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Your Five Core Emotional Needs Keep You Feeling Alive 

Caught in a cycle of detaching from it all? Try these simple tips to reconnect.

Key points

  • We are all born with core emotional needs that are part of who we are for life.
  • Growing up, the way these needs are fulfilled or frustrated forms our character.
  • We can learn to live without some needs being fulfilled, but this can cause us trouble as adults.
  • It’s never too late to learn how to re-connect with your core needs and improve your quality of life.
Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Detaching from it all doesn't always help.
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Netflix and chill. Vibing. Doomscrolling. Screen addiction. Your next episode starts in 5… 4… 3… There is nothing wrong with checking out and relaxing, but we all know it can turn into unhealthy detaching from it all.

Whether you’re overwhelmed by stress, or going through grief, or coping with depression or anxiety, detaching is a short-term solution that creates a long-term problem. Too much detached self-soothing and life starts to lose its brightness and pleasure and begins to feel empty. Schema therapy offers some steps you can take to get back on track.

Schema therapy’s concept of the five core emotional needs (Young (1994) can help guide us back to an authentic sense of our experience.

From birth, we have these five core needs:

  1. To have safe, secure relationships with loved ones
  2. To feel it’s OK to make mistakes and be imperfect
  3. To say how we feel and what we need
  4. To have loving discipline and structure that isn’t mean in tone
  5. To feel free to be joyful, spontaneous, and creative

It’s up to your parents or caregiver(s) to provide for these needs as you are growing up and dependent on them. It’s our caregivers who guide us on the journey of feeling and validating these five needs. But once you are an adult, it’s up to you to make sure you are being a good caregiver for yourself, and that you are providing for these needs.

Depending on how well your parents validated your emotions, you may have developed certain ways of understanding the world and coping in response to friction, neglect, pressure, or unmet needs. Schema therapists call these ways of coping schemas and modes. Many of our schemas and modes are about protecting us from painful feelings of vulnerability when our needs go unmet.

In other words, it’s better to not feel a need than to feel it being rejected, right? Once you’re used to detaching from your emotional needs, it becomes a challenge to locate those feelings again. It’s like our vulnerable side is invisible or lost in the louder voices of coping.

So when you are chilling and detaching, you may be relying on that detachment to avoid the fact that your emotional needs are going unmet.

To use the five emotional needs as a guide to re-finding yourself, try these steps:

  • Go through the above list of five needs and see how you feel about each of them these days. Try to have an honest dialogue with yourself about whether these needs are really being met, or what’s going wrong.
  • If you find a couple of needs that are going unmet, try to remember the last time you felt these needs were being fulfilled. What was happening at that time in your life? This could be any time: childhood, teen years, early adulthood, etc.
  • How can you create the circumstances in your life now to feel better about those needs? What’s it going to take?
  • Be kind to yourself, like a good caregiver, around understanding your needs and how you deserve to have them filled. Try to give yourself what is missing with kindness.
  • If you feel a certain need has never really been met, you may want to share this with a therapist who can help you get a better sense of what you’re missing and how to make it happen now. It really helps to have help with this.

So, for example, have you noticed that you don’t feel spontaneous or creative? When you think about this need, what feeling comes up? It’s common to feel shame or defectiveness around self-expression. Where does that negative feeling come from, and how is it inhibiting you? What is one simple activity you can do to bring some creativity back without shame?

Are you holding back on expressing your needs and feelings? You may be feeling that you can’t vocalize for some reason. Maybe you worry about hurting someone with the truth or that your needs aren’t valid, or you’ll be rejected. What do you think makes your feelings or needs a problem in this situation? Can you see them as valid? If not, why not? The answer may surprise you and tell you more about yourself than you expect.

If you are about to give a presentation and are feeling panicky or nervous, your need for safety and stability may feel threatened. Why is this presentation so high-stakes? Tell yourself that you will be accepted and valued even if you make a mistake, because you are loved and important as you are. Remind yourself that you have done your best, and if it doesn’t go well, you will survive and learn from your successes and mistakes and grow from the experience.

It is a natural human inclination to push ourselves away from our emotional needs in order to cope. This works if you are trying to push yourself through a tough gym workout, but not if you need fulfillment, validation, and affection. So the next time you are tempted to “over-chill,” you may want to first ask yourself what you may really need.


Young, J., Klosko, J. (1994). Reinventing Your Life. New York, Plume Penguin Group.