Self-nourishment is a term (from therapist David Richo) that describes a balanced, self-regulating approach to wants and needs. When the natural expression and innocent pursuit of wants and needs cause a problem with early caregivers, a person learns and develops unnatural and generally unsatisfying ways to pursue needs and wants.
It will probably be beneficial in this topic to discuss the semantic issue between 'needs' and 'wants.' If there existed in English a word that simply meant both, I would use that word. The distinction is not important for the idea presented here. Unfortunately, often there is a moral undertone to the distinction. To many 'wants', are things to be curtailed and only needs are legitimately pursued. This is a false distinction perpetuated by the predicament of many children facing caregivers who feel they don't have enough for the child, but who at the same time are uncomfortable saying no. That is, our desire presents problems when caregivers or loved ones do not feel adequate. Desire becomes associated with shame and rejection.
Clearly some things are essential to survival and could be described as needs, and some things are inessential to survival, and could be described as wants. To organize an entire way of life around that distinction, though, shows a troubled relationship to desire. All people have a right to receive sometimes and get sometimes. Receiving is taking what some one wants us specifically to have, if we want it. Getting is asking someone for something they have and we want. Some examples of needs:
- Security: the freedom to be both vulnerable and safe
- Acceptance: having stable, dependable people who receive us as we are
- Validation: to be taken seriously
- Impact: to have an effect on others
- Self-definition: the freedom to express ourselves without judgment or rejection
- Touch: the freedom to express from a heart level by touch, and to be touched the same way
- Expression: the freedom to both speak and act on truth as you feel it.
- Self-determination: to determine what one will do, or to move toward self-determination
When early experience teaches that wants and needs are problems, adaptation forms into two paths, 1) self-sufficiency (which is an illusion) and 2) emotional dependency (which for adults cannot work). The two paths can be present in one person together.
Strife happens when 'expectations' are mistaken for needs or wants. Emotional dependency in older children or adults leads an indirectness. The hope of the needs and wants getting fulfilled gets channeled into expectations about what others will and should do. Much wrangling results when others inevitably do not comply. Trying to control exactly how wants and needs will be fulfilled leads to frustration and unnecessary conflict. The underlying needs and wants are legitimate but the process of judging others and judging other's responses is not.
Self-sufficiency is the attempt to dissociate our wants and needs from the co-operation of other people. Primarily, we try to supply our wants and needs ourselves. This of course never fully works, and when other people must be involved, we insist that other people's role in our needs is mandated by rules, 'what is right', or by the obligation of what we have done for them. That is why hearing no is so upsetting to some people. More than the denial of what is asked for, the disruption of the illusion of self-sufficiency causes deep anxiety. Attempting self-sufficiency puts one at war with both human generosity, and human fallibility.
Mostly people are generous, and are glad to help. Receiving help however, triggers pain and resentment because it exposes that the lack of support early in life was not inevitable but rather an empathetic lapse by caregivers, which was at that time, and remains in the present, a horrible truth.
Humans are also fallible of course. Because self-sufficiency relies on the illusion that if everyone 'did what they should' help would not be needed, any mistake by others is experienced as an affront, again because it evokes shame of the original lapse. It may become impossible to distinguish in others willful malice (rare) from routine innocent errors (commonplace). Alternately, reasonable self-interested acts of others like taking breaks, closing on time, pacing themselves, or saying "no" may be experienced as malevolent. Needless to say, the person trying to maintain self-sufficiency is brutally punitive with him- or herself over any perceived mistake.
Self-deprivation is the attempt to make self-sufficiency work by reducing both material comforts and non-productive experiences to a bare minimum. It includes all the usual dynamics of self-sufficiency listed above, with the addition of a sense of specialness or purity. In the spiritual practice of poverty, care is taken not to become too attached to comforts and so distort one's life to keep comforts flowing. In poverty, one enjoys pleasure as it happens but does not become obsessed by it. With self-deprivation, one flees from pleasure in order to be consistent. The result is a coldness and deadness that is disturbing to others.
Emotional dependency is the attempt to dissociate our wants and needs from ourselves. Other people are seen as the origin of our wants and needs, and of course it becomes the duty of others to fulfill them. This is of course a stance appropriate to the very young. When taken by an adult, who also of course wants full autonomy, it tends to produce chaos in relationships.
Self-nourishment is taking ownership of our wants and needs, while at the same time accepting that other people, in part, have a role in their satisfaction outside our control. It constitutes a certain faith that the world, in general, is a fulfilling place, and also a faith, that some relationships are possible that are very fulfilling if not perfectly fulfilling. In practical terms, the idea has two parts: 1) taking care of oneself, not to prove that one can, but to increase comfort, and 2) actively seeking good things from others, recognizing that "no" is possible but not inevitable.
To some extent, everyone hopes their wants and needs can be fulfilled without asking. For someone to already know our needs, perhaps even before we do, has a certain feeling of 'rightness' about it. This is in fact what a responsive mother does for an infant or a very small child. It helps the infant come to know better his or her wants and needs, and if as adults we also are not sure of our wants and needs, it can seem that we deserve the same. However, it is just not possible for anyone to do it reliably for another adult. Occasionally, the needs or wants of others can be anticipated and fulfilled before and without their asking, but to organize a relationship around this rarity is very unstable and produces resentment. Adults must build relationships on self-nourishment, and then perhaps enjoy the 'mothering' of others once in a while, as it happens, by chance.
Similarly, to some extent, everyone hopes their their wants and needs can be fulfilled without struggle. But when there is difficulty with self-nourishment, even minor conflicts with others are seen as a sign of something gone wrong and not as part of human existence. When asserting oneself is difficult, there can be a quick emotional recourse to an abstract idea of justice and a call for rules. There is perhaps an expectation that a parent-like arbiter should step in and settle it. People who are otherwise good candidates for meeting needs and wants are made somehow into enemies. But needs and wants are defined and refined in occasional struggles with others. This is how the 'self' is strengthened in self-nourishment.
Self-nourishment is a stance that can apply to all activities in life. The following are some concrete examples, however, that may be worth suggesting:
- Cleaning the area in which one lives: Many people have described to me an irony: they clean or maintain an area for a living, but they cannot clean for themselves. Starting to clean for ourselves perhaps often stalls because it evokes strong but unclear feelings of deprivation or anger from the lack of nurture from others. The benefit is not just the result of a clean area but also the self-building that comes from working through these feelings.
- Taking very good care of possessions. The reasons and results perhaps are similar as general cleaning above. This also very simply regulates the problem of having too many ( or too few) possessions. Taking care of things has a role in increasing mindfulness.
- Home cooking. Reheating processed food, or any racing to get food onto a plate is not cooking in this sense of course. Food is love, and cooking with one's own hands is a way to bring love to oneself and others. It is the quintessential self-nourishment. Cooking also is guided by the senses rather than ideas, and is a good way to get oneself out of one's head and into (or back to) one's senses. Very simple cooking is perhaps still avoiding the issue, and on the other end of the spectrum, very elaborate cooking may still be an ego-trip.
- Finishing tasks and projects: Many projects are begun with elation. Once the elation subsides, the demands of the task evoke feelings of struggle or worries of incompetence. A pattern of starting many things and not finishing may be a bad habit of abusing the heady feeling at the start of a project. Having many unfinished things however, creates a drag on the sense of freedom and ease. Finishing a project may force us to work through the anxiety of being imperfect, and provides a feeling (probably the actuality) of being able to breathe more. Stopping a project cleanly and completely when interest is lost is usually better than permanent postponement.
Accept and Use 'Learning Periods': Difficulties in self-nourishment often arise, when in early experience there was a message given to children that they should be precocious or a high-achieving. This is essentially a message to children to hurry up and grow up, and become self-sufficient. This message is rarely deliberate, but arises often from the parents' own difficulties with self-nourishment, which can lead to a strong conscious determination to nurture the child well but also unconscious resentment and unconscious fear of being able to really do that. Parents who feel secure do not hurry children.
A different unspoken message is that children should bother parents as little as possible. This has a stiflingly effect on exploration. In both cases, children respond by favoring things that they can learn quickly and avoiding things that they cannot learn quickly. Commonly under this type of stress, the types of things that can be learned quickly are informational like academic subjects, which are emphasized. The things that take longer to learn are physical or expressive, like dance sports, and movement, and these are avoided. This can lead to an estrangement from the body and from 'unconscious faculties' that are a big part of growth, and this estrangement compounds the problem.
Also some families drop the task of teaching the young. The adults know some things, and teaching anything constructive to the children would help form a template and a precedent, but it may never happen. The children know that some people know important things and some do not, but it remains a mystery how it one goes from one state to the other. Often the magical belief arises that people just suddenly know things. Children raised in this environment may have a very difficult time in school because on a gut level, they do not understand what the teacher is trying to do. It may seem the teacher is only trying to expose that they do not know something. Or the habit of pretending to know things develops. Learning may happen by imitating or 'picking things up' but this keeps things superficial.
Later, as a result, many adults give up very quickly when they cannot master something. They very quickly judge themselves as 'incompetent' in a particular area. Innate abilities vary of course, but when it comes to the capacity for creative expression or the capacity for love, or joy in movement, stratifying ability in this way is clearly senseless. A learning period consists of more than artificially suspending judgment. It consists of having faith in growth itself. This faith is manifested by dropping the demand for quick results. The experience of learning must be an end in itself--self-discovery.
Learning something different usually requires changes in the body and brain that cannot be willfully forced or replaced by information. It takes time. Pleasure may be less evident in the beginning because mastery is often part of pleasure. Now in general, the Reich and Lowen tradition encourages proceeding on the basis of the agreeableness of an activity more than out of 'should's'. Learning periods may seem to be an exception to that principle. Still, if an activity is pursued out of some intrinsic interest, a learning period should still have some satisfaction. If a plateau is reached, it could be that anxiety about succeeding is causing the same 'mistakes' to be made over and over again. But also, an apparent plateau could represent a period when internal changes are slowly happening.
- Go for more than crumbs. In this context 'crumbs' are a symbol for things that are left out, or offered to any taker. Crumbs can be quite good, but crumbs do not require receiving, or getting as described above. In an affluent culture it is possible to obtain a fair amount without asking, except human connection cannot be obtained that way. Sometimes also offers are turned down even when wanted because to receive exposes the limits of self-sufficiency and brings on anxiety. Self-nourishment comes from working through this anxiety and having a different type of experience.
- Taking the time to find the comfortable way of doing things. When survival and not satisfaction is an orientation in life, it becomes a habit to do things as quickly as possible. Small steps like putting on more suitable clothing or getting the best tools etc... are skipped. The comfortable way may take the same or even less time, but many people never slow down in the beginning. But in most activities, a feeling of ease and effectiveness while doing something is more nourishing than the end result.
- Expect to be treated well. Be very curious and surprised when one is not. Try not to be belligerent or unpleasant (which will just confirm the appropriateness of the treatment for oneself and others.) Simply ask the reasons, perhaps asking also if the other person finds it equitable. Often one is treated badly because one somehow requests bad treatment. If the mistreatment is 'all in the imagination' discussing the situation with curiosity will clear the matter up. Once a person becomes aware of subtle disrespect from others, they will also become aware of it from his- or herself to others. Though we may resolve to give others what we did not get, we inevitably give what we got and are still getting. Only by insisting on being treated respectfully can we treat others well.