Locating our feelings and needs can be difficult. When we have strong reactions and get hurt or angry, we often experience our feelings as being caused by the other person's actions or words. In doing that, we don't take responsibility for our own responses. And we don't understand ourselves.
For any one emotional event, our feelings can be multi-layered. Uncovering some of the top layers and figuring out what they are can reveal a whole other layer, including needs that we have in the current , upsetting situation.
This effort to identify our feelings and needs is a little bit like an archeological dig: we find out what is happening on the surface, and, as we dig down, we find out more about what is causing our feelings. We can eventually learn to explain to ourselves, and to others, what our feelings are and even how the old ones are connected to the current ones—that is, how we got to where we are now.
Defining emotions, feelings, and needs is complicated. Emotions are physiological. They happen in our bodies. We experience them in different circumstances. Many people can connect to their emotions when they listen to music. We know that as infants we have a lot of emotion. Of course, as babies, we are not thinking about what we feel. We just experience our emotions: we laugh, we cry, and so on.
While emotions are physiological, feelings have a cognitive element: images, thoughts, and memories are associated with them. They are sort of like miniature narrations of what has happened to us as we experience our emotions. Feelings seem to be connected to getting our needs met, or, in the case of a conflict, to not getting them met. Learning to recognize and articulate feelings is a lifelong endeavor.
Needs involved in conflict are usually relational; in other words, we need something from someone, and we are not getting it. Locating what we need in relation to the other person in the conflict can help us to make more sense out of what we are feeling. Identifying our needs is another emotional skill we can learn with practice.