Here’s a story about how a lovable dog turned into the “Demon Dog” from hell.

Growing up I spent many summers with my Grandma in Oroville, California. Whenever my Mom and I arrived at Grandma’s, she would wrap her arms around me and kiss my cheeks multiple times until she was shoved out of the way by Sweets, the lovable German Shepherd. Sweets would bound from person to person, Grandma included, and drench our faces with slobbery kisses. Imagine Tigger, from the Winnie the Pooh stories, as a dog on uppers. That was Sweets. I can only imagine how many caffeine pills Grandma must’ve mixed into Sweets’ morning coffee. (Was it two? Or twenty-two?)

Sweets never walked and seldom ran but instead ricocheted from place to place. She followed me everywhere and anywhere I went. I loved the company but had to force her out of the bathroom more than once.

When she sat down her wagging tail made a thump, thump, thump, sound as it smacked the floor beneath her. It sounded like an approaching helicopter.

She was a dedicated companion and guardian, except when I played with my toy helicopter. She hated that toy. It had a main rotor that spun, emitted machine-gun sounds, and was suspended by a string attached to the main rotor, like a marionette. I would run through the house with my helicopter, singing the Airwolf theme (out of tune, of course!).

Demon Dog

As for lovable Sweets, she turned into something else entirely. She vacillated between two kinds of creatures. The first was a rabid howling hound, eager to chew off my leg and bury the bones in the neighbor’s yard. The other was a frenetic greyhound, sprinting down the country road as if Mount Vesuvius had just erupted behind her.

No one appreciated this change in Sweets and we called her Demon Dog. Her bad behavior was scolded and even punished. But she wasn’t a demon nor was she bad. She hadn’t changed but her surroundings had. The helicopter represented a threat to her safety and she responded accordingly.

Like Sweets, sometimes people behave badly. It’s not because they are evil. It’s not because they have some fatal character flaw. Once we understand the root cause of bad behavior we can find more effective ways to deal with it, and we can prevent it going forward.

Bad behavior is driven by a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy is driven by negative feelings. Negative feelings are driven by unmet needs. And until those needs are met, bad behavior will persist.

This is a lot to take in. Let’s break it down.

Basic Needs

“One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.” — Harold S. Kushner

Like all humans, you have some basic needs. You have physical needs like clean air, clean water, food, quality shelter, and safety. You have needs relating to connection with other people like compassion, understanding, acceptance, appreciation, and belonging. You have needs related to autonomy like freedom and choice. You have needs surrounding self-expression and being understood. Check out the Full List of Needs.

Also, you probably have a bunch of needs that are specific to you. Here’s one of mine: the need to not have coffee spilled on my winter coat and down my nice shirt while riding the train, and then come home to a wife who hates the smell of coffee. (Luckily, this only happened once!)

You have many needs but they are not dependent on any particular person:

  • You might need love and affection, but it doesn’t have to come from that girl you had a crush on in high school. Other people that can meet this need.
  • You might need someone to listen to you, and though you want that person to be your mom, someone else can listen to you and meet that need.
  • You may need a bike for Christmas, so you can get yourself to work, but the bike doesn’t have to come from Santa.

Most people living in the United States today have a subset of their basic needs met including food, shelter, etc. Many of us face the afflictions associated with having too much food available. (Fried potatoes are my guilty pleasure: chips, fries, and the almighty tater tot.)

But a growing number of people have some important unmet needs relating to connection with other humans. Too many people sit in their huge houses, with more screens than people, and feel more isolated than ever.

Many of our communities are online and offer an airbrushed view of reality. In-person communities, where you see people for what they are, warts and farts and all, are disappearing. The United States is becoming a desert of disconnection.

In addition to disconnection, we are plagued by debt and poor health. The rising generation has a host of unmet needs and may have a shorter life expectancy than the generation before.

As long as unmet needs persist, negative feelings will exist.

Negative Feelings

“You have basic needs, and when they aren’t met, your body sends signals. Hunger, loneliness, exhaustion, thirst, and fear are all signals that something is missing, and you need to act on it now.” — Mel Robbins

All negative feelings are a consequence of unmet needs. When you feel sad or angry or depressed, one of your basic needs has not been met. Check out the Full List of Feelings.

When you’ve been burning the midnight oil for weeks on end and accidentally toss your car keys into your morning smoothie, and then hit purée, you’re going to feel cranky. (Anybody with small children is acutely aware of how a lack of sleep spawns negative feelings in kids.)

When you have too much excitement or stimulus and not enough time to unwind and decompress, you’re going to feel anxious, jittery, or agitated.

When a middle-aged guy, with a bad comb-over, nearly runs you off the road with his Corvette, you’re going to feel scared and angry because your safety and security were threatened.

And there’s no talking someone out of their negative feelings. Telling them to “calm down” or to not feel the way they do is just going to make them feel angry, in addition to what they are already feeling. Telling them, “It’s not that bad” is a good way to get punched in the face.

As long as negative feelings will persist, empathy will be elusive.

Empathy

“Seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” — Alfred Adler on empathy

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” — John Steinbeck

When you feel empathy for another person, you put yourself in their shoes, walk a mile, see with their eyes, and feel what they feel. It’s a critical skill and necessary for us to connect and bond with other people.

Pop culture proclaims that empathy is something that you either have or you don’t. But the vast majority of people, something like 95% of folks, have empathy for others, at least some of the time.

But empathy is like a volume knob. When someone’s basic needs are not being met they feel a flurry of negative feelings and their empathy dial gets turned way down. Sometimes it gets turned off. When this happens, they genuinely don’t care about how their behavior affects other people. When this happens, they may even want to harm others.

If their dial gets turned off too many times, they may forget how to turn it back on.

As long as empathy is elusive, bad behavior will persist.

Real-life Applications

The solution to bad behavior is to identify unmet needs and start meeting them. Once their needs are met, they will stop feeling negative emotions, their empathy will increase, and the bad behavior will subside.

Sounds simple but it’s difficult to implement.

Start with yourself

“The perfect man of old looked after himself first before looking to help others.” — Chuang Tzu

This goes against how a lot of us were raised, but when it comes to meeting peoples’ unmet needs, you must start with yourself. You must devote at least a portion of your time and energy to identifying your own needs and figuring out how to meet them.

A drowning man can’t save others from drowning.

That sounds all well and good, but where do you start? You start by accepting responsibility for all of your needs.

Your are responsible for meeting your needs

As an adult, you need to accept that you are responsible for knowing which of your needs are unmet. You are responsible for figuring out how to meet them. The universe isn’t going to magically meet your needs. Only you can.

You may have some limitations that make it harder for you to get your needs met. (I know I do!). You may suffer from fatigue, stress, or poor health.

But you are still responsible for figuring out how to get your needs met.

You may have a disability, suffer from the effects of poverty or abuse, or you may be a victim of structural racism and bigotry. These are all very real hardships!

But you are still responsible for figuring out how to get your needs met.

You may have grown up in a family that offered you zero good examples of how to get your needs met. You may have grown up with lots of negative examples. Growing up your brain may have marinated in television shows that taught you all the wrong ways to connect with people.

But you are still responsible for figuring out how to get your needs met.

Write down all unmet needs

Read through the Full List of Needs and write down all of your unmet needs. If you’re like most people in the United States, you’re going to have a bunch of unmet needs relating to connection with others.

This sort of introspection is hard work. It may take you several days to come up with a complete list of your needs and identify which ones are unmet. And that’s OK. Take all the time you need.

Make a list of your unmet needs. Then, circle one on that list to focus on.

Our culture society places a huge emphasis on appearing to be OK. We don’t talk about what basic needs people have but it’s time we start.

Write down all the relationships you are uncertain about

We have a basic need to understand our relationship with the people around us. What are we to them? What do they want and expect from their relationship with us?

When we feel uncertain about the relationships with the people around us, we feel negative emotions, like unease and anxiety, and have a harder time feeling empathy for others. Relationships include those with your boss, instructors at school, parents and spouse and children, friends, extended family, church, civic, etc.

Make a list of the relationships that you feel uncertain about. Pick one from the list and brainstorm ways to gain a better understanding of that relationship.

Checkout What is Anxiety? Introduction to Lacan’s Theory

Write down all the projects and responsibilities that you are uncertain about

Sometimes I will be stuck on a project for work and feel uncertain of what to do next. When this happens I make a list of all my questions. From that list, I pick one question to resolve.

And then I give myself a deadline to resolve it. What makes this so hard is the fear of appearing dumb. A little voice in my head says, “Everyone’s going to think that you should already know this. Everyone is going to think you’re stupid for asking this question.” I ignore this voice and resolve your questions.

This kind of exercise is often emotionally taxing but it’s the best way to get unstuck and make forward progress on projects.

Look for Positive Deviants

Unmet needs are not a binary thing i.e. these 3 needs are always unmet; these 4 are always met. There is an ebb and flow. You probably have at least one need that is unmet 90% of the time. But 10% of the time the need is met. We call that 10% a positive deviant. (It’s a deviation from the norm in a positive way.)

One effective way to meet your needs is to examine the positive deviants or those rare times when unmet needs get met.

For example, when I was in college I had terrible sleep habits. I went to bed far too late and ate far too much junk food right before bed. This caused me to feel sleepy throughout the day and my classes.

I remember taking a physics course and thinking the course material shouldn’t be so hard for me to grasp. But it was. Six days a week I struggled but on Saturday it was easy. Saturday was the positive deviant.

Turns out that every Saturday I made it a point to sleep longer, usually until noon, and woke up feeling refreshed. I would get up and head over to the food court for lunch, bringing my physics textbook with me. I remember on multiple occasions sitting in the food court reading through the lessons and being amazed at how much easier it was to grasp the material. On more than one occasion I thought, “Man, my classes would probably be a lot easier if I just got enough sleep every night.” (Unfortunately, I didn’t internalize that lesson until after I graduated and therefore college was a much harder experience than it should’ve been.)

Consider your unmet needs and those rare times when you feel like they are being met. Try to find the positive deviants. What did you do or not do? How did you spend your time? How how much time did you spend on online activities and social media?

For example, if you suffer from loneliness and the feeling that no one listens to you, think of the last time you didn’t feel lonely and that someone listened to you. Try to understand what made that time different from your daily experience. Then move forward and re-create that positive experience.

Learn more about positive deviants in Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

Limit Certain Activities

I feel better when I limit the amount of time I spend watching television shows. I don’t think television is bad in and of itself, but it does have a way of crowding out things that meet my needs and make me feel good. Things like socializing with friends and reconnecting with family, making meaningful progress on personal projects, reading books that improve my thinking and being, exercise, or spending time immersed in a wonderful novel.

Knowing this, I limit the amount of television I watch each day. I still watch television shows, as I enjoy great stories in any medium, but gone are the days of binge-watching a whole season (or two!) in a single day or a weekend.

That’s what I do. That’s what works for me. My goal is not to persuade you to watch less television but rather to persuade you to be introspective. Identify activities that crowd out things that meet your needs (and make you feel good!) and put hard limits on them.

Find someone to listen to you


The most common unmet need is having someone genuinely listen to you. So find someone to listen to you, listen to your story, and hear what you have to say. Good listeners are worth their weight in gold.

Think about the people closest to you. Which ones are good listeners? This requires some vulnerability on your part, but go talk to them. Tell them you need someone to listen to you and tell them your story.

Afterward be sure to say, “Thank you for listening to me.” When they understand how much this means to you they will be more likely to listen to you in the future.

Speak up

Once you can understand your unmet needs, you need to speak up. When you need to be understood, ask someone to spend time listening to you. If you need help understanding a homework assignment or fixing your car, etc. you must speak up and ask for help.

Know that the first person you ask may say, “No” because they’re preoccupied with meeting their own needs. You may have to ask multiple people. You may have to trade with other people i.e. I’ll help you with your work assignment if you spend ten minutes listening to me.

Speak up for yourself because no one else will.

Dealing with other people

Whenever you see someone behaving badly, remind yourself that they are experiencing a lot of negative emotions that stem from unmet needs. Pause and consider what unmet needs they may have.

I learned a valuable trick from my mother-in-law. When someone is acting irritably she’ll say, “Sounds like you’re having a rough day. What’s going on?” In most cases, the person will stop acting badly and start talking.

Kids

With my kids, I noticed bad behavior nearly always stems from a lack of sleep, hunger, a lack of autonomy, when things are not fair, or when no one is listening to them.

Knowing this, my wife and I work hard to make sure our kids have reasonable bedtimes, eat meals at the same time every day (whenever possible), and have lots of opportunities for autonomy and self-directed play. We do our best to treat them fairly and equally despite their three year age difference. We spend time listening to them, even when they talk over each other.

Our kids are picky eaters at times and don’t always appreciate my wife’s efforts in making a nice dinner for us. So we have a rule that they have to take a few bites of their dinner to try it and there must be no complaining. Complaining is the opposite of appreciation and makes you feel hurt inside when you’ve spent a lot of effort to make something good.

We also have conversations with our kids about how other people have specific needs and how they feel when people talk over them, hit them, or take their toys away.

As a consequence, our kids are well behaved! (I know, I’m biased here.)

My Wife

My wife is a wonderful woman and when she acts in ways that I don’t like, it’s always because of unmet needs. Just like all of us, she needs to have a little quiet time every day and be able to unwind. She needs to understand what other people are expecting from her when they ask her to do things. She needs to feel like she has some measure of control over her life. She needs to feel appreciated for the work she does.

In our first years of marriage, I made the mistake of telling her exactly what to do whenever she had a problem. This made matters worse because she has a strong streak of independence and needs to solve her problems. When she has a problem she needs someone to listen to her, and for her to feel like she’s been listened to.

So now I frequently use the line, “Sounds like you’re having a rough day. Want to talk about it?” And she decides whether or not she wants to talk. Many times she does, but sometimes she doesn’t, and that’s OK. I give her space to figure things out.

I don’t try to solve her problems, even when I think the answer is obvious. Instead, I ask, “How can I help?” Sometimes there is a way for me to help, especially with computer problems, but oftentimes there’s not, and that’s OK too.

At Work

Most workplaces are stressful and provide lots of opportunities to find people who have unmet needs, feel negative emotions, and behave in ways that you don’t appreciate. When this happens try talking to them and help them to feel listened to.

Often coworkers will have struggles with their boss or peers, with their children or spouse, with their church or civic responsibilities. Extended family can create its own kind of chaos.

There are a lot of demands and a lot of pressure put on people. So be understanding of others. Say, “Sounds like you’re having a rough time. Want to talk about it?”

Remember that their bad behavior is a result of unmet needs.

Help others to develop empathy for you

Once you help others meet their own needs and feel better about their life, you can point out how their behavior negatively affects you. Talk about your unmet needs, which might include respect, appreciation, and belonging. Once they feel like you have empathy for them, they will have empathy for you.

Conclusion

Bad behavior is not a consequence of fatal character flaws.

Bad behavior is driven by a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy is driven by negative feelings. Negative feelings are driven by unmet needs. And until those needs are met, bad behavior will persist.

Make a list of the unmet needs you have and the negative feelings that arise from them. Look for ways to start meeting those unmet needs and the negative feelings will disappear.

Two of the most common unmet needs are appreciation and feeling listened to. So do your best to show appreciation to others and be a good listener.

Be well, my friend.

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