Emotional Needs – More Subtle and Sensible Than You Think

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Annie Gurton uses a mixed toolbox of psychotherapeutic techniques, theories and approaches which include elements of classical Rogerian Person-Centred, Human Givens, Freudian, Adlerian, NLP, CBT ...Read More

We hear a lot about needs these days. It’s not new – Maslow was proposing a hierarchy which requires certain basic needs to be met before higher needs can be considered back in the 1940s. But these days needs have taken up their own place in the lexicon of the general public and the psychotherapist.

For the person-in-the-street, the use of needs has become a short-hand for the ‘me’ society – it’s more important for the individual to feel that their emotional needs are met before attending to the needs of others. It’s not just selfish and narcissistic people who talk like this – there is a school of thought that says that if someone is stuck down a well it’s no good jumping down to rescue them: it’s important to first ensure that you’ve got all the tackle and ropes sorted out to ensure that you can both get up before starting a rescue. Put like that, it makes sense, but when someone repeatedly prioritizes their own needs over others it becomes less attractive.


Psychotherapists also bandy the phrase around. In relationships, it’s apparently crucial to ensure that ‘you get your needs met’ and the list can ensure conversation and attractiveness, while appears rather facile. In group work, individuals are encouraged to ‘get their needs met’ from the others in the group, the first stage of which is identifying what your needs are. Not always easy.

But at a deeper level, there is a wise and pragmatic needs-based approach to psychotherapy and life, which says that we have ten basic needs at the unconscious level, and if these needs are not met, we respond with anxiety, depression, obsession and/or addiction.

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This is called ‘The Human Givens’ and comes not only with a clear psychologically based list of our fundamental innate needs as human animals, it also has a list of innate resources which enable us to get our needs met. Just as we have thirst to ensure that we get our need for water met, and hunger to ensure that we get our need for food met, we are also programmed with a variety of strategies which ensure that our emotional needs are met. Sometimes, however, these resources misfire and again, the sorts of problems that we see in the therapy room can arise.

There are ten main needs, which range from security (having a safe home and environment which allows us to develop safely), to attention (giving and receiving provides us with emotional nutrition), having control over our lives, feeling part of a community yet having privacy, and having purpose and meaning.

In addition there are several key resources which include our imagination (allowing us to foresee a happy time), our memory (allowing us to remember what works for us, and what doesn’t) and our dreaming brain which allows us to process the events of each day.

Life is never 100 per cent perfect, but as long as our main essential needs are being met, and our resources are being used well, we do not suffer mental health problems. However, if just one of these needs is unmet, or our resources are being misused, it can affect our mental health and well being. So, if the therapist establishes which of the client’s needs are not being met or which resources are misfiring, it’s often a relatively simple step to suggest adjustments to the client’s lifestyle to ensure that the Human Givens are functioning correctly. There are of course, two main problems to this sweeping statement: first it may not be so simple to detect which needs or resources need attention, and second, making the adjustments may be extremely difficult.

Take Roberta, for example. She was feeling anxious and depressed and her HG therapist determined in the first session that her husband was extremely controlled (eliminating any sense of control she had over her own life and not allowing her any privacy) and her imagination was misfiring (so that she was unable to imagine any time when life could be different). She was unable to leave the marriage for economic and attachment reasons, but the HG therapist was able to help her see other ways that she could regain control, and worked to help her imagination become healthier again.

Once we understand that we have a set of needs which are more than social wants, and we have a set of resources, which when functioning properly, will take care of us without us thinking about it, life can become simpler. We don’t have to worry about implementing the resources – Nature takes care of it just as we have thirst to ensure that we drink enough water. But sometimes things go progressively and subtly out of balance, and it takes a trained Human Givens therapist to help the client get themselves back on track.

Keep Reading By Author Annie Gurton, MA
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