NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

In a prior article, Are Your Emotional Needs Being Met in Your Relationship?, I began addressing the importance of having your emotional needs met within your romantic relationship or marriage.  But there are many people who don't understand what their emotional needs are, so I'm addressing this issue in this article.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Without being able to identify and understand your emotional, you can't really ask for what you need in your relationship.

Many people who had unmet emotional needs as children grow up to be adults who don't understand what their emotional needs are and how to even find out what they are.

Many of these same people go on to have romantic relationships with people who are, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, abusive, including emotional and/or physical abuse.

In contrast to people, who grew up where their emotional needs weren't taken care of, people who grew up in households where the love and nurturing was "good enough," usually have an intuitive sense of what they need from their romantic partner.  If their partner mistreats them either emotionally or physically, they are much less likely to put up with it than people who grew up with unmet emotional needs.

It's important for you and your partner that you understand what you need emotionally.

Let's start by identifying some of the most common emotional needs that people have.  This list will give you an idea, but it's, by no means, exhaustive, and you might identify other emotional needs that are important to you.

Common Emotional Needs
  • to be seen for who you are
  • to be heard
  • to be understood
  • to be encouraged, supported and nurtured
  • to feel loved
  • to receive affection
  • to have emotional intimacy with significant others (family, friends, partners/spouses)
  • to be allowed to grow and develop as a person
  • to be forgiven
  • to be touched and held
Once again, there are just some of the most basic needs that most people have, but there can be others.  For instance, someone who needs time to him or herself might have a need for a certain amount of solitude.  Or, there could be other important emotional needs, depending upon the individual.

Discovering and Understanding Your Emotional Needs
So, if you haven't had the experience of having your emotional needs met (or, maybe you not even aware that your emotional needs weren't met when you were a child) how can you go about discovering what these needs are?

As a psychotherapist, one way that I find to be very effective is to begin paying attention to what's going on in your body.

Your body contains both conscious and unconscious emotions and memories, so that focusing on what's going on in your body can begin to help you to understand your emotions as well as your emotional needs (see my article: Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Depending upon how in touch you are with your embodied emotions, this can be challenging, especially if you are dissociated (i.e., cut off) from what's happening in your body due to emotional trauma.

For many people, who grew up in households where they were physically abused or emotionally neglected, as children, it would have been either dangerous or too emotionally painful to be in touch with their emotional needs.

In such situations, children often defend themselves against the emotional pain by suppressing their needs.  This is a common defense mechanism.  This defense mechanism protected them in a way from feeling the emotional pain.  It protected them from feeling too vulnerable.

The problem is that these same children often grow up to be adults who are out of touch with their emotions and don't know what they need emotionally.  Even worse, they often enter into romantic relationships that replicate their childhood experiences.

Let's take a look at a fictional scenario to understand this:

Dina came to therapy because she was confused about her two year relationship with John.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Her close friends had been Dina all along that John wasn't treating her well after they moved in together.  Although she trusted her friends and she knew that they wanted the best for her, Dina didn't see it and she wondered if she was missing something.

When she provided her family history, she talked about growing up as an only child and being raised primarily by nannies.  Her parents were often preoccupied with their careers and too busy to spend much time with her.

As a result, before going to school, Dina spent a lot time playing on her own.  She remembered having a young nanny who was kind and attentive for a short while, but her parents fired the nanny after they discovered that she was allowing her boyfriend to come over to spend the night when Dina's parents were away traveling.

Dina remembered waking up one day to find that the nanny that she loved wasn't there.  She was given no explanation until much later when she was an adult.  This was a big loss for Dina that she suppressed and never discussed until she came to therapy.

The new nanny that they hired was somewhat quiet and reserved.  As a result, Dina often felt sad and lonely, and she sometimes went to her parents to try to get their attention.  During those times, her parents scolded her for being "needy," which made her feel ashamed.  Later on, when she was old enough, she was sent to a boarding school far from her home.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Shy and sad, Dina had difficulty making friends at boarding school.  There were a couple of students who were more outgoing who befriended Dina, but being at boarding school and hardly seeing her parents was a sad and lonely experience.

By the time she went to college, Dina gave the impression of being "independent."  But it was really a pseudo independence that was a defense against being emotionally vulnerable.

Intelligent and attractive, she attracted the attention of many male students in college, but she dated very little and spent most of her time with a few outgoing friends who initiated friendships with her.

Dina met John in her senior year of college.  Shy and unsure of herself, she initially kept John at arm's length.  But he was persistent and found ways to be around her during college activities.

After John asked Dina out many times, she agreed to go out with him.  Initially, she found him to be very attentive.  Not only was he good looking and intelligent, he was also very funny and made Dina laugh, so she began opening up to him more.

Dina had never experienced anything like this before, and she became captivated by him.  He was her first and only lover, and their love making was very passionate.

After they graduated from college, they found jobs in NYC and moved in together.  By then, they had been together for a year.  At first, looking for an apartment and making plans was fun.

But shortly after they moved in together, Dina realized that John seemed to change.  Whereas before he was very attentive to her, he now seemed to be preoccupied with other things--his job, his male friends, hobbies, and other activities where Dina was not included.

At first, Dina thought that John was adjusting to post college life, but a year later, he was still the same. Whenever she tried to talk to him about it, John became uncomfortable and dismissed what she had to say.

Then, a few months before she came to therapy, Dina discovered an email on John's account from another woman and she realized that when John said he was seeing his friends, he was actually seeing this other woman.

When she confronted John about it, at first, he denied it.  But she showed him the email, he blamed her.  He told her that she had become boring and it was her fault that he looked outside the relationship.  He told her that, as of now, it wasn't serious, but he wanted to continue to see this other woman to see whether it would develop.

At first, Dina took John's words to heart and she blamed herself for his infidelity.  She thought:  Maybe he's right.  Maybe I am boring.  What can I do to change?

When she talked to her close friends about it, they told her that John was making excuses, not taking responsibility, and blaming her for his own behavior.  They told her that John was mistreating her, but Dina didn't see it.  She believed that if she could be more interesting, attentive, and sexy, she could lure John back.  But no matter what she tried to do, he continued to see the other woman and spend most of his free time with her.  He wasn't even coming home at night any more.

When Dina started therapy, she wasn't sure what she felt about John seeing another woman.  She knew she wanted him to be monogamous with her, but beyond that and blaming herself, she wasn't in touch with any other emotions.

By helping Dina to become more aware of what was going on in her body, Dina began to slowly develop more of an awareness of her internal experience.

For instance, she began to recognize that when she felt her stomach muscles clinched, she was either anxious or angry and that when she felt a sinking feeling in her chest, she felt sad.

Over time, Dina began to realize how much she had suppressed her emotions as a child as a way to protect herself from feeling overwhelmingly sad and angry with her parents.  She developed compassion for that younger part of herself that was often left to fend for herself, and she appreciated why she had to suppress her feelings as a child.

But she also realized that she was much more resilient as an adult and she could now handle the emotions that would have been too overwhelming as a child.

Part of the work in therapy involved grief work for her unmet emotional needs as a child.

The work was neither quick nor easy, but eventually Dina was able to feel her anger and disappointment and recognized that John was mistreating her.  She also realized that she needed to feel loved, valued and treated with respected and her needs weren't being met in her relationship with John.  So, she summoned her courage and broke up with him.

Understanding Your Emotional Needs

Several months later, Dina began dating again.  She used her new awareness of her embodied emotions to understand what she needed emotionally in a relationship and she used this awareness to eventually enter into a much healthier relationship.

When children grow up with unmet emotional needs, they often protect themselves emotionally by suppressing those needs.

As adults, they often continue to suppress those emotional needs so that they're unaware of what they need emotionally.

This lack of awareness has consequences for the individual on his or her own and for being able to choose healthy relationships.

When clients are unaware of their emotional needs, one effective way of working in therapy is for the therapist to orient the client to what's happening in his or her body with regard to embodied emotions.

Getting Help in Therapy
Using the mind-body connection to identify your emotional needs is an effective method.

If the issues in this article resonate with you, rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from being in therapy with a psychotherapist who has a mind-body orientation to doing therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.