The Emotional Pyramid of Needs

Susan David, PhD, is a founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School, an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard University, and the author of, among other books, Emotional Fragility, Get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life.

She has developed an “emotional needs” pyramid model that illustrates how “to deal with both the reality of our present and the emotions that come with this reality, in a healthy way. The steps outlined can leave us more resilient and stronger than ever”. The following description was edited for length.

1. Gentle Acceptance suggests that under uncontrollable situations feelings of anxiety, hopelessness or grief can be expected, therefore accepted. Acceptance is the prerequisite for positive change.

2. Compassion: During unprecedented times such as the current pandemic, forgiveness, flexibility, and compassion—for both yourself and for others—can alleviate anxiety and burden.

3. Routine: Routine provides a sense of order, the glue that holds us together from day to day. When faced with the unfamiliar, we tend to fill in the gaps with fear; instead, we can fill the gaps with things that are comfortable, familiar, and connected with our values. Healthy routines are essential, specifically those associated with sleep, exercise and eating. Our bodies and minds are so interconnected and our physical health is reflected in our psychological state.

4. Connection: Physical distancing is not synonymous with social distancing. Connection is more important than ever. Nourishing relationships, especially if you’re feeling lonely, can be done despite physical distance.

5. Courage: Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions–even the messy, difficult ones–is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and happiness. Slow down and face into your difficult emotions with courage. What you find there will direct you to make better decisions and take values based actions.

6. Reset: This is the time for reflection. What priorities did you once have that no longer seem important? What parts of ‘normal’ do you not want to rush back to? Gather your data, and reflect on what you learn about yourself. This will guide you as you move forward.

7. Wisdom: Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. The only certainty is uncertainty, and once we realize this as truth, the healthier and more authentically happier we will be. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.