July 30, 2019

Unmet Emotional Needs: Is the Way You Cope Causing More Distress in Your Life?

Anxiety & Depression

There are a wide variety of ways to cope with stress. The way that you choose may either be helpful or unhelpful. This blog is intended to help you gain greater insight regarding how you cope with the stress of unmet emotional needs. Gaining insight will help you understand your behaviors in new ways and will help you consider what changes will be most effective at improving your experience with yourself, others, and the world you interact with daily.

Dr. Young on emotional response

Dr. Jeffrey Young, developer of Schema Therapy, says that unmet emotional needs are registered by your brain as being threatening. Humans are designed to respond to threats in protective ways. Unmet emotional needs are things like safety, emotional connection to others, independence, boundaries, acceptance, self-esteem and self-expression, compassion, and emotional vulnerability. Often, unmet emotional needs, particularly those that happen during childhood, can lead a person to pick up false messages about themselves and the world, thus leading to self-defeating patterns of coping.

Have you ever heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response to threat? When we feel a threat to our personal well being, our survival hormones kick into gear to respond to that threat. It is a very quick, automatic response. We typically will pursue a threat head on (fight), flee from the threat (flight), or stand still in the face of danger (freeze.) According to Dr. Young, these three unhelpful coping styles are similar: overcompensation (fight), avoidance (flight), or surrender (freeze). We will use the following example to better understand these three unhelpful coping styles.

Take for example the emotional need for care and acceptance. If a child does not receive acceptance from their primary caregivers, one message they might pick up is, “There is something defective/inferior/unlovable about me.” The child may carry this message into adulthood, and when the need for acceptance goes unmet with a close friend or spouse, the response can be one of these three coping styles:


Overcompensation is coping with the unmet need by acting as if the opposite is true; coping by fighting the false messages. In our example of the unmet need for acceptance, the person fights against the message, “There is something defective or unlovable about me.” In one way this is healthy, but overcompensation takes it to the extreme. In this case, the person felt unlovable and worthless as a child, so they attempt to be perfect as adults. They are critical of others as they appear perfect. Overcompensation is unproductive and insensitive. For example, if a person felt controlled during childhood, they may become controlling as adults. If abused, they may abuse as adults.


Avoidance is like running away. A person arranges their life so that their unmet needs and false messages are never triggered. They live as if the unmet need is not a need. They block out any thoughts or feelings that arise. When the message, “You are defective,” is triggered, they distract themselves in order to avoid the message. They may avoid intimate relationships or situations that are likely to trigger their need for acceptance. The person avoids exposing anything about themselves or expressing true thoughts and feelings. They may drink excessively, use drugs, overeat, become a workaholic, or clean excessively.


Surrender is yielding to the false message. In other words, the message is accepted as true, and all of the emotion and pain associated with this message is experienced and felt. When a person accepts the message, “I am defective or worthless,” then they act as if they are defective. This might look like selecting rejecting friends, putting themselves down, and not speaking up for themselves.

Do you recognize any of these coping styles in yourself? A person can cope using different styles in different situations. Do you want to better understand why you respond in these ways, and learn more helpful ways to respond to? I can help! Give me a call today.

Written by therapist Amie Bilson

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