Emotional Needs

We all have emotional needs. In the 1940's, psychologist Abraham Maslow formulated his “Hierarchy of Needs Theory”. Maslow proposed that people have needs that must be met to create a satisfying life. There are basic needs such as the need for food, shelter, and security and higher needs such as social needs (affection, friendship, belonging), esteem needs (self-respect, recognition, attention) and self-actualization (being the best one can be). Maslow further proposed these needs will motivate individuals to take action until they are fulfilled (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs"
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For example, take a person's Physiological need for food, which is expressed as hunger.

When a person is mildly hungry, he or she will seek food that tastes good, looks good and somewhat nutritious. If foods meeting the criteria aren't available and eating is delayed, the mild hunger evolves into a moderate hunger. At this stage, the individual becomes less selective in their choices of food to satisfy their hunger. Now they are willing to eat food that may not taste as good and loaded with sugar and fat. If their hunger is still not satisfied (they don't have money to buy food) it becomes ravenous, and the individual becomes even less selective and resorts to extremes to satisfy their hunger. A starving person will go through the extreme of sifting through a trash bin seeking food.

Emotional needs are similar. If emotional needs aren’t satisfied in a timely manner, the action used to satisfy the need becomes more extreme.

For example, let's look at a child's need for a parent's attention.

At first a child will call out the parent's name. If the parent is engrossed in another activity and ignores the child, the child begins tugging at the parent's arm. If still ignored, the child begins to whine. If still ignored, the child progresses to a tantrum of crying, kicking and screaming. The parent finally takes note of the child and directs her attention to him. The child's need for attention is satisfied, but now the child has learned that one sure way to receive that attention is to throw a tantrum and may immediately resort to acting in that manner whenever ignored.

There is nothing wrong with having emotional needs or hungers as long as we realize there are healthy and unhealthy ways to feed them. How do we satisfy our need for food? With junk food or nourishing meals? With meals of adequate portions spaced out during the day or by bingeing and overeating? When we're not eating is the thought of food out of our mind or do we obsess about our next meal?

How we feed our emotional needs makes all the difference in the quality of life we experience. If we are consumed with feeding one particular need, we may ignore feeding others necessary to achieve a balanced life.

For example, an individual with an emotional need to be praised may seek satisfying that need by agreeing to every request made of them by others. While the need for praise will be satisfied, the individual and their family may become resentful of the demands made on their time and energy.