I recently had a life changing epiphany.
You wouldn’t think it would take me 37 years to grasp a fundamental human need. I had the basics down. I knew I needed food and water before and I appreciated the importance of being secure, out of harm’s way
I probably recognized the importance of food, water, and safety by the time I was three, but…
It took me thirty four more years to grasp the next most fundamental human need.
I remember the moment it hit me (in retrospect, I had been careening toward this moment for years).
It was a rainy summer night in New Orleans in 2015 – one of the most difficult years of my life. My last endeavor, a psych-tech company dedicated to helping people explore their inner realms, was on life support. A relationship I cared deeply about was, too. And that mixture of commitment and belief that fuels start-ups and relationships was gone. My co-founders and I were too defeated to support each other through the last chapter of a failed start-up, and the woman I loved deeply was too hurt by me, and I was too hurt by her, for us to comfort each other without cringing.
In that ragged state I found myself wandering through the streets of New Orleans that night beneath the canopy of live oaks that overhang the streets, while rain slipped through the trees and hit my face. I rarely cry, so that might have been nature’s way of bringing me closer to a sensation I needed to experience.
Like many times before in my hours of need, I tried to reach the people closest to me.
All I wanted to hear was something along the lines of:
“I’m here for you. I can stay on the phone as long as you want, you can talk to me about whatever you want. I care about you. You’re going make it through this. I’m here with you.”
Fortunately, I have an incredibly strong network of family and friends: two loving parents, two incredible brothers, and six friends, scattered across the world from Germany to Kentucky, who would do anything in their power to support me.
I just needed to reach one of them.
Each attempt to reach my first seven ‘favorites’ went straight to voicemail.
“You have reached . . . at the tone, leave a message.”
“You have reached . . . at the tone, leave a message.”
“You have reached . . . at the tone, leave a message…”
On my eighth and ninth attempts, I successfully reached someone, my older brother and my friend Andrew, but neither of them had time to talk.
“I’m in the middle of . . . can we talk tomorrow?
“I’m feeding the kids . . . can we catch up this weekend?
On my tenth and final call, I finally reached someone who had time to talk to me: my father.
“What’s going on?”
“Jeremy, what’s going on?”
“Don’t worry about it . . . I’m fine.”
This sequence of events repeated itself numerous times that summer. Time and time again I struggled to reach the people closest to me when I needed them most. And when I was fortunate enough to get a friend or family member on the phone, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for the thing I wanted most — for someone to listen to me, comfort me, encourage me . . . to remind me that they cared about me.
It wasn’t until months after these ‘failures of connection’ that I discovered that the thing I was looking for wasn’t a special indulgence justified by unique circumstances — it was a fundamental human need generally described as “emotional support.”
That need was emotional support.
There is no better way to understand emotional support than to view your own life through the lens of this basic human need. Try it now — it only takes 60 seconds.
On a nearby piece of paper or any blank screen where you can type, answer the following three questions:
In a typical week, how much undivided attention do you receive? — time in minutes or hours spent outside of work when someone puts down their phone and casts everything else aside, and dedicates their entire focus to you, as they make you feel heard, understood and important?
In a typical week, to whom do you give at least an hour of your undivided attention? If you’re checking your phone or multitasking during this time, you aren’t giving your undivided attention.
In a typical week, who gives you at least an hour of their undivided attention?
Your answer to the first question is a rough measure of how much emotional support you receive in a typical week. If you answered less than four hours, you may not be getting enough of a vital ingredient of human health.
Your answer to the second question gives you a sense of the people you are showing that you care about them — not the people who matter to you, but the people you are actually showing, concretely, that you care about them.
Your answer to the third question may help you take stock of the people who are actually showing, in a typical week of your life, that they care about you.
Food, water, security . . . and emotional support.
It may not surprise you that emotional support ranks near the top of our hierarchy of human needs. You have presumably heard of this hierarchy of needs — the more fundamental the need, the more quickly we develop health problems if we fail to satisfy it.
As you might expect, food and water are at the top of the list: we can only survive for three days without water, and we put our life in jeopardy after three weeks without food.
Security is next on the list. Keeping ourselves out of harm’s way is fantastic for our health.
But it is the human need that follows food, water and safety, emotional support, that should be making headlines every day. (Turns out it is making headlines, though you have to watch and listen closely—a follow-up to this piece will focus on that.)
Emotional support is another person’s undivided attention, compassion and encouragement.
Because human beings are an ultra-social species, we need regular doses of emotional support to be healthy and happy.
Our ancestors had an easier time getting emotional support because they lived in small communities near their extended families, and pre-iPhone technological advances, from fire to the first telephones, generally enabled rather than impeded genuine human connection.
Today is a different story. Families are more dispersed than ever, and the human connections that have replaced familial interactions are less rich — often the equivalent of empty calories. You can spend hours “connecting” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat and not feel “full”— not feel truly heard, encouraged or cared about.
These transformations of how we live and communicate are having devastating effects on our health. Nearly a third of the U.S. population suffers from significant deficits of emotional support, a depletion that is manifesting itself in three related epidemics: chronic loneliness, chronic stress, and substance abuse, each of which affects millions of Americans and is deadlier than diabetes or obesity.
What does this mean? This means that a deficit of emotional support may be having a greater impact on your health and happiness than almost anything else you’re doing (or not doing).
If you want to receive or provide more emotional support, which we all should want to do, it helps to understand what emotional support is.
Emotional support in three dimensions.
Three pillars of emotional support are undivided attention, compassion, and encouragement.
The foundation of emotional support is undivided attention—the feeling you experience when someone leaves their world completely and enters yours. Undivided attention is the combination of time and focus, two of the most valuable resources people provide to each other. Time is the currency of life. When someone gives you their time, they give you a piece of their life. Focus – another person’s commitment to cast everything aside and dedicate their entire attention to you – is precious, too. There are few more effective ways to demonstrate you care about someone than to give them your undivided attention.
If undivided attention is the floorboard of emotional support, compassion and encouragement are its blankets and candles. Compassion is the balm we seek when life wounds us. It is another person’s comfort, their arms around us, their soothing voice. When we give someone our compassion we accept their pain as our own, lessening its impact by dividing it among two bodies rather than one. When someone gives us compassion, they see us wounded and sacrifice their own peace of mind to embrace our pain.
If compassion soothes us when we are down, encouragement stirs us to get back up. Encouragement is the light that illuminates our greatest gifts and the path ahead. When someone encourages us, they remind us of our natural gifts, our unsung heroics and our proudest accomplishments. Encouragement makes us glow inside. And the more clearly we see that the most valuable resources we need for the road ahead are inside of us (and cannot be taken away), the more confident we will be when we take the next steps of our journey.
This is emotional support.
Think about the last time you gave it to someone.
Think about the last time you received it.
We will continue this conversation about emotional support in subsequent pieces.