I, You, and Need

I often make the mistake in therapy of reinforcing I-statements (“nice I’s!”) so much that it starts to imply it would be negative to use the word “you.”

But the word “you” is absolutely as crucial and as positive as the word “I”; maybe even more crucial.

When teaching people how to do empty chair work or direct contact, the instructions are: use the words “you” and “I” as much as possible. Both words are essential.  Together they paint the complete picture of the ‘contact in the field.’

When we add the word ‘need’ into the contact, then there’s a good/bad right/wrong way to do it.  It depends whether the word ‘need’ goes to the “I side” (I need) or the “you side” (you need).

The words: “you need” are almost always an error when we put them together.  It’s a lot like a ‘should’ – it can only be correct and healthy if there’s an ‘if’ somewhere around it.  “If I want to feel better, I should exercise.”  “If you want to have a good financial future, you need to plan and budget.”  If we don’t put an ‘if’ there, then it’s almost always false.

“You need to start treating me better.”  False.

“You need to let me know when you’re going somewhere.”  False.

The reason ‘you need’ is false is because of the centrality of self-preservation and self-regulation.  At any given moment, the organism is acting in accordance with its needs.  So if we’re sitting on the outside of an organism, viewing the organism, and then we impose an idea from the outside that it needs to be doing something different than what it’s already doing, that’s inherently false.  It’s already doing what it needs.

So if you notice the words ‘you need’ / ‘he needs’ / ‘she needs’ coming into your thoughts/voice, try and wiggle them around because they might be an error (based in some other need that you have).  Try changing the location of the word ‘need’ to the ‘I side’ (“I need you to start treating me better.”) or try adding an ‘if’ somewhere (“if you want to keep your X-Box this week, then you need to let me know where you’re going.”)

Keeping the self-preservation / self-regulation in mind, how interesting does this phrase look: “She only calls me when she needs something.”

Everything everyone is doing at every moment is because of their exact configuration of needs.  So if we tell someone what they need, it implies it’s different than what they’re currently doing – which makes it false – and thereby it’s much more of a reflection of our own needs.

About Kip Watkins, MSEd, NCC, LPC

Kip is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from Saint Vincent College and his Master's Degree from Duquesne University. Passionate about existential and systemic modes of therapy, he completed the post-graduate program at the Gestalt Institute of Pittsburgh. He deeply enjoys his work with his clients and he also loves helping other clinicians have more meaning and joy in their work.

2 thoughts on “I, You, and Need

  1. Marty says:

    The left hemisphere is extremely literal, and words turn into emotional judgments quickly at times.

    Being sort of a mindfulness mentor our created Ego (I, me, mine) is only for identity

    Needs yes

    Being a therapist what would you say is the percentage of clients that take action daily to heal.

    Being able to inspire clients to take daily action is a challenge

    I believe success rates grow exponentially when clients become active participants, taking responsibility than those who do not



    • Thanks for the message, Marty. And thanks for serving the people whom you’re mentoring.

      One of the cool parts about functional psych is it looks at every behavior of the person as productive. But I get what you mean when you contrast whether a person is taking action to heal or not. The contrasting line in functional psych is whether they’re being productive towards homeostasis (which includes safety, keeping things the same) or whether they’re being productive towards novelty (which includes fear/risk/loss). So then the challenge for you and I as providers is: how can we extend acceptance and support towards the people who are playing it safe more often than not. Then we can spend less energy trying to get them to change and spend more energy accompanying them while they wrestle with what they’re willing to risk and lose. Thanks for spreading the benefits of mindfulness!!

      Liked by 1 person

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