Beyond Feelings it is the Unmet Need that Deserves and Desires Empathy

Beyond Feelings it is the Unmet Need that Deserves and Desires Empathy

“Sometimes someone isn’t ready to see the bright side. Sometimes they need to sit with the shadow first. So be a friend and sit with them. Make the darkness beautiful.” ~ Victoria Erickson

When feeling frustrated, angry, sad, overwhelmed, or any other unpleasant emotion, it’s because a need is not being met. A child disgruntled at school may have an unmet need to move. A parent overwhelmed may have an unmet need of relaxation. A person struck with anger may have an unmet need of safety. Anger is their response to not feeling safe.

The feelings are signals for a very important human need not being met. 

Acknowledging someone’s feeling is a beautiful gift. Saying, “I can see how sad you are”, or, “This is really painful, isn’t it?” are caring and empathetic responses. What’s helpful, however, is to know that empathy does not end there. A deeper recognition that each of us has unmet needs moves us further into a compassionate response.

Here’s a few common needs: Safety, Connection, Touch, Affection, Respect, Being Heard, Presence, Imagination, Creativity, Movement, Freedom, Being Valued, Appreciation, Empathy, Recognition, Relaxation, Shared responsibility, Love.

You may not always be able to recognize the need not being met in another, and neither may the person struggling. This is especially true if one is caught up in an emotional reaction, and their protective fight-flight-freeze survival response overwhelms them. At this point it may be best to empathize with exactly what is most present—their current emotional state. Holding them, and/or gently saying things like, “This is tough, isn’t it?” or, “I can really feel how hard this is for you” may be the necessary starting point.

Eventually, when they feel more centered and able to reflect on their situation, you may be able to help the person identify their unmet need. In other words, empathizing with the person’s feelings may be a gateway to the unmet need, a means of helping them regulate such that they have the presence of mind to discern the deeper cause of their distress.

One way to clarify the unmet need is to simply ask, “What do/did you need?” For instance, you may start by saying, “Tammy, I get why you are angry. This is such a big deal.” And then you might, after a period of time, ask, “What did you need in that situation?”, or “What need is not being met here?” or, “What do you need?”

If the person is not clear (and give them time, a chance to say it for themselves), you can suggest some of the common needs to them. “Is it safety? Is it connection?” “Did you not feel respected in this situation?” “Did you not feel valued or heard by him?”

You may need to help them build emotional intelligence—an inner library or language of needs. For many, if not most of us, we lack emotional intelligence because we weren’t taught to know our needs and feel our feelings. It’s why we much prefer to complain about our predicaments than speak on behalf of our unmet needs.

Take a moment to consider where in your life you are feeling frustrated, angry, sad, overwhelmed, etc. Now see if there is a need not being met in this situation.

If this situation is in a relationship context, part of the process of having your needs met may be to express to the other person your unmet need. You may not be able to rely on the other to initiate empathy when you are distressed, but you can rely on yourself to communicate why you are distressed; to speak up and explain what happens when a particular need is not met. In fact, the need you may very well be asking to have met by another could be empathy—an empathetic response to your unmet needs.

Again, we’re not taught social and emotional intelligence, and few of us were modeled these skills. Combined with our developmental trauma, it’s why relationships, both personal and professional, are incredibly complex, and why it takes training and courage to honour our needs, and the needs of others.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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