Your Emotional Needs
Are your needs being met?
The long-term answer to mental illness is not long-term therapy – it is to enable people to have the skills and the opportunity to get their emotional needs met. That is the protector and guarantee of good mental health”.
Contrary to the prevailing opinion in the past, we now know that newborns come into the world with a series of knowledge programs aimed at their survival. In other words, we were born programmed to meet our vital needs, whether physical or emotional. Those programs are Givens of the Human Nature.
Every human being has a series of primal emotional needs, without which it is very difficult to thrive in life. We also have natural resources at our disposal that help us meet those needs, if we know how to use them.
Challenging circumstances in life, trauma, as well as emotional habits, may block the completion of some emotional needs. We end up feeling excessive anxiety, fear, sadness, low self-esteem or anger.
These needs are so fundamental that all kinds of human behaviour can be understood by relating back to them.
Nature drives us to meet these needs, sometimes in a healthy and balanced manner, and sometimes in unresourceful ways. In the quest to fulfil these needs we often lead our lives in an unhealthy fashion and instead of solving our challenges, we end up with even bigger problems.
Here are the primal emotional needs all of us seek to fulfil to thrive in life and prevent mental illness:
Health – You need to be able to feel well physically and mentally to thrive.
Security – You need to feel safe in an environment which allows us to develop fully.
Autonomy and control – You need to have a sense of autonomy over certain aspects of your life.
Attention – You need to receive appropriate attention from others but also give attention to others.
Intimacy – You need to have an emotional connection to others.
Connection – You need to feel part of a wider community.
Status and accomplishment – You need to have a sense of competence, achievement and status.
Privacy – You need to have time and opportunity to reflect and consolidate experiences.
Meaning and purpose – You need to have a sense of meaning in life.
What is really missing in your life?
Take a time to relax and calm yourself down, maybe bringing your attention to your breathing, inhaling and exhaling calmly a couple of times and relaxing your muscles at the same time, one by one.
When you feel physically comfortable and relaxed, perhaps you can bring to your mind a safe and special place. A real one or an imaginary one, it doesn’t matter. A place where you feel secure and calm. You may like to notice the pleasure of being in a lovely garden, on the beach, countryside, mountains, wherever you feel good. Hold that image in your mind for a while, feel the breeze, the smells and sensations in your body, enjoy the colours and smile inside. Let yourself go and enjoy for a moment.
Now, start doing an “emotional needs audit”. Answer these questions honestly to yourself. Nobody is watching you, nobody will know about it. It is just you for you.
Do you feel safe?
Are you being bullied at work?
Are you living with a violent partner?
Have you been assaulted on the street and fear recurrence?
Is your job at risk?
Do your fears prevent you from doing things you want to do?
Does illness make you feel insecure or vulnerable?
We are naturally attuned to threats. Our ancestors needed to be aware of the many real dangers they faced every day. Thus, we are hardwired to perceive threats in our lives. We feel insecure in two circumstances:
- The threat to our environment is real
- The threat is perceived by emotional conditioning
Emotional conditioning is done when we experience trauma, when we are or have been bullied, when we live in a violent environment, when we go through uncertain times, etc. Obviously, if you have a threatening boss you don’t feel safe. If your relationship is falling apart and you cannot see how you are going to feed your children, you feel unsafe, and emotionally aroused.
Do you take care of your health and well-being?
Are you happy with your diet? Are you eating healthy food most of the time?
Do you move your body regularly?
Do you get enough sunlight?
How is your sleeping these days?
Do you have a sense of autonomy and control?
Do you have a say about certain aspects of your life? or does someone have too much influence or power over you?
Do you have sufficient responsibility in your work or is it too much or too little?
Have you lost your sense of control because of an unexpected illness or the arrival of a new person at work?
Do you think you should control things that in fact, you can’t control?
Do you criticize yourself if things don’t go as you think they should?
Research has demonstrated that the more influence we feel over our lives, the healthier and happier we tend to be, especially as we age. Also expecting and accepting that we cannot control everything is a means to a more calm and relaxed state. Imperfection and inconstancy are part of everyone’s life.
Are your attention needs being met?
Do you spend too much time alone?
Do you feel too shy to put yourself forward?
Do you feel your presence on certain occasions is of little consequence to others?
Do you engage in certain activities just to win the attention of your partner or family or boss?
How much sincere attention do you give to other people?
Are you curious about what others think and do?
Do you get attention through some kind of unhealthy ways?
Do you feel you have too much attention?
Poor social skills can leave us feeling lonely, misunderstood, and unhappy, and may even damage our physical health. And as with all the emotional needs, the unconscious drive for attention, if uncontrolled, can lead us to some pretty dark places.
Some people need more attention than others, but we all need to exchange ideas, feel connected, and listen as well as be listened to.
This only happens in face to face communication. We need rich nutrition to exchange attention with other people. We cannot get this on Skype. There is more to the senses than vision. It is like looking at the picture of a beautiful landscape – you can see it but you cannot feel the sensation of the breeze in your arms, you cannot smell the flowers sense, you cannot feel the sand or the grass in your feet, you cannot know how it is going to develop and change in the next hour after that picture was taken. Exchanging attention is to interact with other people.
Is there at least one person with whom you can be yourself, and really understands you? Someone you can talk to about your fears and about your dreams and aspirations?
Have you experienced a loss?
Did a relationship end recently?
Are you grieving for someone who died more than two years ago?
Have you lost touch with friends?
Feeling accepted and loved, and accepting and loving in return, gives us a sense of intimacy, helps us to feel safe and secure, and can make life feel more meaningful. But it’s not just about romance here. We can, to some extent, meet our need for intimacy through friends or even pets.
Being part of a wide community
Do you know people outside of the close family?
Do you feel disconnected from those around you?
Did you move recently and feel separated from the community around you?
Do you participate in any community activities, such as football, singing, drama, hiking, sports, volunteering, etc?
It’s all too easy nowadays to feel disconnected from those around us. To feel connected and being part of something larger than ourselves is a powerful benefit. We all need to find our ‘tribe’ but also be aware that the desperate need to be part of something can also work against us in terrible ways.
Are you comfortable with your status and achievements?
Do you feel good about the way you see yourself and the way you think you are seen by other people?
Do you feel valued, recognized and appreciated for what you do?
Do you feel you should have achieved more?
Do you feel different from others?
Do you feel often jealous of them?
To have a recognized and valued role in the social groups we belong to is essential to human happiness and even to physical health.
It is hugely important. We all have a biological need for status. It is not something we can overlook. People can murder for status. People can kill if they feel disrespected. If we disrespect someone in a conversation they become emotionally aroused and their capacity of thinking rationally is compromised. Everybody needs a status in their community, in their schools, and in their jobs. That’s why healthy schools and organizations assign an important role to everyone and recognize and appreciate their value in the company or school, from the cleaner to the clerk to the CEO.
Having responsibility can help us flourish. When we have a recognized role, we also achieve a stronger sense of self. It can be easier to esteem ourselves when others esteem us.
Are you never alone?
Do you work too much?
Do you take time to be alone and reflect on your experiences?
Or are you always active, always doing something, always numbing yourself with activities?
Do you have a journal or any other way of accessing what is going on in your life and what is best for you?
If you have people in your face all day that does not allow time for reflection. Your left cortex needs to stop functioning regularly and allow your right neocortex to take over for a while – it is when you go outside with your dog, or go to have a cup of tea or just daydream – your brain is now putting things under context – we need that downtime. If you skip this for a certain amount of time, you will get more and more stressed.
You need to have a period of private time when you switch from one activity to another. For example, when you leave your job and go home you need to have 10 minutes of privacy to be able to pass from one state to another. You can use some kind of relaxing breathing and think about who you want to be when with your family. That will give you a little bit of spare capacity to deal with the next part of your day.
Meaning and purpose
Do you feel your life has a purpose?
Do you have a commitment to something bigger than yourself? Your children/family, a cause, a sport, a religion, a school, a political movement, a community, a group of supporting friends?
Do you have activities that interest and continue to challenge you? Are you still learning? Are you developing new skills? Are you excited about stuff in your life?
Do you feel unsatisfied, not challenged, stuck or bored?
Why do we need meaning?
Our life is full of suffering. First, we know we are going to die – heart attack, cancer, diabetes, accident, murder? Probably one of those. Moreover, during our lives, we will inevitably face some serious challenges. We are going to see our grandparents/parents die, we are going to lose our jobs, we are going to divorce, be disappointed, deal with illnesses, pain, etc, etc. Nobody escapes suffering.
So, why struggle? Why go through all of this? What is all for anyway? Why not just drink until we die? Why not just party and sniff cocaine until all falls apart? Why not just eat until we explode? It would be indeed very tempting but also very self-destructive.
One thing that really facilitates people to go through the hard times and face all these challenges is to find meaning in our lives. We can put up with a lot if we attribute meaning to the suffering we are going through.
When life feels purposeless, it tends to also seem pointless or meaningless. When we have a strong sense of purpose, when we feel that who we are and what we do is meaningful, we find it easier to feel resilient in the face of all kinds of problems. A strong sense of purpose seems to equate to living longer and better.
How do we find meaning?
There are three ways we get meaning in our lives. We need to list one of them. If we get two of them we are doing pretty well. If we get all the three we are truly superstars in dealing with life setbacks.
1. Having people who need us
Responsibility to others, a concern beyond the self, can help us develop self-respect. E. g.:
A) You are a parent or grandparent. It is incredible the number of suffering parents are able to endure to give their children a better life.
B) You are supporting your partner, your parents, your friends, your neighbours, your pet…
B) To be needed in your job. If you are helping people in your job, if you are doing a difference to your company and your colleagues, if your feel your contribution is important, if you are a teacher and you are helping students, etc …….
2. Overcome challenges
We have an extraordinary organ in our heads, full of connections and hungry for knowledge and training and development. It wants to be challenged and stretched. When we learn something, when we get a new skill, life seems full of meaning.
We are built for lifelong learning and to challenge our brains. Famous research with nuns showed indubitable that an active brain can fight dementia even if the disease is installed. This happens because the new neuron connections we made overlap the problem that the disease provokes in our brains and dementia does not occur
Our sense of meaning and purpose comes from achieving things that demand effort. We need to feel stretched and stimulated by life to avoid boredom.
3. Being committed to something bigger than ourselves
This can be through religion, any spiritual orientation, or any form of public service. Participating in a club, a society, the school parents’ group, the neighbours watch, the communal garden, an ideal, a philosophy, a party, a group of friends – we are wired for service in something bigger than us.
Nature gave us the drive to meet our needs and gave us also innate resources we can use. As any other creature, we do not approach our environment randomly looking for nutrition. We have a guidance system that helps us identify the form of physical and emotional nutrition. This system is 50% programmed in human beings and it is 50% learned. This means that our guidance system requires a big learning component to take place. One of the most important reasons people have mental health problems is because they don’t have that learning process in place – they did not learn how to operate their guidance system. This learning is what we call coping skills. We need coping skills to manage our anxiety, manage our anger, communicate effectively, to deal with the challenges of life.
Your internal resources are there to help you. You probably think you have no ability to deal with your situation but that is because your brain is foggy and irresponsive when you are emotionally aroused. The emotional brain can’t rationalize and is very controlling. But you have in yourself some powerful skills including:
The ability to develop long term memory patterns. This enables us to add to our innate knowledge, learn and remember. This allows more effective strategic thinking as we grow older.
The ability to build rapport and empathise with others. When we don’t have the capacity to empathise with other people and have difficulties in understanding the signals other people are sending, it is much more difficult to have our needs for connection met (as is the case of some people on the autism spectrum)
Emotions and instincts help us to react under a threat and immediately act without the need to check all the possible ways to do it.
A powerful imagination. Imagination exists to help us solve problems, enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions and use language. However, misuse of imagination is the underlying cause of anxiety, anger and depression. But you can use your imagination constructively and achieve amazing results. Guided imagery is the best way to do this.
A rational mind – An ability to check our emotions, question, analyse, plan and adapt to new situations
An ability to understand the world unconsciously – this is why we “know” certain things even when our rational mind seems to be confused about them.
An observing self – The ability to step back, observe and be objective. It allows us to observe our own behaviour and other people’s behaviour. It enables us to view the big picture. Without an observing self, we cannot change and if we do not change we cannot develop.
The ability to sleep and dream so you can face each day afresh – Dreaming is a way of diffusing and calming down the arousal system when the expectation was not acted out the previous day. It is one of nature’s primary methods to control anxiety.
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This blog post is for general health information only. This blog post is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Any worries regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare providers.