7 mins

What are my needs? Identifying your emotional needs in a relationship

Most of us were never taught what we need in order to feel safe, secure and loved. 

When we’ve experienced safety, security and love, we know that we’re worthy of it. And we also know what to look out for. We naturally gravitate towards people who offer it. And we swiftly change course when we come across the people who don’t.

But if these basic needs were not fulfilled in our early life, this inner knowing might not come so naturally. We may have a sense that something’s missing – and feel frustrated and hurt – but we probably won’t know what to do about it. We might even struggle to put our finger on what the issue is.

The problem with this is that it leaves us passive. We allow life – and people – to lead us in all kinds of directions, whether they suit us or not.

When we don’t know what we need, how can we expect other people to know what we need?

So our relationship with ourselves comes first and foremost. As soon as we’ve identified our needs, we empower ourselves with the ability to ask for them to be met. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they will be. But hopefully it means that we’ll get most of them met. 

And the rest? 

We can go about meeting them ourselves.

What are my emotional needs? 

So, we all have core emotional needs. Some of these we all share, others might be more unique to you.

According to Schema Therapy, there are 5 core emotional needs we all share, and these are:

  • To feel safe
  • To have autonomy, feel competent and have a sense of identity
  • The freedom to express our needs and emotions
  • To act spontaneously and play
  • To have realistic limits, helping us to apply self-control.

*Jeffrey Young, Schema Therapy, 2003.

To start identifying your emotional needs, try writing a list under each of these areas. For example, ask yourself, “what would make me feel safe and secure in life?”, “what would bring me a sense of purpose, autonomy and identity?”, “how much play do I have in my life currently?”

If you’re finding it difficult to identify your needs, try making a habit of checking-in with yourself several times in the day. Ask yourself, “what do I need, right now?”

Normalise tuning into you and your needs.

When you’re trying to connect with your needs, it can help to tap into Wise Mind. Wise Mind is the part of ourselves that simply knows what’s best for us. It brings together the sensitivity and intuition of the Emotional Mind and the logic of the Reasonable Mind. 

A regular meditation practice can help with this. Find a secluded spot, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. During your meditation, stay alert to anything Wise Mind tells you about what you need in order to feel safe, secure and content.

Adults with unmet childhood emotional needs may have difficulty identifying that they have them

As you start to connect more with your needs, it can help to understand why they’ve taken such a backseat in your life so far. When we know why we struggle with something, we put ourselves in a much better position of “fixing” it.

People who instinctively know their needs, tend to do so because they experienced them. If you have difficulty identifying your needs now, it’s likely that certain needs were not met adequately as you were growing up.

Let’s say you grew up with a parent who was very aloof or detached. Emotions were rarely brought into the open, and you learnt that it was better to bottle things up. It’s understandable that you might find it hard identifying and expressing your needs now.

Maybe there’s the fear that you’ll come across as demanding or “intense” or that you run the risk of rejection if you pluck up the courage to ask for what you need.

Or maybe people-pleasing was modelled to you by a parent who themselves struggled with expressing their needs.

How to know what you want in a relationship 

Downplaying our needs in a relationship only breeds resentment. And no relationship can flourish when resentment is in the mix.

If you feel like your partner isn’t meeting your needs, you may be right. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re selfish – or don’t want to. They might just think things are fine exactly how they are. Whilst we all want a partner who is sensitive and emotionally attuned, we can’t expect them to guess how we’re feeling all the time. If we expect someone to fulfil (most of) our needs, we need to first tell them what they are.

When it comes to love, we all want different things. Because of this, it’s important to go into a relationship with a clear idea of what you’re both hoping to get out of it. All relationships require compromises but some compromises don’t level out. Sometimes two (good) people meet but their hopes and dreams are too far out of line to fulfil both partners in the long term.

What are the things you’re willing to compromise on? And what are your non-negotiables? You might, for example, decide that you’d be willing to move house to be nearer your partner but not willing to compromise on your wish to have kids.

Going into a relationship with a clear idea of your own needs – and your partner’s – will give you a solid chance of building a relationship that is mutually fulfilling and stands the test of time.

How to communicate your emotional needs 

Clear, open communication and good listening skills are vital elements for building a healthy relationship. If communicating your needs is something you’re not used to, it can feel difficult at first. If this is the case, it can help to start with smaller requests, working your way up to the big ones – as this is going to gradually build your confidence up.

How you communicate is also really important. You want to avoid taking a blaming tone so steer clear of “you” statements e.g. “You’re always late….”

Instead, use “I” statements e.g. “I feel upset when you show up late to our date nights because it makes me think that you don’t value the time we spend together”.

If you’ve spent a lifetime sacrificing your own needs for the needs of others, you might feel guilty as you start expressing your needs – but it’s important to work through it anyway. Just acknowledge the guilt when it comes, and try and gently let it go. Working with a psychologist can help in this process, as you start to untangle old unhealthy responses and fears from your new, healthier ones.

Above all, recognise that this is likely to be a slow, gradual process – and that’s OK. Be patient with yourself as you’re learning this new (important!) life skill. Remind yourself it’ll be worth it in the long run. When you start living life according to your own needs, it’s going to lead you in all kinds of exciting, meaningful and fulfilling directions.

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

2 October 2020

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced consultant psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector.

Having obtained a first degree in Psychology (BSc) at the American College of Greece, she completed her doctoral training at the University of Surrey. Dr Touroni is highly experienced in the assessment and treatment of depression, anxiety, substance misuse, personality disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, adjustment disorder and relationship difficulties. She works with both individuals and couples and can offer therapy in English and Greek.

Dr Touroni has held a variety of clinical and managerial positions including as Head of Service in the NHS. Further she has held academic positions for the University of Surrey and the Institute of Mental Health lecturing on specialist postgraduate Masters and Doctorate programmes.

She is trained in several specialist therapeutic approaches such as schema therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based approaches and Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT). As well as holding a variety of NHS positions, Dr. Touroni is the co-founder of a private practice in Central London that has been a provider of psychological therapy for all common emotional difficulties including personality disorder since 2002. She is the founder and one of two directors of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.