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How to Enjoy it When You Screw Up

Following on from the previous article, Getting in touch with your needs, here I’m going to say more about our basic human needs, and finish with an exercise to help you enjoy it when you screw things up.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) talks about needs as basic and common to all. Examples are: meaning, contribution, connection and authenticity. And needs aren’t exclusive to humans: trees have needs for water, air, light support (from soil etc) and protection.

To help clarify what are basic needs, NVC distinguishes between:

  • Needs (basic, common to all), and
  • Strategies (the particular ways beings choose to try to meet their needs)

Here’s an example. I might say to my partner, “I need to be at the airport at 3.20pm”. It seems straightforward. However, is it a need or a strategy? To find out, I ask this question: do all humans need to be at the airport at 3.20pm? No – this is my strategy for meeting some of my basic needs. So what will it give me – what needs am I trying to meet? Well, it could be meeting a need for ease – to relax on the road. And it could also support me to honour agreements – I may have arranged to meet someone at the other end. And it could be giving me financial security – I’m reluctant to pay twice for a missed plane!

So this is how we get down to the needs – by asking, “What will this give me?” Needs are another way of talking about basic life energy – how life is currently moving in or through us. Because they are common to everybody, they create a connection between us. And we can’t meet these needs in isolation – nobody’s needs get met unless everybody’s needs get met.

So how do you enjoy it when you screw up? To keep track of this exercise, I suggest you get a pen and paper and make a note of your responses to these questions. Here we go:

  1. Think of a situation where you screwed up. Yes – where you were less than perfect! Write down what you said or did. (In my example I left the house at 1.30pm and missed the plane!)
  2. Write down what you thought about yourself for doing this. For example, you might have thought, “I’m pathetic,” or “How could I do that?” i.e. blaming, judging and self-hatred for what you did. (In my example, I thought: “You stupid wally!”)
  3. Write down what needs of yours were not met as a result? How do you feel realizing that? What needs of yours would you like to have met? There’s a possibility here to mourn these unmet needs in a way that strengthens our connection with them. (In my example, my needs for reliability and financial security weren’t met – the ticket was non-refundable!)
  4. What needs of yours were you trying to meet when you did what you did? Write them down. NVC encourages an awareness that we are always making the best decision in the circumstances in order to try to enrich life. How do you feel when you get in touch with this need (or these needs)? Do you have a sense of longing or mourning? (In my example, I was trying to meet needs for closeness and connection!)
  5. Finally, what would you have liked to do instead to meet the needs on both sides (the needs that weren’t met and the needs you were trying to meet)? I suggest making a list of five suggestions! (In my example, I would have liked to (i) allow half an hour at the airport before the check-in closes (ii) spend a few days longer with my partner to enjoy her company before leaving (iii) set an alarm for a specific leaving time (iv) agree to call my partner as soon as I arrive (v) look at our diaries for an hour to see how we can get our needs for closeness and connection met in the next six months!)

Next: feelings are beautiful.


© Shantigarbha. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine (issue 4, Autumn 2005). It has been lightly edited for context.

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