“Our survival needs are fulfilled when we are taken care of at home; our emotional needs are fulfilled when we are valued at home.” - David Richo
In our current cultural paradigm, we think of needs as logical, reasonable, action-oriented items to check off a to-do list. Eat (check). Sleep (check). Go to the gym (check). Pay our taxes (check). Go to work and make a shitload of money to buy a fancy house, a couple of cars and a closet full of designer jeans (check).
All tangible, all attainable and all pointed at fulfilling our physical needs for things like food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation and the like. And yet, there are other needs we have as humans which have found themselves on the short end of the stick for centuries now as patriarchal and logic-driven ways of relating to each other, and our needs, have been a driving force.
Not only are we living in a time where our physical needs sit in a hyper-elevated tower of priority (you’re nobody without a high paying job and the goods to prove it), but the effect of that prioritizing has trickled into our homes, becoming the bedrock upon which we raise and teach our children about what it means to be human. And the results are devastating.
Most of us matured in homes where our physical needs were met within the family of origin. Though some families struggled more than others, the majority of middle and upper-class households were able to put food on the table, a roof overhead and save for the occasional family vacation or new school outfit without getting into major debt. This means our physical needs for food, water, shelter, sleep and safety were being met by our parents. And, as most parents will tell you, they felt obligated to (and proud of their ability to) fulfil those needs. But, for many of us, that’s where a delineation occurred, for a society can only be as emotionally healthy as it citizens, and ours… has much to learn.
Emotional needs are the those which extend beyond basic survival and into the more abstract realm of thriving. They are those needs which, if met, allow for the natural and organic expansion into a wise, grounded, resilient adulthood where we are free to explore, create, and even fail, without fear of social rejection. They are also those needs, which if notmet, send us into a contracted, dysregulated, unhealthy state of living. In other words, when our emotional needs for love, acceptance, safety, value and compassion are not met, we turn into the worst possible versions of ourselves. Our directionality turns away from thriving and toward surviving, and, as most of us probably recognize, survival instincts are anything but connective, loving and kind.
Unfortunately, we (who live in industrialized, commercialized parts of the world) are part of a system wherein survival, and the needs associated with it, is our central focus. If you’re not convinced, take a look at the cultural memes dominating your social media accounts or the motivational celebrities dominating the covers prestigious business magazines. One not look further than Instagram hashtags (#bossbabes or #millennialmillionaires, anyone?) to notice our societal obsession with survival. Sadly, this obsession drives our innate desire and ability to flourish underground as we stay myopically zoomed in on our physical needs and desires to the detriment and abandonment of other equally important ones. While I’m certainly not suggesting physical needs aren’t important (nothing in life improves if you aren’t able to feed yourself), I am suggesting they aren’t a holistic picture. And, if we want to figure out why we don’t feel whole – as so many are seeking to do these days – we must personally and collectively acknowledge that it’s time for a paradigm shift.
As children, we are taught to soldier on, put a Band-aid on it, stop crying, eat a cookie to feel better, be a big girl (or boy), quit whining, get it together, use our words, give an explanation, come up with a solution, figure it out, pay attention, keep up, be quiet and otherwise use any suppression or distraction technique at our disposal to feel better. To some extent, these strategies are useful, especially when circumstances don’t permit us to lose our shit in an adult-sized temper tantrum. But, more often than not, they become permanent ways of living taught to us by those who were given the same strategies during their tender, formative years. And when distraction, suppression and avoidance become our default, our bodies and minds pay the price. For not only are our loved ones not hearing, seeing or valuing us, but neither are we… and self-abandonment is the most painful of all abandonments. Because, as adults, the home where we feel valued is the one inside ourselves, and, when we our home is not being cared for, it hardly feels like the sanctuary it’s meant to be.
But what do we do when we’ve spent years, and most likely decades, of our lives living under the premise that our feelings are scary, silly, indulgent or weak? How do we move out of vilifying all things illogical and emotional and into a space of balance and duality where both logic and emotion are valid tools for moving through life? Where our solution to confusion is not eradication, but understanding and practice instead?
First we must learn to see value in acknowledging our feelings and emotions as valid indicators and messengers that help our bodies maintain homeostasis, and therefore health. This, oddly, begins with seeing the detriment it does to our bodies and minds when we don’t pay attention and, instead, suppress, deny and distract our way out of our feelings because they “don’t make sense” or “are a waste of time.” All of us would like to feel better. Whether it’s our health, our relationships, our finances, our work or simply a sense of chronic dissatisfaction, almost everyone I speak to has some area of their life they’re desperate to improve. And yet, we reject the very needs which have the power to get us there: our emotional ones.
One of the most interesting qualities of emotion is its ability to self-resolve after it’s felt. Felt being the key word, as felt emotion (physically recognizing an emotion and it’s accompanying sensations) acts much differently in the body than unfelt emotion. Felt emotion signals safety, while unfelt emotion signals stress. Stress, as we know, is king, and when stress reigns, the entire system breaks down. We suffer chronic health conditions, our nervous systems feel frayed, we can’t sleep, we overeat, we’re reactive in our relationships, we can’t get out of scarcity-mode long enough to get ahead, we gain weight while starving ourselves, we rely on caffeine to get through the day and feel unmotivated, stressed and ready to snap or maybe give up all together on the idea of feeling well and resign to the idea that “life is hard,” with a fuck-it attitude that cynically carries us through the day. This is the effect unfelt emotions have on our lives, but because we have no skills in processing them and fear they’ll never leave should we indulge, we quickly shut the lid and never open it back up again, cutting ourselves off from the life-giving qualities of emotional validation. But, here’s the good news…
All emotions have a natural arc. A rise and fall that delineates their beginning and end. None of them are static and all of them, including the uncomfortable ones, will disappear and give way to a new emotion or feeling eventually. This is the cyclical, rhythmic nature of emotions. They come, they’re felt and then they leave, if - and only if - they aren’t thwarted by our fear of their existence. This leads us to understand that emotions don’t require us to “do” anything about them, as we’ve been taught to believe by our well-meaning parents and action-oriented culture, but rather only require to be felt. Once they’ve been felt, they often leave us with a message for how to move forward, but when we turn away, we miss the direction and guidance they provide.
Feeling, acknowledging, validating, accepting and welcoming our emotions means that our bodies begin to regulate and our minds start to slow down, our trust in life expands and our lives invariably improve. Unburdened from the task of running, we get to let go of distraction, avoidance, suppression and numbing and step into real pleasure, real connection, real purpose and real love. Not the quick-reward-kind we find in a box of cookies, late-night Tinder hookups or a nightly bottle of wine but the kind that leaves us feeling like we matter, this life matters and we’re grateful to be living it.
Whether or not we grew up in a home where our emotions mattered, we can learn a new way of living to better support our greatest potential and the potential of those around us. Logic matters, action matters, reason matters – but they are not healers. Emotion is a healer. Love is a healer. Compassion is a healer. Joy is healer. Even sadness, in all her grieving glory, is a healer. For her message says “I’m sorry you’re hurting. Slow down. Take your time. It’s okay to cry. Life is hard sometimes. I love you.”
Words that soften all of us if we let them.
In order to create a new world, one where our bodies are healthy, our minds are resilient and our hearts are open, we cannot afford to buy in to outdated, oppressive belief systems that would have us deny our instinctual, intuitive nature any longer. We must rebelliously and courageously decide to do it differently and invite others to do so through our example. Whether male or female, young or old, we cannot escape our biology for long, and when we try to, consequences mount. Will you welcome your feelings home? Will you give them a place to live? Be brave. You can do it.