Needs behind behaviour

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 5) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

Needs behind behaviour

Everything we do in life is geared to meet some need. There are a limited number of needs that all people share. On the simplest level, these include things like the need for food, shelter, sleep, security, safety, love, friendship, exercise for the body and the mind. As we meet these basic needs so we can begin to work towards others that are more to do with our self-esteem, creative ability and being part of the world we live in a way that counts for something.

Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

The ways people choose to try and meet their needs may or may not interfere with other people. If they don’t interfere, they will be seen as acceptable, if they do, they will be seen as unacceptable.  There are four factors that may affect how accepting of the behaviour of others we are:


  • how we are feeling
  • who is doing the behaviour
  •  where they are doing it
  • when they are doing it.

Who owns a problem

If everyone is having a good time and is quite happy, there is no problem. If the people around us behave in ways that affect our needs, we are displeased and have a problem. If we behave in ways that affect their needs, they are displeased and have a problem. Before we start to sort out our problems and help them sort out theirs, it is useful to make sure we know who owns the problem.

We are not our behaviour

It is very common to identify ourselves by the job we do, the way we look, the background we came from, or whether we are rich or poor, so it can be very difficult for us to be ourselves as we really are. We are individuals in our own right, regardless of our roles, our status in society or our possessions. Most of us have a deep-rooted desire to be loved for ourselves, rather than for our looks or our connections or whatever.

Yet very often we get stereotyped with a particular label and then people are no longer open to seeing us any other way. We have all, at some time, probably been treated as just a woman or a typical male or too old to understand or too young to understand or always hysterical or rational or any one of the thousands of labels that can be used to stop us being seen as complex individuals. This is the process that begins very early in life when children begin to be labelled for their behaviour.

E.g.  – She is:-

quiet, good, studious, helpful, kind, bossy, rude, stubborn, stupid, clumsy, thick, etc.

 If the label is used often enough, it sticks, and she becomes a neatly labelled package from which she cannot escape; the label follows her through school, work, marriage and parenthood to her death. If we are able to distinguish between the individual and the behaviour, it becomes easier to avoid the trap of labelling.  `I didn’t like the way you did that’ might then replace `You idiot! You’ve made a right mess of that!’

Behaviour can be learned, changed and developed. Love, on the other hand, is unconditional and says: “I might not like what you do sometimes but I love, support and cherish you.”


Behaviour and needs

American psychologist Abraham Maslow describes human needs as falling into five categories, as represented in the pyramid below …

Maslow believed that, until our most basic needs are met (level 1), we are unable to aspire to those on level 2.

Until we feel a physical sense of stability and safety (level 2), we are unable to form the ties that enable us to feel emotionally secure (level 3) and so on, one by one, up to level 5.

P 47 best

For example, if a little girl felt unprotected and insecure, on level 2 of the pyramid, she would be unhappy, insecure and fearful most of the time and so be unable to make friends and take the first step in reaching out towards others, which are the belongingness needs on level three of the pyramid.

In other words, meeting our needs successfully at each level leads us up the pyramid to becoming what Maslow called a “self-actualised person”, one who is self-motivated, successful and competent, and always reaching out into the world to grow, change and experience new things.

The same needs

As human beings we all have the same needs and we behave in ways we think will help us get those needs met. This is normal and healthy. But people who are for some reason continually unable to get their needs met may resort to more and more extreme behaviour. While this behaviour may be undesirable or inappropriate, it does not mean that the underlying need is wrong.

For example:

  • With a young family to support and things being rather uncertain at work, Thomas feels under extreme pressure.  He finds himself contemplating ways to `end it all’.
  •  Twenty-year-old Lorraine needs love, warmth and comfort, so she gets a sore throat and has to go to bed for two days.
  •  ŸTeenage Sally establishes her independence by staying out all night without telling her parents where she is.
  •  Six-year-old Adam needs to develop and test out his sense of balance and co-ordination, so he climbs trees and climbing frames to heights that scare his mother.

In these examples the actual needs are valid human needs but the behaviours used to fulfil them may cause problems for the individual and for others round them.

Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour

Behaviour that interferes with us and our needs we think of negatively; behaviour that doesn’t interfere with us is thought of positively. In this way, we tend to view behaviour as either good or bad, nice or naughty, quiet or annoying etc.

It is much more useful to look at behaviour in terms of whether we find it acceptable or unacceptable, for by doing this we are not labelling the individual or the behaviour (as good or bad or whatever) but looking at our own needs and feelings at the time. Being clearer in your own mind about what you find acceptable at any given time can lead to a far better understanding between yourself and others.


Just what behaviour we find unacceptable at any given time depends on several factors:

  • how  we feel at the time – when we are feeling well and happy it is likely that we will find far more behaviour acceptable than when we are tired, cross and upset.
  • who is doing the behaviour – you probably like some people more than others and allow them more freedom with your time, space and attention.  And you also have different expectations of different people.  You will probably be quite happy for your partner to snuggle up next to you as you sit on the bus, but will have a different reaction if a total stranger did the same.
  • where the behaviour is taking place has an effect on whether you find it acceptable or not; you may really like your child’s gymnastic ability but not at Granny’s funeral.
  • when the behaviour takes place – jibes and teasing from your mates over drinks in the evening are likely to be taken in fun, but the same comments to next morning at work may well be offensive!

Because of these factors there is not a hard and fast rule that you can follow regarding your response to behaviour.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

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