Every human has specific needs that must be fulfilled. When we’re tired, we need sleep, and when we’re hungry, we need to eat. But it’s more difficult to examine other needs that are just as important: our emotional needs.

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The warning signs of unmet emotional needs aren’t as apparent as our eyes drooping or our stomachs growling. Here, we’ll break down a couple perspectives on our basic emotional needs and what we can do to take care of them.

Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs

The origin of our emotional needs goes back to a psychologist named Abraham Maslow. Around 1970, Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs that everyone needs to meet in order to reach self-actualization, a term that refers to a sort of inner harmony within ourselves. He envisioned this hierarchy as a series of stages like a pyramid.

Physiological Needs

These are our basic, physiological needs like hunger, thirst, or homeostasis, better known as the way our body makes sure everything functioning properly.

This category also includes needs that aren’t necessarily internal, like our needs for warmth and shelter. Maslow included these physical needs because without them, we have little chance at feeling emotionally OK.

Safety Needs

Safety needs encompass a variety of different kinds of security needs. This includes physical safety from the world around us, emotional security, mental and physical well-being, and financial security.

Love and Belonging

The next tier in the pyramid is our need for social belonging. Humans are social by nature, and our need for interaction is rooted in our biology. So it makes sense that our need for love and belonging plays such a pivotal part of our emotional well-being.

Friendships, loving family bonds, or romantic intimacy can help fulfill this need, although a mixture of all three is ideal.


The esteem category refers to our need to feel respected and recognized. This can be further split into two distinct kinds of esteem; a low version and a high version. The low version refers to respect and recognition from others around us, while the high version is respect and recognition from ourselves. While feeling respected can help you feel respect for yourself, self-respect is possible – and more valuable – even without others’ approval.


In theory, when all the above needs are satisfied, we reach self-actualization. With enough of our needs met, we have enough brain space to be the best version of ourselves – or just a not-depressed version.

Self-actualization varies from person to person depending on their life goals. For example, it could refer to being the best parent you can be, or to expressing yourself freely through art or writing to the best of your ability. Self-actualization is the state where you’re content with your situation, whatever that situation is to you.

Criticisms of Maslow’s Pyramid

Maslow provided an awesome outline of our basic human needs, but it wasn’t perfect. For example, ranking our needs is an issue because what someone needs can vary so much depending on where you live in the world, different needs at different ages, and personal circumstances.  In addition, the needs don’t usually fill a neat pyramid – each person has a different order of priority for each type of need.

The notion of self-actualization also causes problems, because ‘being your best self’ means different things to different people, and can change from day to day.

The ‘Human Givens’ Perspective

Time for a new framework: around 1990, psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell expanded on the groundwork laid by Maslow and proposed the concept of human ‘givens‘. These are re-framed extensions of concepts like self-esteem, love and belonging, safety, and self actualization – emotional resources we need to take as ‘given’ in order to feel whole.

Our Innate, or Internal Needs

Griffin and Tyrell outlined a series of innate emotional needs that every single one of us requires, whether we’re aware of them or not. Unlike Maslow’s hierarchy, these aren’t ranked and are seen as equally important.  

Security: We crave safety and security, both from the environment around us and a sense of emotional security.

Autonomy and Control: We need to feel as if we’re in control what’s around us.

Emotional Intimacy: It’s important that we feel connected to friends, family, and significant others.  

Attention: We want to receive attention from others as well as provide our attention to those who need it.

Community and Belonging: We want to feel like we’re part of a larger group or community.

Privacy: We need our own private time and space to sit back and reflect on what’s on our minds.

Status: We want to feel valued and respected by peers.  

Competence: When push comes to shove, we want to feel sure of ourselves. We need to know that we can rise to the challenges the world gives us.

Meaning and Purpose: We want to feel like we have goals to strive for, and that our lives have purpose.

Innate Needs And Mental Health

Our mental well-being is like a car; when something goes wrong, it will start to show signs, even if we don’t notice them at first.

Our mental well-being is like a car; when something goes wrong, it will start to show signs, even if we don’t notice them at first.

One theory about struggles of depression and anxiety is that they’re more likely to manifest when some of our innate needs aren’t met. Some examples of unmet emotional needs creating problems:

  • We may struggle to feel close to others or make meaningful connections, because we haven’t experienced emotional intimacy growing up. One unmet need can breed another: without learning in childhood how to make meaningful connections as adults, we’re bound to feel lonely and depressed.
  • Satisfaction of our emotional needs influences the biology of depression. When we don’t feel socially supported or in control of our lives, our brain doesn’t produce as many chemicals it needs to function – like serotonin and dopamine.
  • Without adequate private time to explore ourselves and let ideas come to us, we may not be able to achieve a sense of competence – because we don’t even understand who we are and what we’re good at.

Our Emotional Toolbox To Heal Depression

Hopefully you’ve been reflecting on which emotional needs need to be filled for you. After developing awareness of the emotional holes in your personal wellbeing, pick tools to fix them.

There’s quite a bit we can do on our own, but the goal is to eventually find a helping hand or two.

Innate Resources

Alongside the innate needs, Griffin and Tyrell outlined innate resources that can help us meet those needs. These resources exist in each one of us, no matter how depressed we are. They are tools every person can use to make depression and anxiety more manageable.

Especially if other therapies have failed, your innate resources may be itching to take action:

Memory: Our memories allow us recall helpful information like a friend’s consoling words. Our memory skills also allow us to grow and learn from different experiences – the trick may be to actually stay mindful of your memories, though.

Rapport: We’re able to build a rapport, or connection, with others to feel belonging, community, and empathy. Even though you’re capable of connecting, it might be hard to find people who understand you nowadays. Modern connection may feel impossible, but modern tools are helping solve the loneliness problem.

Imagination: Imagination helps us approach situations from more creative angles and a gives us an outlet for our emotions.

Emotion and Instinct: Built-in biological instinct can help us assess situations and help us take a step back from something harmful, or continue with something we’re enjoying.  

A Rational Mind: Our minds acts as the rational gatekeeper than keeps our imagination and emotions in check.  

A Metaphorical Mind: This is our ability to understand the way things work even when they aren’t apparent by seeing basic patterns in the world.

An Observing Self: The ability to remain aware of ourselves and our surroundings helps us assess situations and adapt.

A Dreaming Brain: One theory about dreaming is that dreams act as a way for our brains to ‘release’ emotions and expectations that were not met in the day. It’s a built in mental outlet for any pent up emotions we experience.

Ways To Use Our Innate Resources

Having all these tools available is fantastic, but now we need to see how we can actually apply them in real life. Here are some ways to nurture your emotional needs.

Connect With Others

Fostering connections with others is one of the best ways to take care of many of our needs, but it can be tricky for people on the shyer side or those with less spare time. If you have trouble starting conversation, common interests and sharing small things about yourself can help build rapport quickly and easily.

As for finding peers, it comes down to using the resources around you. For instance, most college campuses have groups dedicated to hobbies that anyone with a common interest can jump into. And making small talk either at work or even in a low-stakes way, with random people (like on your way to pick up a morning coffee), can help if you have a busy lifestyle.

Give Yourself Unstructured Time

Small things like mental problem solving, puzzles, or daydreaming can help your mind wander.

These activities give your creative and problem solving abilities an outlet, letting other parts of your mind wander. If you choose a puzzle, it can help improve the pattern recognition aspect of your metaphorical mind. If you’re having trouble getting creative juices flowing, breathing exercises and relaxing your body are an effective way to “recharge” and let your thoughts flow.

Plan And/Or Set Goals

Planning things out ahead of time and setting goals can help with fulfilling our needs for competence, autonomy, and purpose. When you make time to plan, you also usually set aside private time. And planning has the added benefit of giving us extra time to meet other needs, like social intimacy by meeting friends.

One method of planning is to start small. Plan out what your goals are for the week, and then the month, and then the next few months, and so on.

You can scale this back by literally planning out your next ten minutes, next hour, rest of the day. Commit to eating a whole meal and taking a shower. Plan to get some intimacy and love needs met by visiting local shelter cats and dogs, and check in with yourself at the end of the day.

Or, you can take the planning further, by setting long term goals for the next year or so. For example, you can set a plan like “I want to identify 5 activities that give me joy by the end of the year.” Because you set it in advance, you have more than enough time to experiment and reach your goal without pressure. And you’ll have a clear way to work toward healing every day.

In Closing…

It’s important to be aware of and take care of our emotional needs, and now we can see just how to do that. There’s a lot we can do on our own, but most of the steps we take to meet our emotional needs involve bringing us closer to other people.

When you feel overwhelmed or can’t function without a boost of human connection, accept some outside help! Supportiv helps you connect with others going through the same things you are, provides articles and resources like this one, and gives you someone to just listen when you need it.