3 Core Emotional Needs
I first heard about Alex Howard when I attended his online Trauma Super Conference, a free annual event. After struggling with chronic fatigue, trauma and anxiety himself, Howard founded the Optimum Health Clinic in 2004 so he could help others with the same issues. (You can find out more about him at his website, http://alexhoward.com, and at his YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/@AlexHowardTherapy.)
In his keynote address in 2021, Howard presented what he called the 3 core emotional needs. Although he is a secular therapist, I found his comments to be biblically sound, and I’m sharing them here because I found them helpful and hopefully you will, too.
As Howard explained, “Having these three core emotional needs met is critical to our healthy development as children and establishing the capacities and the skills and tools we often need to navigate the world as adults…Trauma is not what happens to us, trauma is what happens inside of us in response to what happens to us. What happens inside of us is in a big part shaped by whether these three core emotional needs were met when we were children.”
This is so true. Many of the things we struggle with as adults are rooted in our childhood. Let me give a personal example. I have always had a problem with depression. Years ago I was diagnosed with chronic clinical depression. I went through much counseling and have been on an antidepressant for decades. Fortunately my doctor prescribed one that worked especially well with me, and generally it keeps it under control. But occasionally I will hit a spot where I have a period of despair. I experienced this recently, and it took me awhile to figure out that it was brought about by an invitation I received to my 50th high school reunion. I was bullied and rejected in my childhood and teens, and high school did not leave me with happy memories. The verbal and emotional abuse traumatized me for a long time.
When the invitation came, I had flashbacks and bad dreams, and I began battling the depression again, even though I was still continuing my medication. I was struggling with whether or not I should attend, thinking that maybe I’d have a chance to share what the Lord has done in my life but feeling guilty that I really didn’t want to go. Eventually I felt that I had to maintain that boundary of distance for my own emotional safety, and I decided not to go. My point in sharing this is that the emotional turmoil I was currently experiencing was triggered by traumatic events that occurred long ago. I suffered back then because some core emotional needs had not been met in my childhood.
So what are those 3 core emotional needs?
Need #1: Safety
The first one is the need for safety. “As children, we need to feel that the world is a safe place and that we are safe in it,” says Howard. That was definitely not my experience as a child and teen. For me, the world was a place where I never knew when I’d be hurt.
I remember the first dance I went to. I wasn’t interested in dancing, but all the kids had been talking about it. It was going to be a big event, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to belong.
As I stood on the sidelines watching, a guy named Leon came up to me with two of his buddies. This was a guy I hardly knew; he was in a science class with me so I knew his name, but that was all.
“Having a good time?” Leon asked. I shrugged my shoulders and muttered, “Yeah, I guess.”
The next moment Leon’s fist shot out as he punched me hard in the stomach. I crumpled to the floor, trying to catch my breath.
“Now you’re not,” Leon snarled, and he and his buddies walked away laughing.
It was a senseless attack, and it traumatized me. That was my first dance– and my last.
Let’s face it, the world is not a safe place for many. One benefit of being a Christian is the assurance that God is watching over you and will protect you. Many verses speak of this. In 2 Samuel 22:31 we read, “As for God, his way is perfect: The Lord’s Word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.” Psalm 27:1 declares, “The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?” No matter what is going on in the world around me, I know I can trust in God to take care of me. My safety is in Him!
Need #2: Love
The second core emotional need is love. In childhood this need is generally met– or not– by our parents. Alex Howard had some interesting observations about that. “The majority of us had parents that loved us. That wasn’t the problem,” he says. “The problem is often their inability to express their love, or the confusing, mixed ways that we might have experienced love. That love may have been expressed in conditional ways, that if you do this, then you get love, but if you don’t do this, love is withdrawn. Or love comes in a way that is smothering and overwhelming.” Again, this is a need, not a want, and when it isn’t met in childhood we develop coping strategies. We may seek to numb the pain in various addictions, or as the song goes, we may start “looking for love in all the wrong places.” This can open a lifetime of problems as adults.
As a child, I knew my parents loved me. But I didn’t always feel loved. My parents were both troubled souls with a lot of baggage, and the atmosphere in our home was seldom peaceful. My father saw his role as provider, and I must say he excelled in that area. I had all the things any kid would have wanted– but I would have traded it all for some genuine hugs. And the kids I grew up with definitely didn’t give me much love.
But when I accepted Christ as my Savior, I found a heavenly Father who showered me with His love, and brothers and sisters in Christ who gladly gave hugs freely and unconditionally. And again, the Bible is full of promises about His love. Isaiah 54:10 says, “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” And Psalm 136:26 declares, “Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.” Jesus promised His disciples that He will never leave them or forsake them. And that love is available to everyone, no matter what kind of childhood they had!
Need #3: Boundaries
The third core emotional need is the need for boundaries. Parents need to establish boundaries for their children and love them enough to say no. In my 44 years as a teacher, I met many parents who were unable or unwilling to do this (and I taught in a Christian school). It takes a lot of work to maintain boundaries, and many parents today are too tired, too stressed, too overwhelmed to do it, so they constantly threaten but don’t follow through.
The other side of the coin is boundaries that are too rigidly enforced. That was the case with my parents. As a young child, whenever I got out of line my mother spanked me. Then in the late afternoon, I’d have to sit in the living room and wait for my father to get home from work. Mom would meet him at the door and explain what I’d done; then Dad would take me in the bedroom and spank me again, then tell me, “Now that’s because your mother had to spank you.” I understand that their motives were good, but their methods were misguided. Because of this, for a long time I pictured God the Father as an angry old man just waiting to pounce on me the instant I sinned. I was afraid of God, but it wasn’t the healthy “fear of the Lord” that the Bible describes.
When I became a Christian, I started realizing that my image of God the Father was distorted. As God worked in my life, I learned that His boundaries are always for my protection, not my punishment. I found that God delights in blessing His children. I discovered the truth of Psalm 86:15, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” I can testify that God is good, all the time!
Alex Howard says that how these needs are met– or not met– shapes how we develop throughout our adult lives. “If these needs are met, not perfectly, but enough that we had a sense of feeling safe, a sense of love, a sense of boundaries, we can handle most of what life throws at us. But if these needs are not met we learn certain things. We learn things like, the world is a scary place. I don’t have what it takes. Or we learn that I’m not lovable. Or maybe we learn that when I show my feelings, I get hurt…These 3 core emotional needs don’t just affect our relationship with the world, they also affect our relationship with ourselves.”
What About You?
Is this making sense to you? Were these 3 core emotional needs met for you as a child? Were any of them unmet? Perhaps, like me, you suffered deficiencies in all three areas. Are there things you struggle with in your life today because of this?
If so, I’ve got good news for you! You’re an adult now. You are no longer dependent on your parents to meet these needs. And as I’ve pointed out in my personal examples, all of these needs can be met by your heavenly Father. Because of the cross, each of us can have a personal relationship with Him. All you need to do is ask God to forgive your sins and accept His Son Jesus as your Savior and Lord. Believe me, it’s a decision you’ll never regret! Then get grounded in a good church where you can grow spiritually, and read the Bible so you can discover God’s promises for yourself. As His Word starts to permeate your spirit, you will begin to see true change.
Jesus can and will meet your core emotional needs, even now as an adult. He can provide you with safety, love, and boundaries. Trust Him today, and begin living the transformed life.
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‘What You Need To Believe About God And You” http://www.livingthetransformedlife.com/what-you-need-to-believe-about-god-and-you
“Is A New You Really Possible?” http://www.livingthetransformedlife.com/is-a-new-you-really-possible