“Empty. Unfulfilled. Incomplete!” Her glum words hung heavy.
I’d simply asked how things were going. But her answer had been so absolute, so unequivocal, it brought me up sharp.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“It’s the truth. I have nothing in my life.”
Ruth had the kind of depression that left her racked with fear. She was agoraphobic, so even the simple act of travelling to see me had been a big ordeal – and a mark of her desperation for help.
She never saw friends, no longer worked, and felt too “fuddled” to concentrate on anything much. She also missed the warmth, fun, and companionship of a lover.
“I feel like an unwelcome visitor in my own life!” she said.
When life seems empty, we need to ask just what it is that’s lacking. We then need to know:
- Why is what is lacking, lacking?
- How has what is lacking been fulfilled in the past (if it ever has)?
- Has something about our client, or their living situation, prevented them meeting some need or needs?
- How best can we help our client start to meet their needs?
When life feels empty, the vacuum is one of meaning. And without meaning, life degrades into mere existence.
A life without meaning
Human Givens psychology has given us clarity when it comes to understanding both what people need to thrive in life and what nature gave to us to help us meet our needs in the world.
Life can start to feel meaningless when our emotional needs fail to be met. When we feel empty, it’s because we are unfulfilled.
Circumstances, such as being victimized in a toxic living or working situation, or innate developmental difficulties, such as autism, may block the completion of some emotional needs. And emotional conditioning, when it produces excessive anxiety, fear, low self-esteem, or anger, can also block us from meeting our needs in life.
Ruth had become agoraphobic and prone to panic attacks. Her anxieties were blocking her needs for connection, control, and intimacy. She actually told me that not meeting up with friends was making her lonely.
When looking to find the cause of problems, first we need to spot which primal emotional needs are unfulfilled. Then we need to see what is working to block the completion of those needs: current circumstances, emotional conditioning, or both.
As practitioners, one of the first ways we can help a client may be to help lift the effects of emotional conditioning so they are freed up to meet their needs effectively.
All psychotherapy aims to help people meet their needs as best they can.
As practitioners we are not here to meet our clients’ needs, but rather to help them understand them, and feel more hopeful that they can meet them in whatever way is possible for them. We can certainly help remove whatever is blocking them from fulfilment and encourage them to enact behaviours that will help them better meet their needs.
Some clients strive to be ‘successful’ in life, but then feel strangely unfulfilled when they finally reach their benchmark for success. This may be because they didn’t factor in their real needs when they set that goal.
Our emotional needs overlap. For example, when we feel intimate, we tend to feel safer and more secure, and life takes on new meaning as well. So meeting one need will often help fulfil other needs too – just as one person or organization can meet many of our needs (which leaves us at risk of ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’).
So, once we have discovered what may be lacking in a client’s life, what are some of the ways we can help them meet those unmet primal emotional needs?
Need 1: A sense of safety and security
The drive to feel safe is as ancient as humanity itself. In order to survive and hopefully thrive, we must be attuned to threat. When we become really attuned to threat, it’s generally for one of two reasons:
- The level of threat in our environment has actually risen.
- The level of our perception (or misperception) of threat has risen.
First, we need to look at a client’s living conditions. Are they living with a violent partner? Are they bullied at work? Is their work unsteady? Are they at risk of eviction from their home? We might need to help our clients actively problem solve. Or in some cases, we may need to look at crisis intervention.
We can also use techniques to help our clients overcome past emotional conditioning that may be causing current feelings of threat. Maybe past conditioning has caused your client to feel insecure in relationships even when those relationships are potentially healthy.
If clients live with high levels of uncertainty, we can help them relax more with the uncertainties of life.
Of course, some people may crave less security and instead seek excitement and a sense of manageable danger. But we certainly need to consider how safe our clients feel generally.
Mind you, one big factor that can make us feel less secure in life is feeling neglected, ignored, and lonely.
Need 2: Exchange of attention
Poor social skills can leave us feeling lonely, misunderstood, and unhappy,1 and may even damage our physical health.2 And as with all the primal needs, the unconscious drive for attention, if uncontrolled, can lead us to some pretty dark places.
It’s true some people thrive on the human need for attention exchange more than others. But we all need to exchange ideas, feel connected, and listen as well as be listened to as a kind of emotional nutrition.
There’s something important we as therapists need to consider when treating clients whose need for attention is being thwarted.
Clients may feel better not because of our therapy but simply because they are spending time with us in an otherwise lonely existence. We need to recognize this possibility and help clients meet their needs away from therapy so their life becomes sustainable without us and they don’t become hooked on therapy itself.
We can encourage our clients to engage in face-to-face socializing rather than simply using social media.3 We can also discern whether their isolation is due to social anxiety. If so, we can help them gain social calm and confidence and even teach and rehearse social and relationship skills with them if necessary.
But we might also need to look at their need for privacy, and time to reflect and consolidate ideas. Like any ‘nutrition’, attention needs to be taken in moderation. Some clients may have too much attention, or the wrong kind, and we may need to help them devise strategies to take more time out from interaction.
Need 3: A sense of control and volition
Research has demonstrated that the more influence we feel over our lives, the healthier and happier we tend to be, especially as we age.4 Does your client have learned helplessness and therefore feel less able to control parts of their lives than they actually are? Do they suffer from maladaptive perfectionism and so feel they should be controlling all kinds of things they really don’t need to be?
Explore with your clients their feelings around how much influence they feel they do or should have in their own lives. It can be a revelation when clients discover their own power and learn how to use their strengths to direct their lives.
We can teach and practise assertiveness skills with our clients, and shape goals aimed at improving their personal sense of direction in life. We can also work with our clients to help them control their emotions better, which gives them a greater general sense of autonomy in their lives.
Clients will often feel accepted, even uniquely understood, by their therapists. But only when they can meet this need away from the therapy room will they truly be on the road to greater wellbeing.
Need 4: A sense of intimacy
Feeling accepted and loved, and accepting and loving in return, gives us a sense of intimacy. To feel accepted and valued despite our shortcomings, ‘warts and all’, helps us to feel safe and secure (see above), can make life feel more meaningful, and can even, it seems, have pain-relieving effects!5 Here again we see how the fulfilment of different needs can overlap.
But I’m not just talking about romance here.
We can, to some extent, meet our need for intimacy through friends or even pets. So it’s not that your client has to have a primary romantic relationship in order to meet this need.
We can ascertain where this need is met, to what extent it is met, and, if it isn’t really met, what may be blocking it. If your client is in a relationship that has lost a sense of intimacy, we may have to help them, if possible, to recapture it.
We also need to look at what kinds of issues within our clients may be blocking the instigation or preservation of intimacy. Do they need more confidence and strategies to meet people and deepen relationships? If a client has trust issues or is prone to jealousy or relationship insecurity, then we can help them lessen the impacts of these emotional patterns.
We might also discuss with them their relationship choices and the kinds of qualities they might value when seeking intimacy.
But it’s not enough to feel connected to just one person.
Need 5: A feeling of connection to a wider community
It’s all too easy nowadays to feel disconnected from those around us. Sometimes people come to see us when they have moved to a new area and feel separate from the communities around them. Feeling a part of a community is a powerful boon to individuals.6,7
Mind you, the desperate need to be part of something can also work against us in terrible ways.
We all need to find our ‘tribe’. What kinds of people does your client like? What issues are important to them? What are their interests? It’s never been easier, thanks to our connected world, to find other people who feel as we do.
And talking of communities and groups…
Need 6: A sense of social status
To feel valued, recognized, and appreciated is integral to some parts of human happiness and even physical health.8
Handing responsibility to disaffected people can help them flourish because when you proffer someone responsibility or a recognized role, you also help them develop a sense of status, a stronger sense of self. It can be easier to esteem ourselves when others esteem us, and responsibility to others, a concern beyond the self, can help us develop self-respect.
Ask your client if they feel valued or recognized for what they do. Encourage them to develop skills and help them recognize their achievements and strengths and build their social confidence.
I worked with one old man who had become depressed. Together we worked to help him regain his confidence to start gardening again at his local allotment. He found that he enjoyed other gardeners coming to him for advice because of his vast experience with growing vegetables. That sense of newly acquired status also added a sense of meaning and connection to his life… and the depression lifted.
Set tasks that help your client meet the need for a sense of competence and achievement. Tasks with a beginning, middle, and end, that stretch and absorb us, tend to be intrinsically satisfying and feel meaningful.
Need 7: A sense of meaning
A strong sense of purpose seems to equate to living longer.9 When life feels purposeless, it tends to also seem pointless or meaningless.
Conversely, when clients have a strong sense of purpose in their lives, when they feel that who they are and what they do is meaningful, they find it easier to feel resilient in the face of all kinds of problems. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “If you know the why, you can live any how.”
So how can we help clients feel life is meaningful?
Well, once you help your clients sustainably meet their emotional needs, they tend to find life more meaningful as a natural byproduct of living in more satisfying ways.
But you can also help them define what their values are and how they want to live by those values. When have they felt a sense of meaning in the past? How can we bring more of that into their future?
Over several sessions I helped Ruth (the client I mentioned at the beginning of this article) learn to relax, get out into the community, sleep better, and socialize more. Eventually she began working again for a charity. She started to feel needed and appreciated. She developed a circle of friends and felt a part of things again. She even reconnected with an old flame.
“What happened to that emptiness?” I asked.
She looked blank for a moment then laughed.
“Life and love.”
How do you help clients meet their emotional needs? Let me know here.
Helping a client feel strong and calm
This client first came for therapy because she felt inferior in the company of those she deemed more educated than her. But this week she has separated from her husband and is, not surprisingly, in a state of emotional flux.
The client says she sometimes feels angry and let down by people who she feels she supports but who don’t reciprocate when she needs help from them. Mark aims to help her feel strong and calm during this time in her life.
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