Empathy: Getting in Touch With Our and Others’ Emotional Needs

BLOG Empathy: Getting in Tune With Our and Others’ Emotional Needs

need want loveToday I stumbled upon a list of forty ’emotional needs’ on a fascinating site, EQI.org, by Steve Hein. He constructed the list from the sites of several students of emotional intelligence and of Maslow’s hierarchy (which has five levels of needs — physical, security, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization). The forty emotional needs cut across the four highest Maslow levels, and I’ve sorted them roughly according to this hierarchy:

Security Needs (needs from others): the need to be:

treated fairly

Belonging Needs (needs from others): the need to be:


Self-Esteem Needs (needs from others): the need to be:

approved of
believed in
listened to

Self-Actualization Needs (needs of self): the need to be:

clear (not confused)
in (self-)control

I’ve added learning to the final list, because I believe that we have a need to be constantly learning, improving ourselves (just check out the most popular section of the bookstore if you doubt me). Otherwise I think Steve’s list is pretty complete. I agree with his omission of happy from the list, because I think happiness is the result of us fulfilling most of our physical and intellectual/emotional needs, not a need in itself.

The list interests me from two perspectives:

  • In reading Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being, and in my study of Jung’s quaternity (our minds, emotions, body/senses and instincts), I’ve been looking at the place of our emotional selves in who we are and what we do. I agree with Moss’ view that we have become somewhat unbalanced towards the intellectual and emotional aspects of ourselves, to the detriment of our sensory and intuitive selves, and that, as a result, we live too much in our heads, at the mercy of our abstract ideas and fictional stories about the world and ourselves, and at the mercy of the stressful emotions that these ideas and stories trigger, so that, instead of living in Now Time like most of Earth’s creatures (and perhaps pre-civilization humans), we live in what I’ve dubbed Anxious Time. The above list suggests to me that there may be another, ‘through’ approach in addition to the ‘around’ approach that Moss advocates. That ‘through’ approach entails healing ourselves and others through empathy, helping them and ourselves to satisfy and fill these forty intellectual/emotional needs, by caring and attention and appreciation. It’s almost the antithesis of Moss’ approach, and I see the merits of both approaches.
  • As illustrated in the graphic above, my experience has been that most people seem, during their lives, to travel the path depicted by the red arrow — starting as babies with needs, erratically ‘maturing’ those needs into wants and loves, but then too often retreating back to neediness. A more mature approach, that some people I know seem to have found, is depicted by the green arrow — nurturing ourselves and others so that we ‘outgrow’ our needs, so that what we strive for is what we want and love but do not need, to the point we achieve an emotional maturity that is not needy.

I accept that this is all rather abstract — talking about our emotions in such analytical terms is a bit bizarre. But then that’s what psychologists do, and I have to believe we can find a better way of coping with our emotional needs than their dubious and expensive approaches.

So in short I’m thinking about three different alternatives to psychotherapy and medication to deal with modern emotional stresses:

  1. Learning to live in Now Time (freeing ourselves from emotional stress and illness by bringing ourselves back to a natural and prehistoric balance of the four elements of the quaternity).
  2. Learning empathy (resolving emotional stress and illness by love and appreciation and attention for each other).
  3. Learning to outgrow our needs (resolving emotional stress and illness by developing the maturity and self-sufficiency to love more, and — emotionally at least — to need less).

I’ve done enough self-analysis to know myself reasonably well, and I am convinced that the only emotional needs I now have are the need to be free (the first one in the list above) and the needs to self-actualize (the last 14 in the list). Of these needs, all but the first are needs that I can fulfill (and have fulfilled) within myself. All I ‘need’ of others and our society is to be free. Perhaps this is a rationalization, but it explains why, when I am in the forest alone, or playing with cats and dogs, I am completely happy, fulfilled. I never suffer from emotional insecurity, loneliness, or lack of self-esteem. I love to love and be in love, but I feel no need to be loved.

So this third, ‘outgrowing needs’ approach seems to work for me. Still, I like the first, ‘Now Time’ approach, because while I don’t need it, it does help me cope with the four stresses that continue to dog me (grief for Gaia, anxiety about coming civilizational collapse and what it will mean for my granddaughters’ generation, trying to live up to others’ unreasonable expectations of me, and impatience with my tendency to procrastinate on things that are important). And, as I reported in my review of Karla McLaren’s Emotional Genius, I also like the second, ’empathy’ approach, because it would seem to be the most useful to help the people who I love, to become happier.

Readers of this blog are aware that I have suffered from two serious ailments in my life: chronic depression, from adolescence until quite recently, and a chronic auto-immune disease called ulcerative colitis since 2006. I have speculated on the causes of these maladies (I blame the social consequences of overpopulation and overcrowding for our depression epidemic, and environmental pollutants for our auto-immune disease epidemic). But whatever the cause, the trigger or catalyst for both diseases is undoubtedly emotional stress. There is a growing consensus (both Steve Hein and Karla McLaren write about this) that depression is not an emotion, but a ‘shutting-down’, a putting on the brakes, that occurs in us when we get overwhelmed by a sustained trauma. It is the longer-term emotional equivalent of the physical shock that wracks our bodies in the case of a sudden severe injury. Severe depression is painful, ghastly beyond description, like an endless feeling of drowning.

I am not a believer in ‘curing’ such maladies, because even if we could confirm the causes, we could probably not ‘cure’ them — they are a fact of modern life. All we can hope to do is prevent the stresses that trigger them. I made huge changes in my life to reduce the likelihood of such stresses recurring, and they are helping. But there’s a paradox: To some extent we learn to cope with stress through practice, and now that I have less stressors in my life, I sense that I am becoming more vulnerable to the smaller stresses that still occur, and to any future, unpredictable major stresses that may occur. I am getting out of practice.

I am hopeful that by learning to live more in Now Time (the first approach), I will not become traumatized and needy when such overwhelming stresses inevitably occur. I have used the third approach (outgrowing my emotional needs) as my principal ‘preventative medicine’ for future emotional illness, and plan to use the first approach as a back-up.

But I do recognize that our world is a prison, an asylum, and that most people live lives full of anxiety and steeped in emotional trauma. Their unmet needs span all five levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, and (since I’m not really a believer in psychotherapy or psychopharmacy) I suspect the best approach for helping them is probably the second one — empathy.

Being something of a misanthrope, empathy is not my strong suit, and it is something I am not practiced in. But it’s important to me to learn, and the listening and attention skills it requires will benefit me in other ways, so I am going to dedicate myself to getting better at it. Here are some of the things I’ll be practicing:

Dave’s Empathy Skills Learning List

  • Personal emotional awareness: Before we can help others cope with their emotions, we need to be aware of our own. Many of us our blind to our judgements (like my negative judgement of psychology, for example), and to our own emotional weaknesses.
  • Emotional self-management: Learning to control my own emotional responses and reactions, emotional flexibility and resilience (especially in the face of ‘bad news’), and improving my emotional attitude (positive energy, enthusiastic).
  • Emotional communication: Learning to articulate my own emotions and my understanding of others’ emotions well. This is difficult!
  • Emotional attentiveness: Patience, presence, awareness of others’ emotional state, good listening skills, genuine appreciation, body language awareness, sensitivity, being supportive. Probably the most important learning I have to do.
  • Situational acuity: Understanding the context, back-story and power dynamics underlying the emotions at work. Becoming sensitive to why people probably feel the way they do, not as a means to prescribe solutions (that is not what empathy is about), but to better understand and appreciate how people feel.

There are a lot of other emotional competencies (like conflict resolution and consensus-building) but my sense is that I should focus my initial attention on the five areas above. I’ll be looking for courses, and opportunities to practice these skills as I develop them. If anyone knows of really good programs in the Toronto area, please let me know.

Category: Let-Self-Change

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1 Response to Empathy: Getting in Touch With Our and Others’ Emotional Needs

  1. Will says:

    Hi Dave- Regarding your list of empathy skills, I’d like to mention the Mankind Project and the New Warrior Training Adventure. Talk to some folks and do some research beforehand, but I had a great experience in the NWTA and the subsequent work. It might be a great fit for you, might not, but it could probably expand your toolbox. One of the major focuses of the work is simply becoming aware of our emotions. I have observed in myself and many others that men shut their emotions off. Having to consistently identify what I was feeling and label it to other men was a great eye opener for me – all that stuff was swimming just under the surface, and in many cases I had no idea!

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