What If You Have Conflicting Needs?


I have a confession. For a moment right before I connect with someone—whether in person or on the phone—I secretly hope they will cancel.

It’s not that I don’t care about them or don’t value the time with them. It’s not even that I actually want them to cancel. Not at all. Rather it just feels so much easier to be alone.

As an introvert, time by myself is how I recharge my energy. I tend to be an internal processor and often need solitary time to figure out what I really think. Spending time alone is a very real need for me.

But it’s not my only need. I also have a need for human connection. A meaningful conversation totally makes my day. I feel unsatisfied if I go very long without helping another person in some way. I need to see other people and let them see me. I need to be stretched outside my comfort zone.

We all have needs. It’s part of being human. We’ve talked before about identifying our needs and taking responsibility for meeting them. For some of us, it feels selfish to even admit we have needs. It can be particularly challenging to honor our own needs when they seem to conflict with the needs of those around us.

Our needs don’t just conflict with other people’s needs. Sometimes they contradict each other. There are times when we may need to temporarily set aside one of our own needs in order to meet another.

In the above example, it would be quite a trick to meet my need for time alone and my need for connecting with other people at the same time. Even though it’s not totally straightforward, meeting both needs is important.

Maybe for you the conflict isn’t between time to yourself and connection with others. Maybe your need for safety conflicts with your need for adventure. Maybe your need for beauty conflicts with your need for functionality. Maybe your need for structure conflicts with your need for freedom. I think we all have more conflicting needs than we tend to realize. We are complex beings after all.

So how do we identify and meet those conflicting needs within ourselves? The first step is awareness. Just as it’s important to become aware of our needs, it’s helpful to be aware of our contradictions.

Start with paying attention to what you’re feeling. Once you’ve identified a need, think about how it would feel to meet that need. Then go a little extreme and imagine focusing on meeting the need you’ve identified to the exclusion of others.

For example, if I think about meeting my need for time alone with spending one weekend completely by myself, I do a little internal happy dance. It’s exciting to think about how I want to fill those hours—so many possibilities. If, however, I think about meeting my need for time alone by going an entire year without interacting with another person, it feels very different. I feel panic and dread as the lonely year stretches out before me.

This shift in emotional response is a huge clue that I may have another need that gets overlooked if I only focus on meeting my need for time alone.

What conflicting needs do you identify for yourself?

We can’t always meet all our needs at the same time or in the same ways. So how do we find the balance?

It can be helpful to ask whether one of our needs is easier to meet than the other. For me, it is way easier to meet my need to be alone than my need to connect with people. I enjoy being alone and have no shortage of ways to spend my alone time. I feel more comfortable when I’m alone and don’t have to take other people’s wants, opinions, or needs into consideration. Being alone replenishes my energy instead of draining it. Also, from a practical standpoint, being alone is what usually happens by default if I don’t put in the effort to invite people to get together.

Is one of your needs easier to meet than the other?

When I know that meeting my need for connection is going to be more challenging for me, I can make a point of finding ways to meet that need. It can help to remember how I’m going to feel after connecting with another person when it feels easier to be alone instead.

If it feels uncomfortable to do what is necessary to meet one of your needs, how does it change to visualize how you will feel after that need is met?

Some things work better than others for meeting our needs. For me personally, having lunch with one friend is going to do more to meet my need for connection while draining less of my energy than attending a large party.

How we meet one need affects what will be necessary to meet a contradictory one. After lunch with one friend, a ten minute walk by myself might be enough. On the other hand, I might avoid scheduling any other social activities for a couple days before and after a big party.

What helps you maintain a balance where all your needs are being recognized and addressed? What are your biggest struggles?

There is no one right answer to balancing your various needs. The only way to learn what works for you is to experiment and pay attention. The point is not to figure out what you should feel or what you should need. Rather, it’s to deepen your understanding of yourself so you can build ways to meet your needs, even the contradictory ones.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with conflicting needs. What helps you find balance? What gets in the way?