Jealousy As A Route To Identifying Your Needs | Nonmonogamy Academy

Our first post in this series talked about some of the ways people try to avoid jealousy, and begins talking about those behaviors. Our post this week looks at what needs might be under that feeling so that you can identify them and work to get them met. 

The Needs Wheel

There are several theories about needs out there, some based on psychological models and some based on economic models. Most everyone has heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. One of the problems with this theory is that it treats things as a hierarchy. You’ll never reach self-actualization if you don’t have water, food and shelter! (We aren’t going to cover the appropriation/stealing that Maslow did from the Blackfoot with his theory. Read more about that here) Granted, this isn’t the worst way to think about some things. Humans are going to struggle with getting other needs met if they don’t have food, water and shelter. But not everything works in a hierarchy. People might struggle with feeling safe, even if they have a generally decent sense of self worth. The other problem I have with this is that it mixes clearly identifiable and concrete needs with abstract concepts of needs.

Enter the needs wheel. This levels the playing field in seeing all needs as fairly equal. It also presents each need as an abstract concept. I think this is more important because it doesn’t confuse the concrete with the abstract. Concrete things tend to not be argued about too much – food is mostly food, especially if you haven’t eaten in a while. But abstract concepts often need to be explained further to others for everyone to be on the same page. Safety looks very different for a wealthy and famous white person than it does for a Somalian war refugee, but both of these people have safety needs.

There are actually two different needs wheels. The HS needs wheel includes growth, safety, individuality and relationships at the center, and provides many other words to allow for more flavor. It’s based on psychological science. I don’t care for this because it groups things too broadly for my tastes. I like to use a needs wheel common in Nonviolent Communication training, which is based on economic studies, and provides nine categories. Both would be perfectly useable if you have them sitting in front of you.

Emotions As An Indicator Of Needs

Every behavior is an attempt to get a need met. Every emotion is an indicator that a need is getting met or not getting met. This is why it’s so important to sit with your emotions and feel what they are saying to you (among the many other reasons you shouldn’t just dismiss your emotions). If you keep pushing them away, you will keep not getting your needs met.

Let’s look at a common example related to jealousy: Your partner goes out on a date and you are home alone. You feel jealous, which is a mix of anxiety and sadness. You realize this is an indicator your needs aren’t getting met. There are several questions to consider when you are looking at your emotions and realizing that a need isn’t getting met. You look at the NVC wheel, and figure out that your need for empathy (specifically, connection and affection) and protection (safety and consideration) aren’t getting met. Ask yourself the following questions:

Is this a temporary situation, or does it keep coming up? You worked too late to say hi to your partner before they went on their date, and it’s been a while since you were able to cuddle (connection and affection). You feel fairly certain they are coming home, but they didn’t indicate when. You don’t know if you should wait up for them or go to bed, or when you should be concerned over their absence (consideration and safety). Some aspects are temporary – you have a date night planned the next evening, and you can get cuddles in then. Some parts seem to be ongoing – you keep forgetting to ask when they are getting home, and they keep not telling you. You decide to have a talk to discuss if there can be some more concrete efforts to get timelines on dates.

Is this a need that stems from earlier problems? Your brother once got into a serious wreck in your childhood, and you remember the tension when he didn’t come home overnight, and your family had to call every hospital in the county to figure out where he was being treated. You recognize this adds to the intensity of the lack of safety and consideration you are feeling, and that your partner does not know this story about your childhood. You make a note to tell them about the story so they get a better understanding of why this is a particularly important need for you. You also get in touch with a trauma therapist to work through anything else coming up with this trauma to work on things from your side.

Can you get these needs met elsewhere? We often will only see one avenue for our needs to get met, especially when we are in a highly emotional state. When you are in a less emotional state, it might be good to think about what options you have when you know you are temporarily not getting needs met. You might decide to set up time with a friend the next time your partner goes on a date so you can feel some connection and affection. This might also help you take your mind off safety concerns if you aren’t sitting at home worrying about it. You may also take up a hobby you’ve been putting off so you can learn to enjoy some alone time at home, instead of relying on others to be around to help you regulate.

How To Sit With Your Emotions

One of the best things you can do to understand yourself is to start separating your emotions from the narratives you have that arise from emotions. Or how your narratives can lead to triggering emotions. But to do this, you have to sit with your emotions instead of trying to “solve” or “fix” them. Emotions can be really useful for motivating us to take actions, but the actions we learned to take in response to our emotions as a child don’t work when we are an adult.

There’s a difference between sitting with your emotions to understand, and ruminating in your emotions. Often what happens with ruminating is that you are reinforcing an emotion through a narrative, and you end up spinning around and around in the emotion without resolving it. Your narrative reinforces the emotion, which reinforces an even stronger emotion. We’ll talk a bit more about narratives next, but the important part here is that you are bolstering the emotion, rather than working through it to understand yourself and the situation better.

To sit in your emotions in a healthier way, it takes recognizing when you are in this rumination state and then pulling the emotions out from the narrative. Emotions are giving you basic information: approach (anger=fight, happiness=do that more), avoid (disgust=leave, anxiety=run), freeze (sadness=hunker down, calmness=relax), fawn (fear=forced approach as survival, placate). So, is your emotion telling you to do one or several of these things? A lot of people like to use an emotion wheel, but there are about 100 versions out there, and many of them have words we use as emotions but are wrapped up in judgmental narratives. You can just stick with the basic emotions: Anger, Surprise, Disgust, Enjoyment, Fear, and Sadness. 

Listen for emotional words that are really judgements.

There are many words we often use as emotions that are really judgements mixed with emotions. I feel abandoned, manipulated, betrayed, gaslit, etc. All of these words assume you know what’s going on inside the head of the other person, and are judging them for their intent. I’ll walk you through some translations.

“I feel abandoned” means you are assuming the other person is intentionally trying to leave you alone or not consider you. You can break the narrative out from the emotion like this “I feel lonely and sad because the story I’m telling myself is that you don’t care about me.”

“I feel manipulated” assumes the other person is trying to get something out of you that you wouldn’t give them if you knew the whole truth. This can turn into “I feel angry because the story I’m telling myself is that you aren’t being honest with me about your motives.”

How To Listen To Your Narrative

You will hear us recommend Journaling over and over, especially if you often get into rumination mode frequently. Most people associate journaling with writing down your daily activities or keeping a log of what is going on in your life. What journaling is actually for is to help you externalize and process your emotions and understand your narrative, or to help you reinforce positive mindsets. The best way to start is just to stream-of-consciousness write whatever is going on in your head. Don’t leave out any details! Remember, you have the “logic/rational” part of your brain that often says one thing, and the emotional part of your brain that may be saying something very different. One of the best ways to get to know yourself better is to make sure you aren’t ignoring one of these narratives, just because it is “illogical” or “irrational”.

Which way is the arrow pointing?

The first thing to notice is if the arrow of blame points inwards or outwards. In psychology, you might see this concept discussed under a few terms: internal vs. external locus of control, internalizers vs. externalizers. The point with all of them is that sometimes people primarily focus on either themselves or others as the source of all problems. Occasionally, people flip back and forth when pointing the arrow in the other direction becomes too emotionally intense, or isn’t working to solve the problem. Healthy “arrow pointing” doesn’t flip due to frustrations, but as a way to explore all potential solutions for a problem.

If you point the arrow inwards, you often think that your own behavior and emotions have more influence over outcomes than they actually do. You also might think that if you change enough, or try hard enough, things around you will be better. What it sounds like to have an internal locus of control, or be an internalizer:

“I’m no good, why would anyone ever want me?”

“I can’t do anything right. I screw everything up.”

“If only I could change myself enough, the other person would like me more or be a better person.

If you point the arrow outwards, you blame others for problems. That other might be your partner, your metamour, or the amorphous “them” that are oppressing you. You think that if everyone around you changes, then you will no longer have any problems. We see this sometimes in couple therapy, where we have two externalizers, neither of which will take responsibility to enact change to better the relationship they are both miserable in. This external locus of control sounds like:

“You just need to change this thing about you, and I’ll quit being irritated.”

“You can’t trust anyone these days.”

“Why are people always getting in the way?”

Are there consistent themes?

It might take a while of writing to get to this, but you can also identify it more using the needs wheel. Read through what you just wrote. Does your narrative have a theme that points to a need not getting met? If you keep looking for empathy or connection, you might have abandonment issues. If you are constantly feeling unsafe or angry people haven’t protected you, you may have grown up in an incredibly unsafe environment and are hypervigilant. If you are frustrated with feeling trapped, you may need to better understand your needs for autonomy.

If you struggle to identify your needs, can’t break out of the rumination cycle, or aren’t sure what feeling you are feeling, it might be beneficial to find a therapist to help you on this journey. These aren’t easy/simple things to learn, and the insight building process is ongoing because you aren’t a static individual who never changes. It sounds daunting, but the more ability you have to identify your emotions and needs, sit with discomfort, and be able to communicate what is going on to others in your life, the more you are able to help them understand and support you.