Our Core Emotional Needs

Consider the basic physical needs we have for survival… food, water, shelter. These needs are essential for us to stay alive, yet it is still not enough to fulfil us and give our lives meaning. Just as we require physical sustenance, we seek emotional nourishment right from birth beginning with our relationship with our parents/caregivers, then later, from our extended family, friends, teachers, intimate partners, etc. You and I have our own unique set of emotional needs based on our temperament and upbringing. According to Jeffery Young, psychologist and founder of Schema Therapy, he has identified 5 core emotional needs common to people across all cultures and walks of life.

Do you know what your core emotional needs are? Or if they are being met?  Having these fundamental needs met is imperative in finding fulfilment and contentment in our lives and relationships. Parents often seek advice and reassurance about how to best nurture their children to ensure they develop high self-esteem, independence, and resilience. Yet, how often do we remember to reflect on our own needs as adults and whether they were met by our caregivers growing up.

Many people seek out therapy for mental health, self-esteem and interpersonal issues that may relate to not having their emotional needs met as children.

Schema Therapy proposed five broad categories of emotional needs that begins in early childhood and carries on into adulthood. In this post, I will outline these core emotional needs and how they affect our psychological development and wellbeing.

  1. The need for secure attachment to others
  2. Freedom to express valid needs and feelings
  3. Autonomy, competence and a sense of identity
  4. Learning and expressing yourself through spontaneity and play
  5. Realistic boundaries, self-discipline and self-control

The need for secure attachment to others

This is perhaps the most fundamental emotional need any person requires. In essence, it is about stability and a child’s emotional connection with their parents. Secure attachment is built when a child feels safe, secure and protected by their parent/carer. The child grows up feeling secure when they experience their parent/carer as available, sensitive, and reliable to protect, nurture, guide and support them to thrive. The child grows up knowing that he/she is loved unconditionally, and this love is not dependent on their performance. This is essentially being valued as a unique human being.

This yearning to be accepted and to belong is built-in to our basic human nature, and when these needs are not met, it can lead to the development of insecure attachment styles. The inability to form a secure attachment may make it difficult to form close bonds and develop healthy relationships as an adult.

Consider your own childhood. If your home/ family life either wasor just feltunsafe, you may develop feelings of anxiety and mistrust. When this emotional need is left unsatisfied, it can lead to some worrying symptoms that manifest themselves in adulthood.

Freedom to express valid needs and feelings

Children need a safe and secure environment to explore and learn about the world. They need an environment where they feel comfortable to express their feelings, ideas and needs, and a parent/carer who will provide a loving and understanding response. With this support, children learn to tolerate and manage all their feelings (including the unpleasant ones), and to share them with people they trust when needed. When a parent/carer responds in a way that leads the child to believe his/her opinion is not heard, valued, or worse, criticised, his/her emotional needs are not met.

When this need is not met in childhood, as adults we can tend to doubt the value of our own thoughts and feelings and have difficulty expressing our opinions or emotions. This may lead us to be unreasonably self-critical of our own opinions and ideas and/or of ourselves which in turn can cause anxiety and shame. Furthermore, this unmet need can lead to approval seeking behaviour in our relationships, prioritising the needs of others above your own, feeling guilty when you place your needs first, or going to great lengths to avoid confrontation.

Autonomy, competence and a sense of identity

A sense of competence and identity is developed when a child is given the opportunity and freedom to work through tasks independently and to receive positive, constructive feedback. The child is trusted to complete age-appropriate tasks and make good judgements. This develops the child’s ability to act as an individual, to have a self, separate to that of their parents.

Autonomy and competence cannot be developed if the child is over protected, over-controlled or ‘spoon-fed’ everything – completely dependent on the support and guidance of the parents. Conversely, children also need guidance to learn new skills and not be expected to take on responsibilities beyond their capability e.g. a 5-year-old travelling on public transport alone.

When this emotional need is met in childhood, we develop a healthy view of ourselves, a healthy level of self-reliance, an assurance in our skills and abilities, the confidence to attempt and take on new challenges, and healthy boundaries in our relationships.  

Learning and expressing yourself through spontaneity and play

Play and exploration is a vital part of a child’s development and learning. It allows for the development of creativity and a wide imagination. It is important for children to have opportunities to have fun, be playful and silly, rather than having to behave a certain way or perform to a certain standard for their parents’ approval.

If your parent/caregiver didn’t place value in your need for spontaneity and play but on high standards, it is likely you predominantly feel pressured to do your best in everything you do. This can manifest in perfectionism, workaholism, or excessive emphasis on gaining wealth and status. You struggle to be creative, relax and have fun as an adult, and this in turn affects your emotional wellbeing and contribute to difficulties in your relationships.

Realistic boundaries, self-control and self-discipline

All children need to be taught to understand and consider the rights and needs of others as well as their own, learn what’s right and wrong and to take responsibility for their own actions. This is learnt through parental guidance, role modelling, and receiving praise and rewards when the child exercises self-control and self-discipline or experiencing consequences for undesirable behaviour.

Some adults experienced very limited boundaries as children as their parents/caregivers allowed them to do what they wanted, when they wanted. One consequence of this excessive freedom or indulgence is the belief that they are entitled to have and do what they want at the expense of other people’s needs or feelings. Consequently, they are viewed as being self-centred, demanding, and narcissistic, which makes it difficult for them to sustain healthy relationships.

Another consequence is a lack of self-control and self-discipline. Do you have difficulty completing routine/boring tasks or completing your work? Do you seek instant gratification and have difficulty meeting long term goals? Do you smoke or eat too much, or get addicted to things easily?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when children are set extremely strict rules and boundaries, it can be equally as problematic. As adults they may have rigid thought patterns and rules for themselves and others, and struggle to be flexible and open to differing points of view.

The goal of schema therapy is to help people find flexible ways to meet their core emotional needs to attain and maintain psychological health and wellbeing. If anything in this blog has resonated with you, please do not hesitate to start a conversation about this with one of our clinicians at RWA Psychology. For more information about schema therapy, please refer other blogs written by my colleagues, Hannan Hadad and Avnee Lagad.


Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S., Weishaar, M.E.. Schema Therapy A Practitioner’s Guide. The Guildford Press 2006.

Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S. Reinventing Your Life. Penguin Group 1994.

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