Mental Health Diagnoses & Guessing Needs
A student recently asked how she could possibly guess the needs of her mother who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. As far as she can see her mother just has a compulsion to prove she is right at any cost. Medical diagnoses can create interference with your ability to connect with another's needs just like any other difference. At their best, mental health diagnoses can create space from blame and clarity about a constellation of behaviors and common treatments. At their worst, diagnoses detract from the fact that regardless of the level of mental illness, this is still a person attempting to meet his or her needs.
Looking through the lens of mental health diagnosis, you might find yourself categorizing behaviors according to the diagnosis. While this might meet your need for mental clarity, it doesn't necessarily inspire compassion. If you can listen for another's needs without automatically attaching some sense of obligation to meet them, you will feel your heart open and relax.
However, when you witness behaviors that you would label as extreme, you might need some creative ways to even begin to guess needs. One way is to ask yourself the question, what if this behavior were in total alignment with what's true, what needs would be met then? Let's look at a few examples.
For the student that has the mom who wants to be right, she might ask herself this, "If my mom really was always right, what needs would be met for her?"
For the dad that worries a lot and often hands out unsolicited advice, "What if my dad really did live surrounded by threats, what needs would worry and advice to be cautious meet then?"
For the brother who believes he is a prophet and begins preaching to you and the rest of the family, you might ask this, "If my brother really were a prophet, what needs would be met for him?"
These examples point to a willingness to look out from the worldview of the person for whom you are attempting to have empathy. Often this is a difficult step because you are hurting from the impact of such worldviews and have long wished you could shift that person's way of seeing the world. Having spent years fighting these views the last thing you want to do is stand in them, even if for a moment. In the end though, being able hold in your heart the precious needs that a loved one is trying to meet, even if through tragic behaviors, allows you to maintain an open heart of compassion and is a heck of a lot less stressful.
Did you make some guesses for the examples above? Go ahead and do this on your own now and then I will share my guesses.
Okay, here are my guesses:
The mom who has to be right: safety, acceptance, security, purpose, meaning, competence, belonging
The dad who worries: empathy, support, safety, collaboration, peace
The prophet brother: self-acceptance, purpose, security, wholeness, belonging
An important thing to remember here is that the accuracy of your guesses doesn't matter. It's the willingness to get curious and make guesses that gives rise to compassion.
PracticeTake a moment now to reflect on something someone does or says that could only feel irritated about before. Frame the person's behavior as though his or her view of the situation were correct. Make a guess at the needs this person is trying to meet with this behavior.