Sunday, October 21, 2012

What We Need

When a friend described third grade Owen having existential crises on the bus I had to laugh at the truth of it. Owen reports experiencing existential crises on a weekly basis. These quandaries have become such a strong part of Owen's life that the idea of discontinuing such thoughts causes him to have an identity crisis on top of it.

Though most of us don't struggle with these issues quite as frequently as my husband, most of us will face them at some point. What is the purpose of life? Why am I here? How can I find fulfillment? Often existential quandaries deal with distinguishing that which is permanent and fulfilling from that which is temporary. Thus I suspect that most of us experience existential crises in the form of day to day strife.

So many people, myself included, feel the frequent urge to engage in retail therapy. My partner, Owen, does not like for me to spend money unnecessarily. You can see how a potential for conflict exists. I believe that when we feel we need something we do need something, we just may not know what we need. Perhaps an example would make this idea more clear.

  • On a subconscious level I feel the need for greater agency in my life.
  • Given that I live in a consumeristic society where media advertisements play on my emotions on a daily basis I misidentify the need as a need to buy myself something.
  • I go to the mall and I buy a new scarf, which makes me feel better not because I have the scarf, but because I exercised my agency to do so.
  • I go home and Owen gets upset at me for spending money unnecessarily, perhaps making me feel childish for what he perceives as not understanding the concept of budgeting. 
  • Rather than feeling independent I feel frustrated, defensive, and perhaps trapped within my relationship.

Retail therapy is a particularly relevant example because it appears to fulfill so many different needs. The need for agency, the need for change, the need to think creatively, the need for basic goods, the need for social interaction, etc.

Thus financial decision making becomes a huge problem in many relationships. Too often the partners of those who spend too much money attribute the problem to lack of self control. When spending becomes a problem, we have to step back and identify what need the spender is attempting to fulfill and find ways to fulfill it without spending. If, like me, the spender wants to feel more independent find other things that make him or her feel independent and incorporate as many of these activities as possible into daily life. Play Monopoly, do crafts, learn a new trade, etc.

Another common example of misidentified needs occurs after breakups. Let's consider the fictional couple Jesse and Jordan. Jesse breaks up with Jordan after 6 months of dating, during which time they spent twelve hours a day with each other. Jordan feels the constant need to text, call, and facebook stalk Jesse. Jordan feels that she will only be happy when Jesse takes her back.

There are a few problems here. First of all, Jesse and Jordan do not love each other enough to have an open fulfilling relationship, and being together will not make either of them happy. Second, Jordan feels inadequate because Jesse broke up with her, and she worries that there is something wrong with her. Jordan thinks that Jesse taking her back would prove her adequacy thus making her happy. Jordan actually needs to find a sense of adequacy outside of Jesse. Maybe Jordan needs to pick up a new hobby, such as guitar. She can spend time learning the guitar, and the talent of having learned an instrument will make her feel adequate. Not to say that significant others and guitars are interchangeable, but that spending time improving herself in some way may help assuage Jordan's feelings of inadequacy.

Who of us hasn't mistaken the approval of others for our own inherent value? Sometimes I think all of life's struggles lead back to existential crises. We want life to be worthwhile, and we want to have purpose as individuals. Yet we take these needs and we make them smaller than they are; we attempt to make them manageable by believing that temporary things will fulfill them.

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