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The Matrix of Needs: Core Needs

In the Matrix of Needs, Safety is the glue that holds all things together. The concept comes from the Extra-Cellular Matrix, or ECM, which are those structures which give form to all living things. Without this matrix, we would be blobs. Safety is our psychosocial matrix, it empowers all our actions to work together cohesively to build up all that makes us human. It is not our physical form that makes us human, it is our psychological and emotional selves that make us who we are as individuals and as a species. For a more detailed analysis of this, see the article available at

A core is the central part of the whole. Examples would be the core of the earth, the core of an apple, the core of the matter. In the Matrix of Needs model, the 3 core needs are subsistence, attaching relationships, and communication. Each of these subjects has a blog post that can be read at Without subsistence needs – air, water, food, shelter, sleep – we would not be able to develop any further. Just from a physical perspective, life would not be able to be sustained were these subsistence needs not met. There is no doubt that subsistence is a core need.

Attaching relationships are a core need for our survival as well. Human beings are social beings, as evidenced by research from John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Louis Cozzolino, and many others. Without the early experiences, starting in the womb, of attachment, developing social relationships would look much different. When people experience abuse and neglect, their ability to attach is severely impaired, with aggressive and often violent behaviours developing as a result. It is the foundation of attaching relationships that empower us to be able to build the social networks necessary for us to become interdependent.

Communication is the third of the core elements in The Matrix of Needs. The inclusion of communication as a human need, let alone as a core human need, caused a fair amount of discussion to occur during the years this model was being formed. At the end of our discussions, people from the US, Australia and the UK were in agreement that as human beings, communication was a core need, and not a tool to help us meet our needs. It is communication that empowered and continues to empower humans to work together to overcome the threats to our existence as individuals and as a species.

Children who are just learning to communicate show intense frustration when they are unable to communicate with others. The same is true of people who lost communication skills after a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Behaviour becomes the only way in which people can communicate, and often their behaviour becomes classified as problematic and we address it through plans and medication without understanding that a core human need is unmet.

A basic axiom in human services was best said by David Pitonyak, who is convinced that his work is based on the premise that behavioural challenges arise from unmet needs. These 3 core needs – subsistence, attachment, and communication – are at the core of the majority of behaviours that fall in the category of “behavioural disorders.” The usefulness of this model comes from the ways in which we can ask 4 questions to determine how to best support people:

1. Are you safe? If the answer is no, this is where we start in our work of providing supports.

2. Are your needs for food, water, shelter and sleep met? If the answer is no, this is where we start.

3. Do you have at least one other person who is in your life, no matter what? If the answer is no, then this is our starting point for offering supports.

4. Are you able to tell others what you want, need, or hope for? Again, if the answer is no, this is where we start our work of being of support.

When these three core needs are met, we are equipped to continue in fulfilling our human potential. This is the legacy of abuse and neglect as documented by the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, a good resource can be found at People with significant histories of abuse and neglect have shortened lifespans, increased medical concerns, decreased social relationships, and a lower quality of life. By addressing these core needs, those of us who work at being of support can better build the resilience and hope needed to overcome the despair of unmet needs.

Bob Bowen


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