Humans are born with a number of core emotional needs that in order for us to function and adjust well in life, would have to be met by our parents/caregivers. We don’t have to have had a perfect childhood, drama free, we just need to have had a good enough one, where most of our needs were met most of the time.
This is important because when we have lived through a childhood where our needs weren’t met, this has important consequences on the way we show up in the world and the relationship we have with ourselves and others. It’s almost always that when we have conflict, we project, we last out in relationships, what we’re actually doing is re-enacting some of the drama of our needs not being met by our caregivers.
Jeffrey Young, founder of Schema Therapy has identified 6 core emotional needs. When these are not met, they led to predictable patterns of functioning, behaviour and thinking later on in life.
Feeling safe is a matter of life and death so it’s a core need we have. When we do not feel safe as children, it often means that we are abandoned or abused in some way, especially by those that are supposed to protect, love and provide for us. When we do not feel safe, nothing else matters because our nervous system is focused on finding safety. When we do not feel safe, we feel vulnerable and fragile. We worry about being hurt, abandoned, and we might experience moods that are impulsive, intense, unpredictable, and erratic. In our adult relationships, we never fully feel like we can relax, we are hypervigilant for any signs of mistreatment or abandonment. We are convinced that we are bound to be abandoned by our partners or mistreated by them and we often end up basing this on a feeling rather than hard evidence. What often doesn’t help is that we tend to choose partners that trigger in us these feelings of unsafety, therefore continually reenacting this pain. When the need for safety wasn’t met, this leads to core beliefs/schemas/core wounds of abandonment or mistrust.
Connection with others
We are social beings so we thrive when we feel connected to something larger than ourselves and when we have a sense that we belong to something or someone. When we do not feel like we can truly and deeply connect with another being, we live with a chronic and deep sense of loneliness. We feel like there isn’t truly anyone out there for us, someone that gets us and understands us. We feel like we have to carry life’s burdens on our own with no one to help. We may also feel a sense of shame like there is something deeply flawed about us that stops us from connecting with others, therefore increasing our sense of loneliness. When the need for connection with others wasn’t met, this leads to core beliefs/schemas/core wounds of emotional deprivation and social exclusion.
Autonomy, competence, a sense of identity
What matters to us is also being able to have a separate identity from that of our caregivers. To feel like we have a self that is separate from others, a self that is able to function independently, that is able to make decisions, and that is able to face life’s challenges. When we had caregivers that did everything for us, did not allow us to make our own choices, constantly spoke about danger and how unsafe the world is, and that criticised and humiliated our attempts to become independent, our sense of autonomy would not have been fully developed. We become dependent on and even enmeshed with our parents. In adulthood, we might seek out relationships where we can rely on and depend on others as if they were parental figures. We may not have an identity that is clear and separate from our partner and our relationship. When the need for autonomy, competence and a sense of identity weren’t met, this leads to core wounds/core beliefs/schemas of dependence and vulnerability.
We all want to feel loved, valued, and like we matter in this world. Ideally, we would have had childhoods where we felt loved, appreciated, and respected. But this does not always happen and instead, we may experience constant criticism, shaming, humiliation, and bullying that can come from caregivers but also the wider social network such as siblings, peers, and other family members. When we do not have good self-esteem, we develop feelings of unworthiness, failing, lacking and not being good enough. We live with this sense that we are inadequate and we cannot achieve or be as successful as others. We feel a lot of shame about ourselves and who we are in this world and often end up feeling that the more someone gets to know us, the less they would like and accept us. So there is a real sense of living as an imposter, having different masks and hiding our real self from the world. When the need for good self-esteem wasn’t met, this leads to core wounds/core beliefs/schemas of defectiveness and failure.
Freedom to express needs and feelings
We need to be able to fully express ourselves, our needs, feelings and desires. We need to be able to live in a world where we feel like our needs matter just as much as other people’s. We need to feel like we can do things because they’re fun or they make us happy, not just because they please others. And we need to feel that life is also about spontaneity and play, and not just about work and achievements. Unfortunately, many of us can grow up in environments where the free expression of the above was not permitted. We may have been shamed, shut down or criticised when we tried to be ourselves. Or there were dynamics in the family that meant we had to take on responsibilities which did not allow us to be a child and play. For example, we may have had parents that had addictions or mental health struggles which led to us becoming their carers or caring for siblings. We may have also had parents that were perfectionistic and focused on achievement, thus instilling in us that work is more important than play. As such, we end up growing up with beliefs such as that our needs and feeling don’t matter and that we have to sacrifice ourselves for others. Or that our whole worth is based on our success and achievements. When the need for freedom to express needs and feelings isn’t met, this leads to core wounds/core beliefs/ schemas around subjugation (people-pleasing) and unrelenting standards (perfectionism).
Realistic limits and self-control
It may seem contradictory to the above need, but children also need to be taught limits and boundaries. When no boundaries are set by caregivers, we end up focusing too much on our own needs, disregarding the needs of others. We may have had permissive and indulgent parents, that may have allowed us to get our own way every time. We may have been rewarded for bad behaviour as well. Others may see us as selfish, demanding, controlling, self-centred and narcissistic. We may also struggle with self-control, leading to a lot of impulsive behaviour and not having the ability to complete tasks or work towards long-term goals. We may simply get too bored and lack the attention and concentration necessary to complete tasks that seem too mundane. When this need for realistic limits and self-control weren’t met, this leads to core wounds/core beliefs/schemas of entitlement.
When these 6 core needs weren’t adequately met in our childhood, this leads to the development of some parts of us that get in the way of us functioning well. Our vulnerable inner child stores all these experiences with their emotions, we develop a strong inner critic which is the internalisation of the parental voices and we develop coping strategies that lead to self-sabotage in the long term.
Ioana Rotaru is a London psychotherapist specialising in working with people with histories of childhood emotional neglect and trauma who now want to improve their relationship with themselves and others. If you would like to explore addressing any of the issues in this article, please contact Ioana at email@example.com for a free 15 minutes consultation about how therapy might help.