I’m of the opinion that we all share certain fundamental needs.

Things like autonomy, interdependence, spiritual communion and play. All of our emotions and feelings are just expressions of a need being met or unmet. Whenever we make judgements, criticisms, diagnoses or interpretations of others, we are expressing our needs in an alienating way, not likely to have them met.

For example, if your partner says,

“Ugh, you didn’t take the rubbish out again. You never listen to me!”

They might be expressing that their need for understanding or support is not being met.

Often, when our needs aren’t being met, our instinct is to pass judgement and assign blame to others and external events. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t result in our need being met, as it triggers a defensive response from the other person.

The more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately.

Yes, this will take some courage and cause you to be vulnerable. But by doing so, you’ll build a stronger bond with the other person and are more likely for both of your needs to be met.

Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings with Needs

An example of this instinctual passing judgement is the way we often don’t take responsibility for our feelings. Try and hear the difference between these two statements.

“Bloody buses! Always running late! I can’t believe they have such little respect for us and our time. They just make me so mad!”

and:

“I feel frustrated the bus is running late because I am needing a greater sense of control over when I arrive for my appointments.”

What do you hear is different between the two?

Some of the habitual patterns we fall into include the expression “I feel (some emotion) because… followed by something other than I. Other patterns are statements that only mention the actions of others.

If this concept of connecting your emotions to an underlying need seems foreign or difficult, then there’s a useful guide you can use.

“I feel… because I…”

For example, you could say:

“I feel frustrated the bus is running late because I am needing a greater sense of control over when I arrive for my appointments.”

Or:

“I feel relaxed when the wind blows past my face because I needed some peace and harmony with nature.”

Or even:

“I’m disappointed you didn’t score well on the math test, because I think math tests are good for your learning, and it’s important to me that you grow up to be bright and intelligent.”

Through my own experiences and practice, as soon as I begin talking to someone about what they need rather than what’s wrong with them or others, the possibility of meeting all our needs is greatly increased.

It’s pretty empowering. No longer are you at the whims of external events. The long line waiting for coffee doesn’t cause you to be frustrated. Being frustrated is a choice you make.

That potential date cancelling for the second time this week doesn’t cause your saddness. Your saddness might have been because you were needing some companionship.

The Three Stages to Emotional Liberation

In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg talks about the Three Stages to Emotional Liberation. As we develop our practice and move toward a state of emotional freedom, many of us go through a series of three stages in the way we relate to others.

The first is referred to as the emotional slavery stage, where we believe ourselves responsible for the feelings of others. It’s the mindset that you must constantly work to ensure everyone is happy. One of the problems with this approach is that it can wear us out and cause us to see our closest companions as burdens.

The next stage involves us becoming aware of the damage assuming responsibility for others’ emotions can have on both us and our relationships. Often there are feelings of indignation, so this stage is referred to as the obnoxious stage.

Statements like:

“Not my problem. Only you can make yourself feel unhappy.”

Are common here when confronted with someone else’s pain. We know what we’re responsible for but have yet to realise how to be responsible to others.

In the final stage, emotional liberation, we hear and respond to the needs of others out of compassion. We accept full responsibility for our own actions, feelings and intentions, but not others. We are aware, however, that we can never meet our own needs at the expense of others.

These stages are by no means a linear progression, and many of us float back and forth as we continue to grow. I know I personally spent a tonne of time in the obnoxious stage, and there are still plenty of times I go back there now.

An important summary of needs

There are two key points I’d like you to take away from an understanding of needs.

  1. You, and only you, are responsible for your emotions.
  2. Emotional actions, or things which might offend you, are expressions of unmet needs.

The first point allows you to better connect with what’s going on inside you. It promises to cultivate a calmer attitude to life and will bleed through into your communication. People will hear it less as blaming and judging, more as you taking ownership.

The second point allows us to humanise our interactions with people. What might have once seemed an unresolvable dispute with an evil villain becomes managable.

By seeing the potential unmet needs behind someone’s actions, we can relate to them. You have those very same needs. Likely there was at least one time those needs haven’t been met.

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Photo is at the start of the Overland Track in Tasmania (the Cradle Mountain end).


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