The Curse of “Emotional Needs”

The person who “needs” may also manipulate, control, or abuse.

Posted Jul 17, 2019

Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock

The idea of "emotional needs" is one of the more harmful notions of pop psychology. The term came into popular discourse in the 1980s, as part of what is known as the culture of self-obsession, which has grown steadily, as scores on measures of narcissism indicate.

The concept of emotional needs is derived from a misunderstanding of Abraham Maslow’s theory of motivation known as the “Hierarchy of Needs.” (I think today he would call it the “Hierarchy of Motivation,” given how the term “emotional needs” has been abused.) First published in 1943, Maslow’s original hierarchy begins with the most fundamental of motivations (eating, sleeping, excreting, and so on) and culminates with self-actualization–growing to achieve one’s fullest potential. Maslow later criticized his own concept of self-actualization, adding a new top layer to the hierarchy, which he called self-transcendence. He argued in this new version that we only find actualization by giving ourselves to some higher goal outside the self, in altruism and spirituality. His concept of transcendence echoes the call from ancient religious and spiritual sources to “find yourself by losing yourself.”

It’s important to note that Maslow’s hierarchy was in large part a developmental theory—that is, a description of the differential importance of various motivations as children develop into adults and adults grow to their fullest potential.

There is no question that young children have emotional needs in the development of a stable and cohesive sense of self and need help from adults to so do. It’s also true that toddlers cannot distinguish wanting something from needing it, which is why they can become hurt or tantrum-prone when we say “no” to something they want but obviously do not need, like a toy or a treat. At the moment they want it, it feels like they need it; the stronger the feeling, the stronger the feeling gets.

The toddler's brain is active in adulthood when we misinterpret feelings in relationships and confuse wanting, preferring, and desiring with need. It’s how we create a false sense that a lover (parent-figure) must mirror and validate our feelings or else we can't maintain a cohesive sense of self.

There’s a biological explanation of why adults, with a powerful prefrontal cortex, continue to conflate wanting, preferring, and desiring with need. The perception of need begins with a rise in emotional intensity. As the intensity increases, it can feel like you need to do or have something: It’s the same emotional process as biological need. (You can observe the process by planting your face in a pillow—emotional intensity rises just before you struggle to breathe—or by delaying urination; emotional intensity rises before there is pain in the bladder.) When emotion suddenly rises, your brain confuses preferences with biological needs. In other words, the perception of need becomes self-reinforcing:

“I feel it; therefore, I need it, and if I need it, I have to feel it more intensely.”

The perception of need falsely explains much of our negative experience in intimate relationships. If I feel bad in any way for any reason, it's because my partner isn’t meeting my needs. It doesn't matter that I'm tired, not exercising, bored, ineffective at work, or stressed from the commute and the declining stock market, or if I'm mistreating him or her or otherwise violating my values; I’m convinced that I feel bad because she's not meeting my needs.

The perception of emotional needs justifies and inflames entitlement:

“I have a right to get you to do what I want, because I need it, and my right is superior to your right not to do it.”

And let’s not forget the coercive element of emotional need:

“If you don't do what I need, you'll be punished in some way,” at least by withdrawal of affection.

Once the mind becomes convinced that it needs something, the pursuit of it can easily become obsessive, compulsive, or addictive. Obsessing about the object of “need” increases the emotional intensity and the perception of need: The more I think about what you should do for me, the stronger my perceived need grows.

In terms of motivation, emotional needs are similar to maintenance addictions, those that cause discomfort in withdrawal, with no stimulation of reward centers in the brain when gratified. Over time, there’s little or no reward in “getting my needs met,” and lots of resentment when they are not. I may not even notice when you do what I want, but I'll be angry or depressed when you don't.

No matter how seductive "I need you" may sound in popular songs, the partner who needs you cannot freely love you. In fact, if someone needs you, he or she is more likely to abuse you than to give freely of love and support. Most painful conflicts in relationships begin with one partner making an emotional demand, motivated by a perceived "need," which the other, motivated by a different "need," regards as unfair.

“If you loved me, you would agree with me and do what I want.”

“If you loved me, you would agree with me, and not ask me to do what you want.”

Any disagreement can feel like a threat through the lens of perceived "need." When we “need” someone to agree with us or do what we want, we’re likely to be controlling, demanding, manipulative, coercive, even abusive.

Validation vs. Empowerment

Pop psychology tells us that we need validation, and if we aren't getting our needs met, we're likely being abused.

Emotional validation is understanding and expressing acceptance of another person’s emotional experience. Young children certainly need to have their experience validated by their parents, as the emerging sense of self is fragile and unable to reconcile thoughts and feelings with what is happening around them. But in most interactions between adults, validation is more complicated than that which toddlers need from their parents. In adult interactions, validation must be mutual and respectful of differences in perspective.

In my long practice, people who are resentful about not feeling “validated” are not in the least interested in validating anyone’s experience that differs from their own. They’re more likely to invalidate–reject, ignore, or judge–other people’s experience when they decide that it differs from their own.

Emotional validation differs from empowerment, which is the ability to change your state of being, including your feelings and behavior, for the better. Adults who seek validation more than empowerment will end up disappointed no matter what they get. Feeling validated brings only a brief sense of well-being, unless we’re able (empowered) to respond compassionately in return, and otherwise actively improve our own emotional states.

Emotional validation is not growth. By definition, emotional growth is transcending the limitations of our painful experience. In other words, emotional validation is not an end but, at best, a precursor to healing and growth. An enriched life comes from the ability to self-regulate, which enables us to see many perspectives in addition to our own without falling prey to the entitlement, manipulation, and coercion that accompany the perception of emotional needs.