The Need to Relate and Feel Accepted
“People . . . people who need people . . . are the luckiest people in the world”
I have suggested previously that all needs, motives, and behaviors of a psychological nature can ultimately be traced to two fundamental human needs. I addressed the first of these two needs, the need for control, in last month’s article. This need for control is at the heart of agency, or the capacity for self-determination. It is also related to our quest to master a variety of tasks, from understanding concepts to overcoming conflict.
I believe the other fundamental human need we possess is the need for relatedness. Social creatures by nature, we are linked to each other from birth to death. Social scientists have long recognized the critical function relatedness plays, from the bonding and attachment so vital in infancy to the central role being actively involved in the lives of others plays for the elderly.
Naturally, people can and do survive without being “connected” to others. However, such individuals typically exhibit abnormal development, displaying a host of dysfunctional behaviors. For example, infants who have experienced chronic neglect and/or abuse often develop problems secondary to their failure to attach to others. Equally tragic is the plight of those diagnosed with Autism, a disorder that profoundly inhibits a person’s ability to relate to and connect with others. These individuals are innocent and require a high degree of patience and care.
Some of the most serious disorders of adolescence and adulthood reflect a disturbance in relatedness to others. Many serial rapists and killers, suffering from a blatant lack of empathy, are often described as loners (e.g., Jeffrey Dahmer) or eccentrics (e.g., Ted Kaczynski). Others, like Ted Bundy, are more cunning in hiding their extreme pathology but obviously struggle to relate to others in a normal, healthy fashion.
While the need for relatedness is perhaps most clearly evident when discussing abnormal development, it is undoubtedly a fundamental part of normal development as well. Our daily lives are governed by a need to be accepted by others, to be valued and affirmed by them. Children are forever seeking approval from their parents and peers, employees are energized by a pat on the back from supervisors, and grandma and grandpa like to know they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of us.
Our need to relate to and connect with others is sometimes subtle, such as when a child yells, “Watch, me go down the waterslide, Mom!” Rapt attention and a gleeful response by the parent esteems the child, validating him as worth the parent’s time and attention. Likewise, expressions of approval (“Jessica, I sure am proud of you for sticking up for your little sister!”) affirm the child as a sensitive, responsible person.
The quest for validation underlies our attempts to project a “put together” image to others. We expend significant amounts of energy in “impression management”, wanting others to think highly of us, to like us. Being esteemed as a worthwhile person is one reason why reaching out to help others can have such a powerful effect on us: it increases our connections to them, affirms our value as an agent of change, and stimulates a greater sense of belonging. As the song says, people who need people truly are the luckiest people in the world.
The intense need to be liked (though the more macho among us will downplay or altogether deny this) is perhaps best illustrated when considering its opposite. Being rejected by or rebuffed by others is, for most of us, quite an unpleasant experience. Indeed, much in the way of human behavior seems to stem from an effort to avoid censure by others. Even on a good day, it can lead to a “blue” mood; on a very bad day, it may elicit suicidal feelings.
In short, the need for relatedness is simply this: the need to love and be loved. A healthy balance between loving and being loved, along with an ability to be an effective agent of change in one’s life are, in my opinion, the two fundamental psychological needs from which all other psychological needs, motives, and behavior flow.
As long as these two basic needs are met reasonably well, life is generally good. When either of these basic needs is threatened, so is one’s self-esteem. This in turn affects one’s view of how worthwhile this thing called living is.
The upshot of this theory, then, is that each of us needs to take a proactive approach to life and be free with our love and attention. We’ll just never know whose “worthwhileness” we might help . . . including our own.
Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah