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The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Meaning

Part nine: How the diverted drive for meaning can wreak havoc in our lives

Finding meaning in the wrong places can be a never-ending battle to feel fulfilled

“The word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

– Carl Jung

Without meaning we depress. With no purpose we wither. We fade far from who we might be. But think of the reverse.

When our lives feel meaningful we are energized and focused. Even suffering is made more bearable.

We live in times in which many people feel meaningless. Many of the old coherent belief structures, such as organized religion, have fragmented and diminished. We have, it seems, fewer providers of ready-made meaning.

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As well, many of the ‘secular religions’ such as communism have lost their appeal, certainly in the countries that had to live and die under them.

Cynicism seems epidemic. Suicide rates 1, especially among young men, continue to climb.2 We have entertainment aplenty. Distraction in spades. Material promise in abundance. But meaning?

The holy search for happiness

Religions, including secular ones, were and are about being pious rather than becoming or being personally happy.

Follow the dictates of this or that religion and you will become good and acceptable. Serve the holy tenets of this or that belief system to derive your meaning.

I’m not saying whether religion or any of the major political belief systems are true, but they certainly do and did provide people with a sense of purpose and meaning.

As religion has declined, in recent times the idea of ‘being happy’ as a goal in itself has become ingrained in our culture. Live for yourself!3

But happiness is often seen not as a byproduct of meeting needs, or as an oscillating state of mind, but as some constant future state which will, once arrived at, persist forever. Oh really?

To give is to get

Perhaps the drive to ‘be happy’ or ‘be successful’ has replaced a sense of service to a greater cause. Or, I should say, the part that serving a greater cause played in making people happier has been replaced by the idea that we can make ourselves directly happier without meeting our needs in balance.

This is in part, maybe in large part, due to mass and massive consumerism. But seeking to meet one’s own greeds above needs doesn’t seem to make people particularly happy. Actually, quite the reverse.4

The problem is that it’s hard to maintain a sense of strong meaning just by fulfilling personal financial or material goals. Or, in fact, by just focusing on the self. Sure, you might look great or have money to burn and a house to envy. But then what? What next?

Making idols of demons

It’s been said that if we make an idol of something that doesn’t have the qualities of a god we and others will inevitably suffer.

Trying to find meaning from inadequate sources will not work long term. In fact, the search to feel meaningful might have us flitting around like a crazed honeybee in an artificial flower factory.

One client, Derek, told me how he had constantly moved house because he felt the “grass was always greener on the other side”. He had been a communist (which I thought might have conflicted with his serial private property ownership!), a libertarian, a Catholic, and lately a fitness fanatic.

Each new enthusiasm was meant to make his life meaningful. But it never quite did. He had made money and didn’t need to work but felt, he told me, “empty”.

Derek epitomized the paradox of a search for meaning.

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Whom are we doing this for?

Paradoxically, unless we serve something for its sake and not for ours, then meaning will shrink even as we try to approach it.

People often suddenly find their lives are filled with meaning when they acquire responsibility. Perhaps they have children or adopt a worthy cause. Or they suddenly feel needed in some other way.

I recall hearing about a project in a school in which antisocial older boys were asked to be responsible and mentor disaffected younger ones. The result? Apparently the younger boys benefited from the mentoring, but not as much as the older boys, who often relished their newfound responsibility and suddenly discovered a sense of meaning.

Perhaps responsibility should be a human right!

Mind you, it does seem kind of old fashioned to talk of the value of service. But that’s really what responsibility and meaning… err… mean.

Serving but not subservient

When we are responsible for something, we serve it, and it becomes more of a focus than we ourselves are. Manageable responsibility is wonderful for mental health. To feel needed helps us live longer and feel happier because of the meaning the responsibility gives us.5

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But unless what we worship has the qualities of a god, then religious-like, fervent belief in it may just be a cul de sac. The Nazis worshipped at the altar of their ‘religion’ and derived a huge sense of meaning from their divisive identity politics. But the idol they worshipped most certainly did not have the qualities of a god.

Fitness is great, but its worship can’t meet as many needs as a more all-encompassing faith or focus. It’s never going to provide all meaning. Derek had been trying to find a basket for all his eggs, and fitness wasn’t about to provide it.

Meaning, or excitement?

For Derek, meaning was synonymous with excitement, and excitement is really just another word for entertainment. Once the excitement of the current meaning-making device wore off, so did his commitment to it. Excitement without responsibility can’t provide a sense of meaning long term.

Indeed, as time passed, the latest focus never quite felt as meaningful as he had assumed or hoped. He would find rationales to explain why it wasn’t the right path for him after all. But he couldn’t quite see the wider problem.

He was flitting from one thing to the next in an ineffective search for meaning.

It wasn’t necessarily Derek’s approach that was misaligned, but the different dietary, fitness or political creeds he kept attaching to.

“If I can just live here or do that, then this hole in my heart where a sense of meaning should be will be gloriously and eternally filled!”

He was trying to worship idols that didn’t have the qualities of gods.

So you become the fittest man or woman alive. Then what?

We can find meaning, or we can make it. We can glean it from different sources, or we can find it mainly in one place. And it’s a byproduct of meeting our needs. But we can also fabricate it from something that doesn’t really supply it well, or for long, or widely enough.

So what is this ‘meaningful’ experience that so many people seem to be searching for? What does it feel like to have a sense of meaning?

Meaning making

When you have a sense of meaning you feel galvanized. Energized.

It’s cold? You’re tired? You’ve been invited to a party that you’d like to attend? It’s raining? It’s too early in the morning to get yourself out of bed?

No matter to any of that!

You have something to do! And circumstances and perhaps other people depend on you. The something to do is more important than any of these lower considerations. A wider sense of meaning stops us being simply a bloated bag of appetites blown around by our immediate and fluctuating whims.

People who procrastinate may tell you that the thing they are not doing is “really meaningful” to them. But words are not actions. And we should watch what people do as well as say. We learn what others and ourselves are like by seeing what they and we actually do.

Serving a higher need

Meaning makes you feel not that you don’t matter at all, but rather that the meaning you serve is of greater importance – at least in the moment. Meaning also helps you feel integral to the responsibility of serving that meaning.

We need meaning, and when we don’t find it we make it if we can. We can find meaning in family, friends, work, creative challenge, and serving a wider purpose.

We may be encouraged subconsciously to find meaning from material products. But that’s akin to trying to fill up a bucket with a bucket-sized hole in it.

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A sense of meaning doesn’t eliminate suffering. But it can contextualize it. Learning generates meaning and so does truth seeking. And meaning and personal comfort don’t necessarily track alongside one another.

But there’s another problem, perhaps larger than incessant materialism.

Nothing really matters

The rise of postmodern relativism,6 in which it is believed there are no truths but only perspectives, may have led to less fulfilment of the need for meaning. This is such an embedded idea that it may even seem absurd to point out that it is just an idea.

If there are no ultimate meanings then why bother? If everything is just a social construct, and the meaning of bad actions is no different than the meaning of good actions, then it matters not what you do or what you (don’t) take responsibility for.

But without a strong sense of meaning, which comes from making value judgements, having challenges and rising to them, meeting your needs in balance, and having a sense that you are serving some greater truth, or at least trying to, life feels pointless. A circular trudge rather than an exciting and fulfilling journey.

What I’ve tried to do

In this series on The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs, I’ve tried to illustrate how thwarted and disastrously diverted primal emotional needs can be. How trying to meet needs blindly or from negative sources can have terrible consequences. Being so ‘thirsty’ that you’ll even drink engine oil happens all the time on the emotional level.

We’ve looked at how the need for attention can become so great that clients will even try to meet it in ways that emotionally poison them. We’ve seen how the needs for a sense of control, status, intimacy, challenge, connection and safety can, when the need is met desperately and blindly, lead to some terrible places. We’ve also seen how the thwarted and misplaced drive to meet the needs of the mind/body system can make us mad and sad.

Inevitably, because meeting needs produces that all-important sense of meaning, I have talked about meaning before. The meaning for me in writing this series is that so many people still seem unaware of how forcefully these unconscious drives to meet these needs affect them.

And also how without this self-knowledge we can assume we are doing one thing while really simply trying to meet a basic emotional need that might be better met elsewhere.

Here are a few ways in which the need for meaning can be subverted badly and damage your clients and loved ones.

But it means so much to me!

Relationships matter, and provide more meaning than wealth alone.7 People seem keener to escape smoking because they appreciate how it might drag them through the gates of death away from time on Earth spent with loved ones rather than because they want to save money.

But if someone gets all their meaning from romantic relationships then, because of the vicissitudinal nature of relationships, they may be cruising for an emotional bruising.

If having a relationship is, to them, the ultimate meaning, then different things can go wrong. Maybe they become so focused on the relationship that they start to over-monitor it. If all their meaning is derived from this one area, they may become insecure and needy to the point of destroying the only source of their meaning.

Deriving all meaning from just one other person can be as bad as trying to derive it through pure focus on the self.

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Looking for meaning in the wrong places

If responsibility is lacking and we place all meaning and importance on the self, and the fulfilment of its wants, this may never feel meaningful enough – because that’s not how meaning works.

Remember Derek, flitting from one new enthusiasm to another, but never to one that helped the wider community.

And of course, sometimes what should (because it concerns the welfare of others) be meaningful to us is squeezed out by what we might call trivial areas of life (yes, I know that was a value judgement – see my comments about postmodern relativism above!).

Neglecting more meaningful parts of life

Some people may derive their primary sense of meaning from a source that doesn’t really nourish them or others. One client’s greatest meaning was met through the fortunes of his chosen sports team. The problem was that he was neglecting other, more truly meaningful parts of his life: his wife and children and work.

Lastly, because meaning is such an overarching need, some of us may glean it from a malevolent, parasitic, or even deadly source. Especially when we are desperate for the life-transforming effect of meaning.

When the price is too high

We may be abused by the person we are in that meaningful relationship with, if we invest so much meaning in it that the abuse becomes the price we feel we have to pay.

The Jim Jones cult8 provided those starved for meaning with plenty of meaning. They were going to help save the world! What greater meaning could there be?

But the price was plenty of abuse and death. Isis and Nazism and communism and David Koresh’s cult at Waco and drugs and alcohol and extreme sports and the game of Russian roulette have all provided meaning – and destruction.

When we are starving, unless we understand the nature of ‘real food’, we may eat anything, even poison. I think humanity perhaps more than ever needs to truly and clearly understand its own needs. Not just to avoid catastrophe but to fulfil our vast potential. We need to understand ourselves and others so that we can work together for the real betterment of us all.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this series on The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

And you can catch up on all the articles in this series so far by clicking below:

Client’s successful weight loss in UPTV

This client in Uncommon Practitioners TV has lost 28lbs (over 12kg) in weight since the last session. And although he has felt generally better he has still been overworking. He has been feeling exhausted and worked every day for the last 19 days before this session.

Mark discovers that this client would love to get back to playing tennis and playing music again but work has overtaken everything. Mark uses the experience of “locking work away in a safe” during hypnosis to give this client a method to quickly bring a sense of peace whenever he needs it. Sign up to be notified when UPTV is next open to new members.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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