What is a need?
Everyone has their own unique set of emotional needs, that are the product of your upbringing, your genetic predisposition, your identity, and other individual factors. To understand needs, many people refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory in psychology developed by Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s pyramid starts with basic physiological and safety needs at its foundation, psychological needs like love next, and then self-fulfillment needs at its highest point.
Here are some common needs to help you begin articulating and naming your needs:
- safety and security,
- connection and closeness,
- validation and acceptance,
- comfort and rest,
- to matter and feel significant,
- fairness, and
- autonomy and freedom.
Knowing your enneagram number and temperament can also help you determine your core needs based on your personality and wiring. Get curious about yourself and what you need for greater clarity, direction, and contentment.
Diving deeper into relationship and connection needs, Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, asserts that humans need to sense that:
I’m special to you,
I’m wanted by you,
I’m loved and accepted,
I am needed,
I can count on you,
I’ll be heard and respected,
I can count on you to hear me, and
I can ask you to hold me.
But culture often tells us otherwise. Culture encourages us to compete rather than to connect, to be independent and not to need or depend on anyone, and to fear connection or otherwise be heartbroken. Emotional starvation is a reality in America. Feeling emotionally deserted, rejected, or abandoned sparks physical and emotional pain. Terry Real, the founder of Relational Life Therapy, feels that there are very few ways to cope with our pain when our primary needs for connection are not met.
- Were you taught about needs and how fundamental they are?
- Reading these needs, do they ring true for you?
What do you need?
This seems like a simple, straightforward question. But it actually requires self-reflection and awareness. So many of us are screaming at people (or stonewalling them!) for things without actually knowing what the underlying need is and articulating that instead. Knowing what you need and how to ask for it will strengthen your relationships and minimize conflicts.
Understanding our emotional needs empowers us to make ourselves happy and can relieve a sense of helplessness that often causes distress. We can look at the imbalances in our jobs, relationships, and environments from a unique perspective. Instead of thinking there is something wrong with us, we can ask, “what needs are not being met?” This leads us to problem solve more effectively.
When you are having a strong reaction-think fear, anger, anxiety, or desperation, stop and ask yourself, “what am I needing here?” Dive beneath those surface emotions and strong reactions at what lurks beneath them. I often have clients imagine an iceberg. The part of the iceberg that is sticking out of the ocean and can be seen easily are those strong reactions and emotions. But underneath the water and what is harder to see, are those primary fears, needs, and emotions that drive those strong reactions and emotions.
- Am I aware of what I need?
- What do I love? Value? Want? What matters to you? What do you enjoy?
- Which of my needs are flexible and which are not?
- What do I need the most?
- What does my iceberg usually look like? Above the surface and underneath?
Typically, how do you go about getting your needs met?
There are healthy and unhealthy ways of getting your needs met.
One common, unhealthy strategy is by glorifying being a “low-needs, low-maintenance” person. Being go with the flow, flexible, and easy-breezy is encouraged in our culture. We believe the myth that needing is a burden and not needing makes us more lovable. We need to break the belief that it’s weak to have needs. So often we starve our needs to the point where we don’t even know what we need anymore and can’t even name them. I challenge you to let go of the idol of self-sufficiency and lean into connection and vulnerability. If you want to read more about this idea, read Daring Greatly or Rising Strong by Brene Brown.
A healthy and effective way to get your needs met is by using assertive, loving, soft communication. A Gottman Institute study concluded that the most reliable predictor of long-term marital success was a pattern in which wives, in non-offensive, clear ways communicated their needs, and husbands willingly altered their behaviors to meet them.
- How do I respond to others? Is it usually passive, aggressive or assertive?
- Do I often deny I have needs? Do I put others’ needs above my own?
- Do I demand my needs be met by everyone? Do I feel I have the right to have my needs met?
- Do I express my needs in honest, open ways? How can I improve this?
Is your partner meeting your needs? Are you meeting your partners?
According to Johnson, “those who feel that their needs are accepted by their partners are more confident about solving problems on their own and more likely to achieve their own goals.” One helpful way to assess connection and met needs is by using her A.R.E. Questionnaire.
- Are you there for me?
- Can I reach you?
- Are you able to stay open to your partner when you have doubts or feel insecure?
- Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?
- Do you tune in to your partner and show that their emotions, needs and fears matter to you?
- Do you place a priority on the emotional signals your partner sends and in return send clear signals?
- Do I know you will value me and stay close?
- Do you give a special kind of attention that we give only to a loved one?
- Are you being emotionally present?
If these questions are hard to answer or if reading these, you realize that you and your partner need help with this, contact a couples therapist to help you. Oftentimes, these aren’t happening because of a history of unmet needs between you.
- Do I feel safe sharing my needs with my partner? Do they feel safe sharing with me?
- Am I clearly communicating my needs to my partner or are they only seeing my secondary, surface emotions like anger, resentment, or distance?
- Am I making them guess my needs? Am I left guessing my partner’s needs?
Are unmet needs creating conflict in your relationship?
The round and round negative cycle of
is toxic. It can lead to disconnection, infidelity, and even divorce. This cycle is a desperate and unproductive struggle to get your needs met because there is a lack of awareness, clear communication, and understanding.
The conflict starts with something that goes on inside of you. You want something, you have a need, and you’re not getting it. Think of the iceberg again. Dive deeper past the easy-to-see reactions and defenses and ask yourself what it is that you want at this moment.
Every unresolved conflict and every hurt that’s not resolved with patience and understanding means your relationship is burdened with more and more unmet needs and more resentment.
- Do you feel resentful? Do you pick fights?
- Do I feel withdrawn? Am I seeking attention elsewhere?
- How can I negotiate my needs with my partner?
How can I change to better get my needs met?
Learn how to use this sentence: “I feel _ about _ and need _.”
The more you can articulate your request as having to do with your own needs rather than your partner’s feelings or actions, the more likely you are to be heard.
It’s helpful to practice how to negotiate with your relationships, moving from a win/lose battle to utilizing relational wisdom (thinking in terms of ‘We’ rather than ‘I’). It’s extremely dysfunctional to get into power struggles, use vague concepts, stonewalling or avoiding, or seeing each other as the bad guy.
We articulate our needs and yet we also accept the relationship’s limitations, not because we have to, but because we have decided it is worth it. Because we value the relationship and ourselves enough to speak up and learn to communicate effectively and to have the best relationship possible. Learning the balance between the ideal and being realistic is invaluable to yourself and to your relationships.
- Am I using loving boundaries in order to help get my needs met?
- How can I change my complaints to requests?
- How can I take responsibility for my needs?
- How can I best ask for my needs to be listened to rather than be dismissed?
- Am I using soft, connecting words and tone to convey my needs?