When you can't get what you want, get what you need instead
In Schema Therapy, the ultimate aim is to have our Healthy Adult side (the best, most compassionate part of ourselves) meet the needs of the Vulnerable Side (the vulnerable part of us that feels emotional pain). For example, if a friend stands us up for a coffee date we might feel disappointed, forgotten, or even abandoned (Vulnerable side). Our Healthy Adult side might assist by validating feelings (it’s understandable to be upset), normalising (no one likes being stood up), and challenging (it seems they don’t value me but it’s possible it was a diary error).
Role of the Healthy Adult in meeting needs
The Healthy Adult, like a good parent, will help identify needs based on our hurt feelings. In this case, the need to reconnect with someone else so we feel valued and the need to feel understood and supported by others. The Healthy Adult might then stick up for these needs by checking in with the friend (in a considerate way) and helping us think of someone to confide in so we can feel better. Like a good parent, our Healthy Adult sees the Vulnerable side’s pain and provides both compassion and practical direction to help.
Helping ourselves by getting our needs met makes intuitive sense. We can meet our need for connection by reaching out to a friend, meet our need for emotional safety by taking things slowly in a relationship or meet our need for understanding by trying to make sense of our own problems. However, this approach, like all others, has it’s limitations. As a Clinical Psychologist and Schema Therapist, I have noticed three common stumbling blocks, which can be bypassed with awareness and creativity.
Three common needs blockers
First, is not knowing what is needed. Second, is not being able to have this need satisfied because we live in the real world with real people who aren’t always there to serve our needs. Third, sometimes we unwittingly reject the care and support we do receive. Below are some ideas on how to navigate these obstacles to better meet our needs. Finally, I’ll discuss how to proceed when our needs simply can’t be met.
Tune into feelings to know what you need
Recently, someone questioned something I did, in what I felt was a rude tone. On one level, I knew that this was their defence. On the other hand, I felt insecure and doubted myself. When I thought about my need the only thing my mind came up with was “Argh! I want them to be not so rude!” Not very helpful because we can’t control other people. Since I couldn't get what I wanted, I had to focus on obtaining what I needed instead.
We can identify what we need by first identifying what we feel. A first step is being able to name, or label the precise feeling (“worried” rather than simply “upset”) to both regulate the emotion and to give us clues about what we need. A feeling is an emotion (such as feeling devalued) we often feel in our body. A feeling is different than a judgement “I feel they were way out of line” (feeling indignity) or “I feel they didn’t even give me a chance” (feeling dismissed). If you are struggling to identify what you feel, viewing the feelings wheel may help you recognise which feelings are present for you.
Once we know precisely what the feeling is, it’s much easier to know what we need. In my case as I felt unsure and devalued, I realised I needed reassurance and connection.
The second stumbling block comes when we know what we need but we are unsure how to get the need met. Below are a few ideas on how to get your needs met when the other person is not available to us.
Once we know what we need, we can attempt to meet this need (at least in part). In this case, I needed reassurance, so I made a list of the things I had done in the past year to grow as a person and I looked at my kudos file (list of achievements I collect along the way) for reassurance. I also went out for a ten-minute walk around the block and listened to my favourite song. It didn’t solve the issue but I was able to self-soothe. Feeling calmer, I made a plan to address the issue with the person.
Once soothed, reach out from your Healthy Adult
I needed connection, this was harder because there was no one around to confide in. I sent a message to a friend explaining what happened. I was vulnerable and stated I was doubting myself and wanted to check in. I made sure to ask about their day too as focussing on others is important for maintaining relationships.
Find the grey
When we’re distressed we may end up seeing the world in black and white. We either think about exclusively meeting our needs or that of others. For example, we meet our needs but we lose in other ways (i.e. we skip work and gain rest but we might get fired). Rarely though are extremes helpful or necessary. Instead, find the grey by. If you want to avoid family at Christmas time find a way of everyone getting something they want by attending only key events or staying for a shorter amount of time.
Sometimes it feels our need can’t be met because it’s simply not practical. For example, we need to rest but we’re at work or with the kids. In theses instances, booking marking our need for the next available opportunity can help hold us psychologically. For example, making a plan to rest even if it’s a simple as skipping the laundry and lying down for 15 minutes later that day.
Sometimes a person may reject the soothing they receive for others. This is particularly true if we grew up in environments where we felt emotionally deprived. In our adult lives, we might in fact, push away the very love and support we have always craved. The partner did A but they didn’t do B. The friend sympathised but they didn’t empathise. The relative supported but not in an ideal way. This contributes to feelings of emotional deprivation because nothing is good enough to meet our needs.
Be mindful of this phenomenon and think about what the other person is doing right rather than discounting their support because it was imperfect. Name the parts of the support that were helpful along with what wasn’t helpful to create a balanced view. It’s not about “thinking positive” but rather having a realistic view of the support available from another imperfect human. Another way of bypassing this dynamic is to seek physical comfort and affection such as hugging someone we feel safe with. Sometimes the body is more readily soothed than the mind.
Catch the mode behind the self-sabotaging
I sometimes refer to the Window of Tolerance in my work. When we are in the Window of Tolerance we feel calm and connected. However, when we become stressed or when our needs aren’t met we either become too overwhelmed and engage in the fight modes (self-aggrandiser, over-analyser, over-controller) or alternatively we become numb and switch off and engage in flight modes (detached protector, detached self-soother).
When we’re distressed and in a maladaptive coping mode (survival skills we employ to get us through difficult situations but add to the problem) it’s easy to reject the care and compassion of others. For example, the overcontroller mode may come in and criticise the way the need was met by the other person (it wasn’t done the right way or wasn’t enough). Being validated may ironically trigger angry feelings (Angry Child mode) “he never validated me before so why should I believe him now.” Finally, the Critic mode may dismantle anything good “I don’t deserve it anyway.”
Being aware of what maladaptive coping modes (i.e. overcontroller) or child modes (i.e. Angry Child) get in the way will help you understand if you are unconsciously sabotaging the support you receive. It will help make the most of the support that is on offer even if it’s limited.
Saying yay is the new black
Expand your Window of Tolerance by accepting and focussing on the support you receive, even if it’s not perfect. Say yay instead of nay! When you receive support practice saying thank you to the person, especially if they are your partner. The aim is to focus on intentions and what support was helpful (i.e. they gave me a hug) rather than where they fell short (i.e. they didn’t help me solve the problem).
When your need simply can’t be met
The three main strategies for when a need can’t be met is to; accept the need won’t be met by that person, meet the need elsewhere, and establish new parameters for the relationship. The hardest part is accepting this important person will not meet your need. The liberating part is that you won’t keep feeling crest fallen every time they don’t meet your need and can use the energy to meet the need with in another way.
To use a hypothetical example, Mara’s mother dismisses and invalidates her when she communicates any negative thought or feeling. To move forward, Mara had to grieve the part of her that wanted to be understood by her mother. While this took time and effort, she finally accepted the reality of her relationship with her mother.
Mara now talks with her friends and husband when she wants emotional support. She has a better relationship with her mother because they are no longer butting heads. Mara discovered they had a few common interests and can talk about these instead. She sees her mother less often than she used to but when she does it’s mostly pleasant. In this example, Mara has accepted that she will not get what she needs emotionally from mum, has discovered a way of getting her needs met through others, and has found a way to have a relationship with her mother that is more satisfying.
What are your most common emotional needs?
What modes and schemas get in the way of meeting your needs?
How can you better get these needs met by yourself and others?
Tena Davies is Clinical Psychologist and Certified Individual Schema Therapist (Standard). I am based in Fitzroy North, Victoria Australia. See www.tenadavies.com for more details or check out my Schema Explainer video here.