Updated: Jul 13
When we come into the world, we are tiny, vulnerable, and completely dependent on our caregivers.
What do we need for optimal emotional health, beyond the basics of food, drink and shelter?
To be loved and nurtured
To be safe
To be free to express our feelings
To be heard
To develop a sense of control over our circumstances
To play and have fun – including being creative and spontaneous
To have routines and consistency
To be protected - including having reasonable limits set on our behaviour
To connect with nature: to feel we're a part of the world around us
To develop autonomy and independence, a separate identity from others
These emotional needs are universal, although there may be cultural differences in how they are expressed and valued. For example, some cultures value "belonging" more than "independence", and vice versa.
Take a moment now to reflect on the list of needs.
Which of them were met in your childhood?
Which needs are being met now?
What feelings arise when you think about your unmet needs?
It would be very unusual to have all our needs met at any one time, and of course, our needs have to be balanced with the needs and rights of others; but when our childhood needs are not met sufficiently, it hurts, and we often end up carrying the pain of this into our adult life. We're likely to develop short-term ways of coping with the pain, but this can end up backfiring and causing us yet more pain. For example, we may:
criticise ourselves for having needs
strive to help others, but put our own needs on the back-burner
avoid getting in touch with our needs and feelings, perhaps turning to food or drugs/alcohol to help distract from or numb the pain
put others down, to make ourselves feel better: in the long-term causing problems in our relationships
In these ways - and others - we may fail to get our emotional needs met as adults, so that the past ends up repeating itself.
Our ways of coping may differ, but inside every hurting adult, there will be a part of them that is like a small child, feeling vulnerable and suffering the pain of unmet needs. If this sounds like you, the best, most healing way of responding to emotional pain is compassion: to connect with your inner child, and offer kindness and care. To listen, encourage, validate and soothe. To understand what you once needed, and what you need now. To help yourself find healthy ways of meeting those needs, where you can. To bring kindness and comfort when your needs can't be met right now.
Some people find this quite easy. Maybe they are already really used to caring for others, and it’s “just” a case of turning all those caring skills inwards. For others it can be really hard, for example:
Some people believe they don't deserve kindness.
For some, kindness and care feels "too much", and trying to access it may trigger traumatic memories, or feelings of deep sadness.
Others know it’s what they “should” do, but it feels impossible. The old patterns are so ingrained: self-criticism just feels “right” and natural.
In these situations, help may be needed. In addition to therapy, there is a great deal of self-help information available. I'd particularly recommend the book "Reinventing Your Life" by Young and Klosko, and The Good Mood Podcast.
The past does not have to repeat itself. You can learn how to soothe the pain of past unmet needs, learn to identify what you need now, and learn to meet those needs in healthier ways. It will take time, courage, and determination, but change is possible.
You can make a simple start, by doing a brief exercise of sitting quietly, and mindfully for a few minutes, noticing how your body is feeling and how your heart/emotions are feeling. Ask yourself: "What do I need right now? What is my body saying? What are my feelings saying?" Then, if you can meet the need, go ahead and meet it. If you can't, it's an opportunity to practice self-compassion: to speak kindly to yourself about the unmet need - as you would to a friend who felt this way.
It's surprising what you notice when you stop and pay attention. I've just done this exercise and noticed that physically, I am thirsty, and I have a pain in my right leg from sitting for too long. Emotionally, I'm noticing a little anxiety and tension: an inner conflict about finishing this blogpost. (One part of me is a bit anxious about posting it and is wondering if it's good-enough. Another part of me is feeling cooped up: keen to go outside and get on with the day).
So I'm going to respond to these needs. I'll press "publish", and speak kindly to the part of me that's feeling anxious; then I'll give my right leg a stretch, make a cup of tea, and go for a little walk outside in the fresh air.