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Scott Byars | March 28, 2016


In the articles You’re So Damn Needy and Needs Are a Harsh Mistress we learned that everyone has the same needs and that all of our actions are simply strategies to meet those needs. We also learned that by using effective strategies to meet our needs we can achieve emotional happiness and well-being.

“Sounds easy enough.”… you might say, “thanks for the information Scott! I’ll take it from here. I’ll just throw in a few effective strategies in the social/relationship category, and voilà!

Whoa, there…slow down! Replacing old strategies isn’t as easy as it sounds. I have been waiting for the right moment to paraphrase the old joke about the two bulls standing on top of the hill and now seems like as good a time as any…let’s not run down the hill and meet one need, let’s walk down the hill and meet them all.

rocket science 101 banner

The reason it’s difficult to start implementing new strategies is because some of our old strategies won’t go quietly. They are infused with emotion and we are attached to the strategy not the outcome. But on the bright side, not all of our strategies are difficult to change and to see the difference let’s look at an easy one first.        

Strategy Example One: Broccoli  

I like broccoli. If someone told me that broccoli causes delusions of grandeur, a bewildering sense of optimism for the human condition, and early-onset alzheimer’s, I’d be curious because that would explain a lot about me. Of course, I’d want to see the evidence and if it all checked out then I’d stop eating broccoli. You’ll note, however, that my first response is curiosity. Upon learning that broccoli might be something other than a calcium-rich, nutritional food, I did not yell “Fuck you! Don’t you ever talk to me about broccoli again!” Hold that thought for just a minute…

Strategy Example Two: Empty Relationship

Now let’s imagine we are talking to a friend about his current relationship. If we ever so gently suggest that his girlfriend’s penchant for designer drugs, Jimmy Choo stilettos, and Keeping up with the Kardashians might just mean that she is not the best candidate to settle down with, we will probably get to “Fuck you!” real quick. That is if our friend is more emotionally attached to being in a relationship rather than the outcome of a relationship.   

So what gives? Why shrug your shoulders over broccoli and lose your shit over the fetch girlfriend? Why is there curiosity in one situation and vitriol in another? Because it’s the strategies to which we are emotionally attached – regardless of their outcomes – that we are the most resistant to change. 

over the top model

We become emotionally attached to our strategies when we have adopted those strategies as a  way to protect ourselves. We adopted these strategies for a reason, we didn’t pull them from thin air, and understanding the reason is the key to change.

For example, if I was criticized by my parents for every imperfection I might adopt the strategy of perfectionism as a way to protect my esteem. I won’t necessarily know that’s what I’m doing. I’m just a kid trying to avoid pain. I subconsciously realize, however, that I my parents only value me when I am perfect, so I might internalize this and come to believe that I’m only valuable if I’m perfect.

As I enter adulthood and gain enough maturity to reflect on my childhood – or enough money to start purchasing every book in the self-help department on Amazon – I can see that my desire to be perfect might be hindering me more than helping me. I logically understand that perfection isn’t realistic, yet I can’t seem to change. Why? Because there are emotions attached to my perfection strategy and I have to come to terms with those emotions before I can implement lasting change.   

Furthermore, the difficulty is compounded because I believe that my strategy works…well at least sometimes. It serves a purpose. It keeps me from getting hurt and I feel happy when I do something perfectly even though that happiness never seems to last.

So now we can begin to see why changing strategies makes getting rid of the gopher in Caddyshack look easy by comparison. So how do we lay these ineffective strategies to rest and select new strategies that will lead to long-lasting well-being?

The first step is to address the need that we are trying to meet with the strategy. If we are unsure of the need we are trying to meet – and this is likely the case –  then we need to ask ourselves a few questions: If we are successful at this strategy what will it mean? And why? If we are unsuccessful at this strategy what will it mean? And why?

If we are honest with ourselves then we will eventually recognize the need.  

For example, if I do everything perfectly then I’ll be perfect…and that means…I’ll be worthy, valuable, loveable. This is a strategy to meet esteem. If I’m perfect, I’m valuable and if I’m not then I’m a failure and I’m worth nothing.          

Once we know the need we are trying to meet it’s helpful to explicitly state why this strategy is ineffective at meeting the need and what other strategy would be more effective. We have a much better chance of switching to a new strategy if there is a more effective alternative already queued up.

In our example I believe that the only way to prove that I am valuable – meet my need for esteem –  is to never make a mistake. So I have to be perfect to have esteem. That’s a pretty tall order for a bipedal hominid just a few back hairs shy of a chimp. Therefore, I’m likely looking at a life with little esteem if I keep that as my standard. If you’re keeping score – the strategy in this metaphor is the hard spot and the rock is my need for esteem. My need for esteem isn’t going anywhere because it’s part of my nature and it helps me survive. So it looks like I need a new strategy.

A more effective strategy would be: I’m valuable because of my human potential to increase my well-being, which in turn increases the well-being of those around me, which in turn makes the world better for having me in it. But it’s not only my human potential. It’s also my unique character strengths that allow me to do it in a way that nobody else can. We are all in this together, we all need each other and we all bring something unique to the table.

puzzle pieces

Once I know that appreciating my potential and my unique attributes is a more effective strategy to meet my need for esteem than perfectionism…it’s time to figure out why I still want to hold on to the old strategy.

Rationally it makes perfect sense to change. Emotionally, however it’s difficult…and before we begin to work through our emotions it’s helpful to first understand why we have them.  

But alas, I’ve already hit my quota for 1980 movie references in this article so I’ll save the emotion stuff for the next one. In it, I’ll discuss emotions in general and specifically how to deal with our emotions around strategies.