’t know how or when to ask for help when basic needs aren’t met. I am easily persuaded that my doing without something I needed is a fair solution to other problems. This is going to take some unpicking. To heal, to be safe I have to make sure my basic needs are reliably met, but having internalised abuse and gaslighting, I’ve become part of my own problem. I can change that but it will take work.

The idea that I am fundamentally entitled to have my needs met, to ask that my needs be met and to raise it as an issue when they are not, is a very large thought for me. We should all have this, and I am painfully aware that for many people in the world, getting basic needs met is not a question of learning how to ask. It’s a question of systemic oppression, international abuses of power, war, climate chaos and exploitation.


Identifying your basic needs

One of the things that goes with poor self esteem is struggling to get basic needs met. It can be both a cause and a consequence of the esteem issues, creating vicious circles from which it is hard to escape.

People with good self esteem feel entitled to have their basic needs met. If their needs are not met, they treat it as a problem. For the person with poor self esteem, not getting your needs met can be evidence that you don’t deserve the basic care others receive. It can be proof of not being good enough. It can seem reasonable, if you feel you don’t deserve to be well treated. If you’re always told to put others first, if no one around you treats you like you matter, if your needs are minimalised, ignored, or worse yet, laughed at, this is difficult territory.

There are some basic things that all humans need. We need rest, food, and shelter. Anyone with any mobility needs opportunities to move. We need stimulation and interest in our lives. We need to feel valued and accepted. If you are denied something basic it can erode your confidence that you deserve any of the most basic things. Confident people tend to take what they need, or demand it, and make a fuss when basic needs aren’t met. People with low self esteem can find it hard to flag up such problems.

Whether the problem exists in the current environment, or in the past, is well worth a look. If you find it hard to express need or to raise it when needs aren’t met, there’s probably a history to this. At what time in your life were you denied your basic needs? If you can identify it, this helps greatly. If you are still in that situation, it is, I promise you, the situation that needs to change. Ask why it is hard to seek help, or to make sure you get your needs met. Ask what or who you are afraid of. Ask what expectations you have, or think others have.

The most fundamental need of all, is the need to feel entitled to the basic things that keep humans functioning. If you don’t feel entitled to be treated like everyone else, this is a tough thing to overcome. I think it helps to figure out why this is the case. If you’ve got anyone you think is on your side, talk to them. If you have trouble thinking about what you would need, think of someone you love, and then think about what you would want for them in the same situation. It can be a good way of going around an issue.

If your self esteem has been damaged such that you struggle to get your basic needs met, then one of the things you need is a kinder and more supportive environment in which you can build a better sense of self. Move towards the people who treat you well, and do what you can to get away from the influence of anyone who treats you as though you do not deserve the most basic things. No one develops poor self esteem alone. It isn’t a failing on your part. It isn’t something inherently wrong with you, it’s something born of a context. If that context is in your past, you have a better chance at letting it go and rediscovering yourself. If you are in a situation that is sapping you, it may be harder to get out or to seek better spaces, but I urge you to try, and that no one, ever deserves to feel worthless.

If you find you are living in an abusive environment that you’ve tolerated because you thought you were worthless, please take note: Leaving is the most dangerous time. When you leave, you are at greatest risk of violence. Get help. You deserve help, and help can be found. Talk to the police.