- We tend to react to what people say based on the story we tell ourselves about their intent.
- Our reactions are triggered when we think someone deliberately intended to violate one of our social needs.
- Social needs help us to succeed but they often leave us feeling hurt or angry when they are not met.
When you are mad or hurt by something someone said, do you know if they intended to cause you harm? Most of the time we react to people based on the story we tell ourselves about their intent without asking what they were hoping to achieve with their words. Our emotional reactions are based on our interpretation that the person deliberately intended to step on or ignore one of our social needs. We make up a story about what the person was thinking when they violated the need.
The strengths and snags of social needs
From the time we are born, we repeat behavior that brings us attention, love, and/or safety. As we navigate life beyond the family, some behaviors become more significant than others as we seek to feel confident or comfortable in social groups. Typical needs include desires to feel respected, recognized, in control, and liked.
On the positive side, social needs fuel personal or professional successes. My need for attention helps me succeed as a writer, teacher, and speaker. My need for recognition drives me to do good work. My need for control led me to run a successful business.
These repeated behaviors become personal strengths. They also become trigger points.
The rejection or ridicule of social needs may diminish self-worth and confidence. The emotional distress from social disapproval can cause anxiety, self-doubt, and hopelessness. The depth of distress is often related to culture, religious values, and expectations of significant others. Some people never earn the acknowledgment they crave.
We all want to be seen, understood, cared for, and valued for what we know, what we do, and who we are. We take it personally when our strengths, contributions, or talents are not acknowledged. We feel violated when someone crosses a boundary that impacts our sense of safety, honor, or order.
Exercising emotional choice
Think about the last time you felt irritation, anxiety, or wounded while interacting with others. What did you expect to get that was withheld or disregarded? What about when you led a team meeting or your work with a new client didn’t go as you had hoped? Did you feel incompetent? Useless? Insulted? Consider what you thought you were losing so you might be more objective with your reactions in the future.
Don’t be embarrassed or upset with your impulse to defend yourself, convince others, or shut down. When you have a moment to reflect on your reaction, be curious about what transpired so you can learn from the experience. Acknowledging what you thought you needed but didn’t get can begin to weaken the control the need has over your brain. This will support your practice of self-awareness and emotional choice while you are interacting.
Because of your brain’s quick reaction time, the skill is to catch yourself reacting and then quickly shift your emotions. Noticing that you are reacting is the first step. Take clues from your body. Do you hold irritation in your stomach, shoulders, or jaw? When you are anxious, does your heart beat faster? Does the back of your neck heat up? The quicker you are aware of an automatic physical response, the faster you can name an emotion you prefer to feel. You relax and breathe the desired emotion into your body to make the shift.
Developing the mental habit of noticing and shifting your emotions takes time. Consistent practice makes you consistently better. Improve your emotional awareness by setting your phone alarm to go off three times a day for two weeks to remember to ask yourself, “What am I feeling? Is there something else I’d rather feel right now?”
Bringing social needs into the conversation
When a significant need is disregarded or ridiculed, you react with some degree of anger or stay silent filled with hurt and self-doubt. You may counterattack or keep your pain to yourself. Even if you pretend nothing happened, you may never forgive the transgression, further damaging trust in the relationship.
The following list includes some of the most common emotional triggers, meaning you react when you feel as though you aren't getting or will not get a need that is very important to you.
Be Accepted.....Be Respected
Be Liked.............Be Understood
Be Needed........Be Treated Fairly
Feel Loved.........Feel Important
Feel Safe............Be Included
The Four-Sentence Formula to Set Boundaries and Reduce Conflict
Making an assumption that someone meant to disrespect your need could escalate into an argument. When you feel your emotions triggered, ask if you can share what you are experiencing. If the person is open to hearing your thoughts, use this four-sentence method to de-escalate the conflict.
- “This is what I heard you say.” Repeat key words the person said. Say it in one or two sentences. Don’t add your interpretation or assumption of meaning.
- “I felt you didn’t (state the need you didn’t get).” Share the need you feel you didn’t get, such as respect, appreciation, or a judgment-free, safe conversation.
- “My hope is that we can talk about what we both need to strengthen our relationship.” State what you hope will happen as a result of an open conversation.
- “In the future, I would like you to _____. Is there something you need from me?” This final statement is your request for how you would like your need to be met in the future.
Example: “When you interrupted and said my idea would never work, I felt you cut me off with no explanation, that you think my ideas have no value. Can we talk about how we can interact in a more productive way? In the future, I’m happy to hear your reasoning and ideas if you let me finish my thoughts first. Is there something you would like me to do differently?”
You may feel vulnerable when you share your feelings and needs, but it is better than staying angry or hurt. The person might respond defensively, but can’t deny the impact their words had on you. Ideally, the person will hear you and be more attentive to your needs in the future. Hopefully, they will share what they need as well.