How Do I Work With My Emotional Needs? A Model for Emotional Intelligence

I’d like to spend this article discussing my personal models for emotional needs. For many of us (especially men), working wisely with emotions only come later in life — often after a particularly emotionally painful event such as a breakup, being fired, so forth. That is true for myself, and as part of this process, I’m developing a few models that serve as guidelines for myself. I’d like to share them now, in the hopes that these models might help you as well, my astute reader! As always, take everything with the proverbial pinch of salt, don’t take my word for it, but try it out and see if these are useful for you.

I’ve found that, as we attempt to understand these deeper parts of our psyche, we tend to run into societal cliches around dealing with emotions. Sometimes these cliches have a helpful core, but more often than not, they’re unhelpful and even destructive. To be able to discriminate which of these nuggets of wisdom are useful, we first need to have a solid internal model we act from. This model might be called “your core values” or “your code/creed”. On top of these core values, we discover models of thought: practical, workable theories that we can use to inform our actions. My personal core values are the subject of other posts. Here, I’m going to present my theory for working with our emotional needs.

Steps Towards Working With Emotional Needs

It seems like its a universal quality of being alive that we have certain needs. Physical needs, such as needing food, are quite obvious. We need to eat. Interestingly enough, our needs vary — we all need to eat, but I might need to eat more protein than you and can easily digest gluten, while you might need to avoid gluten altogether.

In a similar vein, we also have emotional needs, such as needing to feel loved, needing a sense of belonging, needing to be praised, or needing to be admired. Physical needs are quite obvious, but our emotional needs aren’t quite as surface-level. Which is the place we start from when we learn to work with emotional needs:

Step 1: At the beginning, we are unaware of our needs, often leading to a certain sense of insecurity and uncomfortableness.

We might very well be emotionally healthy, but we’re incompetent. We don’t know what’s wrong with us when our environment changes and our needs go unsatisfied.

In writing about emotional needs, I find an interesting reaction in myself: listing those emotional needs raises an uncomfortable avoidance, almost revulsion, that’s absent when talking about physical needs. Writing that list conjures up thoughts such as “wow, that’s so needy of you, you’re so needy, eww”. (Can you tell I’ve dated sorority girls? ha). My hunch is that, at least for myself, the traditional model of masculinity taught me that emotional needs are invalid. Which brings us to the second step of working with emotional needs:

Step 2: We try to repress our needs, often leading to feeling depressed or anxious.

Around this stage, we might find ourselves being emotionally unhealthy. We might develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictions. We might tell ourselves things like “I’m so needy, this is terrible”. This judgmental attitude towards our own needs block us from working with them, but it doesn’t make them go away. Thus, we might find ourselves engaging in “protest behavior” — acting out towards people in an underhanded attempt to have our needs satisfied.

Fortunately, the turmoil of repressing our needs can lead to action. We get tired of feeling like crap and our coping mechanisms fail to satisfy, we might start looking for a way to be healthy. To that end, the next step in my personal model of emotional awakening is:

Step 3: We accept our needs, and try to fulfill them ourselves.

We realize we need some things, we accept these needs as inherent traits, and we start to satisfy them actively — except we limit ourselves only to what we can do, not what ae can let in. At this stage we might discover meditation, self-improvement, or some form of work we can engage in. We might tell ourselves things like “Oh, I need to feel loved, lets sit down and do a metta meditation”. We’re starting to become more emotionally healthy, and we’re starting to feel better, but we might struggle with a lot of anxiety: we feel like we have to save ourselves without the help of anyone else. We pour exclusively our own energy into satisfying our needs, refrain from turning to others, often leading to daily exhaustion.

In my experience, this step is the focus of a lot of mainstream self-help. For example, people making statements such as “you have to save your own life, nobody is going to save it for you”. These statements aren’t false, but they’re not the whole picture. They neglect the many ways we are deeply interconnected. I’ll continue the food metaphor. How does this sound: “You have to feed yourself, nobody is going to make food for you”. Laughable! Even when we cook food from locally sourced ingredients, we depend on others to cultivate, harvest, transport and sell foodstuffs to us. The greatest cooks in the world have deep relationships with their suppliers. They recognize they need their suppliers, and form a wonderful symbiotic relationship. Thus, the final step in my model of emotional awakening is:

Step 4: We accept our needs, we accept we cannot fulfill them alone, and we start building connections and community.

We start finding the balance between satisfying our needs through personal practices and through those we connect with. Balance is the key word here: we learn how to identify our needs and wisely fulfill them. For example, I might realize I need to feel loved, so I see where I can fulfill that need. My default might be to go to my partner, but if they’re busy, I’ll fall back to a loving-kindness meditation. Perhaps I need to feel understood, so I’ll spend time writing and blogging, or I’ll spend time talking to a friend.

Before anyone misinterprets this step as a step towards codependency, I’d like to highlight the difference in mental quality between saying “I need someone else to save me, I’m giving up” and “I know that I need others, let me find support”. It’s an important distinction! Don’t isolate yourself, don’t give up, engage your own energy and simultaneously ask for help.

To take this step, I have three useful tools:

Step 4.1: Build an Understanding of Your Needs

Just like with physical needs, our emotional needs vary. I might have a larger need for belonging, while you might have a larger need for being admired. Many people have developed all kinds of tools and systems to understand these emotional needs. For example, we can view the Myers-Briggs personality test, the enneagram, awareness-based meditation practices, and perhaps even astrology or tarot cards as tools and systems for understanding emotional needs. The big point here is noticing (being aware). How are we feeling? Where might that be coming from? Can I know that for sure? How do I know that? Which need is this?

Step 4.2: Build a wide basis of support, unifying people and practices.

We can run into trouble when most of our needs are satisfied in one and only one place. This is the codependency trap people are so afraid of: having all your needs depend on one person. We can easily avoid codependency by cultivating many places of emotional support. These sources of support aren’t all people, they’re also our personal practices. I’ve written at length here on having a wide base of support in relationships. The big point for this section is having multiple places of support. At the same time, I’m not advocating, for example, being polyamorous just to have multiple sources of sex. Rather, I suggest we avoid having most of our needs depend on one place. We can survive not having one or two emotional needs met for a while, just like we can survive not having much protein in our diet for a few days.

Step 4.3: “Right Ask”, Ask for support in the right place

Once we understand our needs and have a wide base of support, all that’s left is asking in the right place at the right time. Now… if only it was that easy! It’s difficult to know whether a specific source of support is the right place, or whether it’s available when you need it. It helps to take an approach of trial-and-error: see if you can get support from a specific source. If that source isn’t currently available, that’s okay! you have more than one, so you can move to the next. See how this approach can help you behave in a much better way towards the people that support you: you can directly ask for support, while at the same time letting them know that you’ll be okay if they’re busy. It takes the pressure off of everyone.

Once we operate at this level, we tend to start looking for community and connection. From this place of acceptance, understanding, and competence, I believe we can build strong interpersonal relationships and meaningful personal practices.