Do Different People Have Different Emotional Needs?
by James Kroeger
The debate over moral relativism vs. moral objectivism shows up in many different discussions of human nature. Within the field of psychology, it is generally assumed that different people have different emotional needs, that individual human beings are somehow able to decide what they are going to value and what they are not going to value, but is this true? If it were true, then we would be led by logic to the conclusion that there are no moral absolutes. The following essay questions the 'common sense' assumption that different people have different emotional needs...
Do different people have different needs? Conventional wisdom says they do. After all, isn't it obvious that three different people could respond to the same kind of criticism in three different ways? One could be crushed by it, another could be aroused to great anger, while still another seems to be dismissively amused. Doesn’t that mean that some people have emotional needs that are less sensitive than others? Well, actually no. People may show different emotional responses to similar situations, but the reason for it is not that they have different needs. It is important for us to understand why.
One very basic reason why people have thought that different people have different emotional needs is the fact that human beings are not born with an understanding of what their needs are. We have had no choice but to guess what they are. Although it is not true that different people have different needs, it is true that different people have had different guesses about exactly what our needs are. Over time, we have been able to improve the accuracy of some of our guesses, at least when it comes to improving our understanding of what our purely biological needs are. The challenge of explaining our emotional needs has been much more difficult, primarily because people have simply not wanted to discover that they have an extremely demanding need for approval that makes them profoundly vulnerable to the slights of others.
Another big reason why observers have found it difficult to say exactly what our emotional needs are is because people will often identify specific things (experiences, situations) as “needs” that are actually only different approaches that people use in their attempts to satisfy a very fundamental need (that they all have in common). There are many different contexts and many different situations in which people hope to get their fundamental need for approval satisfied. But the goal of all of these efforts is the same: to either obtain the approval of others or to avoid the disapproval of others. One very basic reason, then, why different people seem to have different emotional needs is because we often make the mistake of identifying a particular means-to-an-end as an ultimate end, in itself.
A teenager, for example, may feel a powerful “need” to own a certain brand of stylish clothing, but it is not the clothing, itself, that she needs. The outfit she thinks she needs may have some value just-as-clothing, but the big reason why she feels such a strong desire for that particular brand is primarily because she hopes it will enable her to experience a certain emotional satisfaction that she craves. Maybe she hopes she will hear some favorable comments (approval) from her peers, or maybe she just hopes that she will be spared the pain of being perceived as an “outsider” (implicit disapproval). People are often completely unaware of the fact that the need they are actually trying to get satisfied is their fundamental emotional need for approval.
One reason why some people appear to be more needy than others is because different people have different emotional histories. Some are fortunate enough to have been born with strikingly handsome features or maybe they grew up in environments where they became quite accustomed to experiencing frequently expressed approval. When individuals are able to enjoy such conditions for a period of time they develop an expectation—a confidence—that it will continue. In contrast, those who’ve had a history of regularly experiencing disapproval will develop a different sort of expectation. They will fear the pain of disapproval because they heard it before. Both types of individuals have exactly the same need for approval. Both are equally "needy." Both can be just as easily hurt. It’s just that some individuals are accustomed to having their emotional needs regularly satisfied while others are not.
Finally, perhaps the single biggest reason why some individuals appear to be less needy to us than others is the collection of factors that enable human beings to hide their vulnerability from each other. On the receiving end, human beings seem to be easily fooled by certain kinds of performances. We tend to believe what other people show us. If someone responds to vicious criticism with a confident smile (instead of with tears or fear) we tend to interpret such a performance as an indication that the individual doesn’t have the same vulnerability that we have. But these performances can only be maintained for a limited period of time. If an emotional attack were to continue, the facade of invulnerability would eventually break down because the pain inflicted by the disapproval would simply become too overwhelming. When that happens, the only way to continue to hide one’s vulnerability is by responding with raw anger. Then, instead of seeing vulnerability, an attacker would see the opposite: a threat.
Those who have come to understand the Emotional Facts of Life recognize that anger is one of the most glaringly obvious signs of emotional vulnerability. It is a biologically programmed emotional response that is triggered by either actually experienced pain or by the mere perception of a threat of pain. If it were ever possible for an individual to become truly indifferent to disapproval, he would never respond to disapproval with anger. In fact, there would be no response at all since the individual would be utterly unaffected by it. No pain would be experienced so there would be nothing to be upset about. Noticing that someone was laughing at you would have as much meaning to you as noticing that a leaf had fallen off of a tree.
Human beings do not have the ability to create or annihilate needs. In order to possess such a power, we would have the ability to make ourselves feel some kind of pain whenever a self-given need is dissatisfied or some kind of pleasure whenever it is satisfied. Exactly how is it that we could do such a thing? Just try to make yourself need something, sometime, that you do not need. What kind of consequences would you cause yourself to suffer if the need is not fulfilled? How would you go about making yourself experience those consequences?
The ultimate truth that all of us must ultimately face is the fact that all of our needs areexternally imposed on us and there is not one thing we can do to make them go away or to lessen their demands on us. We are slaves to our needs. The only option we have is to find out what they are and what we must do to get them satisfied. When it comes to our emotional need for approval, Emotional Honesty is the only answer…
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