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The Six Core Psychological Needs

If we accept that interpersonal conflict stems from a real or perceived threat to one’s core needs, it is critical to answer the following question: What are our core needs? Obviously, we have physiological needs such as food and oxygen. What may not be so obvious, however, are our core psychological needs. Over the last […]

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If we accept that interpersonal conflict stems from a real or perceived threat to one’s core needs, it is critical to answer the following question: What are our core needs?

Obviously, we have physiological needs such as food and oxygen. What may not be so obvious, however, are our core psychological needs. Over the last century, scholars in various fields have presented theories about these needs. The overarching argument is that when needs are left unfulfilled, we are negatively impacted in numerous ways, such as suffering from heightened anxiety, stress, insecurity, interpersonal conflict, and even physical illness. When needs are satisfied, we should feel at peace, both with ourselves and others.

Having synthesized many of these theories, I suggest all humans possess six fundamental psychological needs: identity, safety, care, autonomy, growth, and stimulation. You will notice that many of these needs interact interdependently; that is, they can enhance or diminish one another when satisfied or impeded. With some practice, you should find it easier to identify which needs are being affected in your own relationships.

Identity

We each form an identity, which helps us understand who we are, why we exist, and what we should do. When individuals have a shaky sense of identity, they may feel lost, confused, insecure, and/or helpless. Individuals who feel positive about themselves and their place in the world are typically more opening to questioning their assumptions than individuals with an unclear sense of self. Confident people trust themselves enough to handle new information and changes to their external environment, including how they might fit into it.

Safety

Physical safety is, of course, key to survival. But what about psychological safety? This type of safety consists of two components: (1) the expectation of future physical safety and (2) the sense that one is safe to be and express oneself authentically.

In general, people must live in environments in which they feel confident that they will be able to survive at least somewhat comfortably and without persistent threat to themselves or their loved ones. (People who lives in warzones or unstable societies, for example, may feel persistent anxiety because the threat to their future well-being is constantly salient).

Individuals must feel it is safe to be themselves in whichever environment they exist. They must be able to safely accept and express their individual identities in ways appropriate to each environment and context. When people do not feel psychologically safe, they will likely feel anxious, insecure, and defensive.

Care

As we grow into adults, the need for care persists and manifests as a desire for connection with other people, including for touch, feelings of belonging, and family. The need for care may be directly linked to the need for safety, since living in groups has typically been the most important predictor of one’s physical security. People who feel cared for by others generally feel valuable, confident, and secure. Those who do not feel cared for or like they belong will often feel hopeless, lost, and insecure.

Autonomy

The idea of freedom is central to an individual’s sense of identity and safety. Autonomy is the power to choose how, when, where, and with whom we live. This need often manifests as a desire for control, which every person experiences to some degree.

If we have some control or choice over how, where, and with whom we live, we have a better chance of setting up a trustworthy environment. People who feel autonomous, like they have power over their lives, will typically feel free, hopeful, optimistic, and secure.

Growth

Essentially, growth is a person’s need to progress in life, such as by setting goals and acknowledging their achievements. The psychological need for growth can manifest in different ways depending on cultural background and personality and can range from professional or financial goals to social or familial ones. Some people, for example, believe only monetary success will satisfy them; others have a need to learn and feel a sense of fulfillment when they acquire new insights and perspectives. No matter what goals each of us has, all humans seek psychological or personal growth, which in turn supports our needs for autonomy and identity.

Stimulation

From infancy, the human mind seeks stimulation. In fact, the brain requires stimulation to properly develop. People find ways of stimulating themselves throughout their lives, whether through intrigue, challenge, entertainment, or interesting pursuits. When the mind is not concerned with security safety and autonomy, it will search for things with which to busy itself. Some of these things are unproductive, but others will be supportive of the individual’s needs and will generally lead to a sense of satisfaction.

This is a modified excerpt from Conflict Resolution Playbook: Practical Communication Skills for Preventing, Managing, and Resolving Conflict by Jeremy Pollack.

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