Understanding Our Emotional Needs is NOT easy – but it CAN be –

baby and mum hug

I rarely publish other blogger’s articles unless I feel there is some value in doing so. The following article penned by  psychotherapy colleague Peter Mullhall is one of these rare gems. It is an excellent article describing how our emotional needs develop the moment we are born and play out throughout our lives.   The article is reproduced below with Peter’s permission.

Understanding Our Emotional Needs is NOT easy ……. but it CAN be………

How often has a person in a relationship pleaded “I need more from you!” and how often has the partner been bewildered and thought “what exactly do you want from me?”

All too often partners in relationships have different ways of expressing their needs and this can complicate relationships. But what REALLY complicates relationships is the fact that most people do not understand their needs. Sure, they know they have needs but they don’t know what they are, they can’t name them and can’t ask for them in a way that their partner can understand.

So what are our Needs? We have two basic types of needs; physical needs and emotional needs. Our physical needs can be grouped under three headings – food, water, shelter. We require all three if we are to develop physically into healthy adults. If some of these needs are not adequately met when we are growing then it can have a lasting negative impact on our physical development. These needs are so important to our development, and in extreme situations to our survival, that we appear to be ‘hardwired’ to get those needs met.

This ‘hardwiring’ is so deep that if we can not get our needs met in a healthy way then we will be driven to get them met in an unhealthy way.  As an example, if you were living in a desert and literally dying of thirst and found a sewer outlet, sooner or later you would be driven to drinking the sewer water. You would know that tomorrow you will be sick but your focus would be on survival today!

And so it is with our emotional needs. If we can not get them met in a healthy way then we will be driven to getting them met in an unhealthy way. The difficulty with our emotional needs is that they are more subtle and less obvious than our physical needs. When I ask most people to name their emotional needs, the majority of people can name 2 or 3 at a maximum. Most say ‘to feel loved’ but don’t know how to explain what that means. Love is not an emotional need, rather it is an ‘umbrella’ term which describes a collection of things.

To make things easier I often ask people to list the emotional needs of a child. For some reason people can more easily identify the needs of children but hesitate when identifying the needs of an adult – its almost as if they do not believe that adults have the same needs as children. So what are the emotional needs of a child? Well, children need:

  • Attention
  • Affection
  • Acceptance
  • Affirmation
  • Guidance
  • Safety (emotional safety)

Any other emotional need that you can think of is likely to be a variation of the above list.

I have listed them in that order for a reason.  When the child is in the mother’s womb all of his (or her) physical and emotional needs are automatically met. The child has nothing to do apart from simply to ‘be’. Then something changes for ever. In an unexpected moment the child is expelled from the mother and forcibly disconnected from her.

From that moment on the child will spend the rest of his life connecting and disconnecting from others. From that moment of disconnection the child becomes dependent on others for his physical and emotional wellbeing. For the first time the child will become cold and hungry. For the first time his survival will, in theory, be in doubt. This doubt about survival will kick start a drive to get the child’s emotional needs met. At a survival level the child’s physical needs and emotional needs are interdependent.

For the child to get his food needs met he must get mother’s attention. Don’t forget that the child can not move, crawl or walk so he needs mother to come to him. The child must initiate an attention seeking behaviour in order to get fed by mother. If the child performs such an attention seeking behaviour and mother does not come then the child can not be sure of getting fed and therefore can not be sure of survival – hence I propose that Attention (to be Seen and Heard) is the Primal Basic emotional need. The need for Attention is so deep that children (and adults) will often turn to destructive behaviours in an attempt to get any kind of attention even if it means ‘negative’ attention or punishment.

If the child’s attention seeking behaviours are successful then it is likely that mother will pick him up, hold him and feed him, thus the child has his first experience of Affection. Clearly, being heard, being seen and being held are powerful signals to the child that he is safe.   Thus, at a very early stage our emotional needs are paired with food – is it any wonder that many people ‘comfort eat’ in an attempt to meet their unmet emotional needs.


Part 2 of this article is coming soon – find out more about how unmet childhood emotional needs effects beliefs, behaviours and relationships in adulthood!

Thanks for reading about Understanding Our Emotional Needs at loverelations.co.uk!

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