Last week I talked in a blog about pleasure and I wanted to unpack this some more. Often when we think about pleasure we think of those people or things we love but understanding the layer below this at the brainstem helps us know why what is designed to be pleasurable can turn to painful when needs are not met.
The brainstem is concerned with two things: threat (be that physical or emotional) and with motivation and reward. So when someone is screaming at us, it is likely the brainstem will be active letting us know when are under attack. Likewise when a person is really important to us the reward system in the brainstem begins to fire. That’s why it feels more painful when someone close to us hurts us. In this blog I want to unpack 3 emotional needs that all link to activation’s in the brainstem because as we understand these we can understand our responses so much better. And in acknowledging them we can change our responses.
My goal is to show you how the brainstem becomes active from a positive perspective not to get caught up in opinions of what are core needs, that is why I am sticking with only 3: competence, relatedness and autonomy. The brainstem is as active in positive highly rewarding moments as it is in threat moments. When a person or activity is linked to one of these needs, our brainstem lights up and we are highly motivated for love, acceptance and success (the heart of reward). I love watching preschoolers as they master something. With such joy and excitement, they exclaim, “I did it”. All the sweat, practice, anxiety has led to mastery and the joy is so evident. At the same time, the frustration along the way when they didn’t do it is as evident. Many tears, screaming, even throwing themselves because they failed. Isn’t it interesting that a different task creates no response and they aren’t even bothered by not achieving it? That is the heart of competence, some tasks are more connected than others and these are different for each of us. Learning what tasks light us up helps with our life’s priorities and how we spend our time and energy.
Relatedness, who we are connected to, where our identity comes from, our inheritance, the others who influence who we are is another core need. It’s the space of belonging that comes from being seen, known and understood. The place of safety in relationship where we are loved for who we are. When this need is met, we experience joy, peace and harmony. Relatedness is about others and often this need is not even known about and so relationships are destroyed because people don’t have the tools to be with one another. When needs are unmet, we break connection because it feels like it “fixes” how we feel but the truth is, all it does is isolate us.
Autonomy, the freedom to choose, to make a decision is the third need that stems from our brainstem. Even when someone demands something of us, knowing we have a choice, we can decide either way gives us the power to experience pleasure. I know this when my children ask me to do something, I am free to say no but mostly I say yes because they are so important to me even if the task isn’t. When autonomy is challenged so threat of punishment, control and manipulation are present, what could be pleasure for us can turn to pain and this is most evident in parent/child relationships. Giving children autonomy while keeping connection is growing within them the power to choose another.
We will all rate these needs differently (that’s what makes us humans) but knowing they exist and are designed at the core of our brain to bring us pleasure helps us with our priorities and knowing how to process pain when these needs are not met.
Spend sometime this week reflecting on what is important to you and how you can share these with others and remember these needs are at the core of your brain (mostly they are sub-conscious) so it takes time and intentionality to unpack them in our lives.