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Exploring Childhood Beliefs About Emotional Needs

Written by Kara Thompson, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

In a previous blog post “Calming Down: “What Do You Need From Me?’”, we explored how we can provide support to our loved ones by seeking to better understand their needs. It was recommended that instead of trying to assume what our loved ones need in a moment of high emotions, we could ask the question, “What do you need from me?” As explained in that article, one of the goals of this communication tool is to encourage our loved ones to pause, slowing things down and allowing space to explore what would feel supportive. But, identification of our own needs can be an unexpectedly challenging task… Why is it so difficult for so many of us?

“Wait, What Do I Need”: Exploring Childhood Beliefs About Emotional Needs

In starting the conversation around exploring needs, I think it’s important to better understand the ways in which we’ve first learned about our emotional needs… going back to childhood. Yes, in many ways this is going to be depending on the family/community/context in which we grew up. For some, there were no healthy adult figures to help give space to process emotions/feelings as a child. For others who may have had healthy adults in their life, the way in which emotions were reacted to may have inadvertently rendered wounds. Regardless, beliefs about emotional needs were born. Depending on the way that our emotional needs were allowed, received, and responded to as a child, we adopted rules or expectations (consciously or subconsciously) around needs that now influence our adult selves.

Let’s use an example here to explain this further: An 11-year-old child comes home from school, breaking down into tears about a bad grade they received on a project that they put a lot of effort into. If the parent’s internal thought is “this isn’t even that big of a deal,” then their response to their crying child may sound something like “You shouldn’t be so upset about this. Go read your book and you’ll feel better.” In this scenario, it is clear that the parent wants the child to be happy… the intention is pure and maybe coming from a caring place! However, their response to the child may not only have invalidated their emotions but also restricted the child’s exploration and communication of needs. Imagine if the parent was to have responded differently with something such as “Wow, this seems to be really upsetting you. I could imagine how sad this might feel. What do you think you need right now? Some alone time? A hug? Something else?

As children, being taught that there are safe and encouraging spaces to explore our needs is so important. Their feelings/emotions/experiences are to be validated so that their self-compassion can be nurtured and the journey towards knowing themselves can begin. For many of us, our adult challenges around prioritizing needs are rooted in maladaptive beliefs or even childhood wounds. Even if our emotional needs as a child were not always met with grace and compassion, there is always an opportunity for re-learning. If you’re open to embarking on this journey, I’d encourage you to spend some reflective time thinking about the “need beliefs” you may be carrying with you from childhood. How were feelings responded to? Did you find yourself questioning the validating of your emotions? How did your caregiver communicate their emotional needs? Were you often told how to calm down, or were you able to explore that for yourself?

One of the powerful opportunities about establishing a relationship with a therapist whom you can trust is the opportunity to better understand childhood patterns, the way they affect us now, and what we want to do with these insights moving forward. A therapist can walk alongside you as you work to identify, challenge and re-define the emotional needs that you’ve carried (or in some cases buried) all these years. You are not alone in the struggle to identify the needs you hold and the way you can best be cared for.

If you or a loved one are not already connected with a therapist and are interested in finding a clinician who is fit for you, reach out to us at Symmetry Counseling. You can learn more about our counseling services on our website, and then contact us to connect with one of our Chicago therapists.

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