In this blog article I explain why it is important that you identify your feelings and needs, where your difficulties can come from, and how you can train your awareness - alone and with your partner. Plus, you'll get an idea of how the difficulty can manifest itself in a relationship, based on Max and Luisa.
Identify feelings and needs: Where is the connection?
You can think of it like an iceberg. Above the surface of the water there are feelings. For some people, only very intense feelings, such as intense sadness, are above the surface of the water, and for others, much more subtle feelings. Under the water are the needs. To recognize needs, most people have to consciously take time to reflect and feel within. Needs are less directly accessible, but you feel the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of a need through the feelings. So if you are sad, for example, you can ask yourself: what need was not fulfilled here? For example, it may be the need for recognition when you want more attention and appreciation from your partner.
Why is it problematic if I don't identify my feelings and needs?
If you are not in good touch with your feelings and needs, it can have some problematic effects on your life and relationship.
- Not knowing what you want: If you are used to not being aware of your needs and feelings, then you may also have trouble knowing clearly what is important to you. This can lead to difficulty in making decisions.
- Strong adaptation: Often, a difficulty in knowing your needs and feelings is followed by a strong adaptation to the needs of others. This is because when the other person clearly states what they want but you don't, you may tend to succumb to the other person's needs.
- Exploding when it gets to be too much: if you are not in good touch with your feelings, then you may only perceive strong ones, and have difficulty noticing the more subtle changes in feelings. This can lead to you not addressing anything for a long time, and then eventually experiencing an outburst of anger or sadness.
Max and Lisa are just about to go on vacation. They have been together for several years, and Max often says what he would like to do and what is important to him, and Luisa sometimes feels overwhelmed by this determination. In fact, Luisa already feels their feelings, but often little understands the needs behind them.
Thursday evening, Max and Luisa are planning their vacation for the summer and are looking for offers. Max really wants to go on a long-distance trip, and they're already close to booking. Luisa notices how she feels a pressure in her stomach area and she becomes quiet, but doesn't really know why.
Because of Max expressing his need and desire so clearly, Luisa feels overwhelmed and sad. She is less in touch with her feelings and needs and needs time for herself to figure out what she wants.
Where does the difficulty in identifying feelings and needs come from?
Emotional coaching & model learning by parents
An important role in what you learn about managing emotions and needs are your parents. In his book on emotional skills training, Matthias Berking writes that parents can do this in two ways. Because on the one hand, they can directly influence what you learned about dealing with emotions in your childhood through so-called "emotional coaching," and on the other hand, they can indirectly influence it through a model function. By emotionally coaching you, they make assumptions about your feelings, why you feel the way you do, and show understanding. They also signal support for how you can handle the situation. In addition, your parents can teach you about managing emotions by acting as a model themselves. For example, if your mother is angry and is good at regulating that emotion, you can learn from her behavior how to deal with anger yourself. They also pass on a lot to you about needs: do your parents talk about what they need? Is it okay in your family to express what you want? Was there room for your needs in the past?
Unspoken family rules and beliefs
Even beyond these experiences in childhood, your parents' handling of feelings and needs influences you. If, for example, there is an unspoken rule in your family that feelings such as anger and sadness are inappropriate, this will continue to shape you later. But not only that, your parents have also shaped you with their beliefs and behavior: If, for example, you have internalized that you have to adapt to others and that your needs and feelings are not important, this belief will accompany you in other relationships as well.
Influence of institutions
But it is not only our parents who have an influence on how we deal with emotions and needs. Emotional competencies are also little demanded in other contexts, for example our school and university system. All this leads to the fact that many people only start to deal with their feelings more deeply and to be in better contact with themselves when they have arrived at a crisis.
In Luisa's family, feelings and needs were expressed less directly. Her parents were busy at work and traveled a lot, even with her as a young child. Therefore, since Luisa was young, she has learned to adapt to her parents' needs. Her parents were uncomfortable when she was angry or sad as a child, and were quick to distract her as a result. As a result, Luisa didn't really learn to recognize or express her emotions.
What are the benefits of identifying your needs and feelings?
When you learn to get in better touch with yourself, there are a number of benefits. These are some of the benefits I have seen from my own experience as well as the experience of my clients:
- Easier decision making. When you know what you need and want, you often find it easier to make bigger decisions. For example, if you are unhappy with your relationship, but don't really know what your needs are and what the relationship is fulfilling for you, then getting in touch with your needs and feelings will help give you direction in making a decision for or against the relationship.
- Connectedness with yourself. This allows you to be more connected to what you need for yourself. It's also a lovely feeling to feel in tune with yourself and to advocate for the things you need.
- Chance for higher relationship satisfaction. If you also manage to communicate your needs (you can read how here), then you have a higher likelihood of making relationships work the way you need and feel good about. That's because you're bringing your needs to the negotiating table to find solutions with your partner.
As Luisa better understands her inner world of feelings and needs, she learns what she herself wants and needs as a result. When she senses inside herself, she perceives her sadness because of her need to spend time with her family on vacation. When she senses this, she can tell Max that the trip with him is important to her, but so is time with her family, and they can find a compromise by taking her needs into account as well.
Training to be more aware of your feelings and needs
But there is good news: you can train your ability to sense feelings and needs! From my experience with my clients and my own personal experience, I've put together a few tips for you.
One way you can train your emotional and needs awareness is to meditate regularly. There are meditations that are extra focused on sensing into your body and noticing different sensations, such as the Bodyscan. General meditation can also help you to better observe yourself and your feelings and thoughts
2. Set appointments with yourself
You can also use the following exercise: Set a reminder on your phone every few hours, and close your eyes and pause: what are you feeling right now? What feelings, body sensations can you perceive? How would you describe it? How can you name this feeling? What need could be behind it?
3. Sensing in with the help of lists of feelings and needs
As a small refresher for your feeling vocabulary, you can also use lists of feeling words once a day, such as this feeling list. First feel inside yourself, and then use the list to give a word to your feeling. Next, also use the list of needs (found here) to identify your need.
4. Regular training
Make it a habit to get in touch with yourself regularly. This way you will get better at identifying your emotions over time. This will also allow you to name more feelings and expand your emotional vocabulary.
5. Understand the connection with the past
Ask yourself how your parents dealt with different emotions (anger, sadness, shame, etc.). Also, ask yourself what core beliefs you took with you and how you are shaped by them.
Together with a psychologist or psychotherapist, you can also explore your emotional world. Among other things, you can explore what unspoken family rules influence you, what beliefs you acquired through childhood, and work to change them.
How your partner can support you in your emotions and needs training
If you are in a relationship, you can also involve your partner in your project. One way is to make a habit together of asking each other about your feelings and needs and, for example, naming feelings together. You can also share with your partner your difficulties, and before making small and big decisions, ask him or her to point out your needs.
Luisa comes to me for counseling and we work to understand how her childhood is related to her difficulty in feeling emotions and needs. We also explore her beliefs, which include, for example, "I'm not allowed to be angry." In meditations and with regular feeling check-ins, Luisa herself works on sensing her emotions and needs. She has also talked to Max about how hard it is for her to identify her feelings and needs. Max has agreed to support her in this by asking her what she needs right now when making decisions together and giving her time to figure it out for herself.
Summary on recognizing needs and feelings
In this blog post, you learned the benefits of sensing your feelings and needs. You also learned where the difficulties in recognizing your feelings and needs can come from. You got practical tips on how you can train yourself and with the help of your partner to be more aware of your feelings and needs.
Would you like to work on better recognizing and understanding your needs and feelings? Then feel free to contact me!
- Berking, M. (2017). Training emotionaler Kompetenzen. [Emotional skills training] (4. Aufl.). Springer.