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Do you know what your core emotional needs are and are they being met? Part 3

Part 3 - To have the freedom to express your own needs and emotions

Imagine this for a moment. You are someone who rarely puts yourself first. More often, you are focused on what other people might want or like best. As a parent, you hardly ever take any time for yourself. As a partner, you let your other half make decisions about what you do and when you do it. In your family relationships and friendships you are often just going along with what others say and do. You rarely express your opinion clearly or openly. 

If this were true, why would you do this? Most of the time, people do this because they are either afraid of upsetting other people or they don’t want to feel guilty from thinking of themselves as selfish. In some circumstances, a person is unable to recognise at all what they like or need. This could be that they are so pre-occupied with gaining other people’s approval and attention they believe that unless other people provide it, deep down, they are not a worthwhile person.  

If you recognise some of these feelings and behaviours in yourself, then you may be stuck in a life-trap theme of remaining too focused on other people. This excessive focus on other people’s wants and desires prevents you from being able to acknowledge and express your own valid needs and emotions. 

How does this develop?

In the main, these problems are born out of family origins. They are born out of an environment where conditions were placed on your acceptance. For example, you might have only been shown love and affection if you avoided expressing your anger. You may have been ignored when you felt upset or cried because you were sad or frightened. Your parents either refused to or were not able to attend to your own wishes. Instead, they reacted harshly towards you or were only interested when you did something that met with their approval. 

Three types of life trap

There are three types of life trap that fit within this domain of being too focused on other people. They are subjugation, self-sacrifice and approval-seeking/recognition.

Subjugation

Subjugation is a problem that describes a pattern of letting other people dominate your behaviour. When you subjugate, you surrender control to others because you feel coerced. You are worried that unless you do what they want, they’ll either punish you or abandon you. You can surrender to others over both your needs and your emotions. If you have this problem, then it is likely that you’ll rarely express anger for fear of retaliation. 

Self-sacrifice

Self-sacrifice is different from subjugation in that the excessive focus on other people’s needs is voluntary. Here, people try to help others at the expense of taking care of themselves. Frequently, they are motivated to alleviate the pain and suffering of someone else. Whilst this isn’t bad in and of itself, it can be a problem if you do it to avoid feeling guilty about putting yourself first. For example, you avoid buying yourself something, watching what you want on TV or taking time to do something for you, because you would feel too guilty. It is also likely that you take on a lot of responsibility for how other people feel. 

Approval seeking/recognition

Seeking approval from others can become a problem when you habitually want everyone to like you. You try really hard to fit in and be accepted by others. Recognition-seeking is more about wanting others to constantly admire you and applaud you. You might over emphasise the importance of appearance, status, performance or money and how others perceive you. You attach your positive feelings about yourself to what others think rather than your own natural inclinations or from pursuit of your own values.

What can you do about it?

If subjugation is the problem, then it is about learning that you have a right to express your own needs and emotions. Here are some ways that you can begin to practice it:

  • Test out whether your feared predictions are accurate. Often people who subjugate over-exaggerate the feared consequences of expressing their views. Try expressing in some small way to begin with. Do it with someone that it feels safer to do it with. This might be someone you have a supportive relationship with or someone you don’t know that well who is less likely to chastise you due to the lack of familiarity. 
  • Make a list of the people in your life and separate them into controlling and not so controlling. If you have friends and acquaintances who are very controlling, then it is probably worth considering if they are people that you want to continue to have in your life. To help you overcome this problem, it will be useful for you to spend more time (to begin with at least) with people who are less controlling and more supportive.
  • If you have a partner who is controlling, to begin practising assertiveness. Assertiveness can be tricky and so you may want to go an assertiveness skills course or read up on how to be more assertive. Practising assertiveness is often more successful with the support of another, so involving a friend or professional might be more effective.
  • Keep a daily journal of your thoughts and feelings to help you begin to develop more awareness and understanding of what you want and need. Your thoughts and feelings provide clues to your needs and recognising your needs and emotions is the first step to being able to express them.

If self-sacrifice is the problem, then it is about learning that you have an equal right with others to express your needs and emotions. Here are some suggestions:

  • Spend some thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of ignoring your own needs. What do you gain in the short-term and what does it cost you in your life. Often, the costs are high to a person’s happiness.
  • Identify the people to whom you devote a lot of your time and energy. Think about just how helpless and fragile they are in reality. Make a list of both the ways in which they are vulnerable and capable. Try to give just a little bit less to these people to see if they can cope. Often people are more capable than they are given credit for. Some of these people may object to being given less, but in reality they can still cope pretty well.
  • Apply a give-get ratio to your significant relationships – weigh up how much you give with how much you get from these people. In healthy adult relationships, the balance should generally be equal (the exception is in parenting). Your relationship does not need to be equal in every aspect, but it needs to be equal as a whole. In cases where you are giving more than you are getting, then it will be helpful for you to begin redressing the balance. This might mean appearing less strong some of the time and expressing when you want or need help. And, it might mean giving less so that you have time for other things.

If approval-seeking/recognition is the problem, then it is about acknowledging that you have an authentic self that is different from your approval-seeking, false self (Young, 2003). Here are some ways you can begin to do this.

  • Weigh up the pros and cons of continuing to focus on gaining other people’s approval versus discovering who you are. You might think about how emphasising things like money and status only give you short-term satisfaction.
  • Try to begin seeking approval a little less in what you do. Try delaying any approval or recognition seeking. It’s a lot like delaying your fix of a drug. If you can begin to tolerate the withdrawal, then the craving will reduce over time. If you can gradually extend the time between approval seeking actions, then you can build up a tolerance to not having it. Instead, focus your energies on setting goals related to some personal values and then acting them out. For example, if you value fun, identify something you can do that is fun for you and plan when you are going to do it.

Applying some of the above strategies can be tricky and it requires persistence. Overcoming problems of being overly focused on others to the detriment of expressing your own needs and emotions can seem strange and uncomfortable at first. However, with repeated efforts, it will likely become less strange and more natural as the weeks, months and years go by. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Jim Lucas

Counselling, CBT & Psychotherapy in Birmingham city centre and Online
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