The Need to be Needed

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.'”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

What is the most basic human need?

Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs has been a popular answer to this question. Maslow states a sense of safety and security is our most basic need, aside from food and sleep.

Although Maslow’s theory has its merits, there are many examples of individuals who thrive despite not having these needs met.

Throughout my research with veterans, I talked to many who thrived amidst the chaos of combat.

On the other hand, I’ve also come across many individuals who live in the safest and most secure environments but experience a great deal of despair.

Because of this, there must be something more important than the need for safety and security.

I believe the most important basic need is our need to be needed.

What is this need to be needed?

The need to be needed is an individual’s sense of significance rooted in the sense of being part of a community or cause beyond themselves. 

The need to be needed is one of our fundamental desires. We want to feel significant in the eyes of others, even if it is only one other person. We want to feel like we play an important role, whether in an organization, family, or life of another.

The need to be needed is rooted in our need for a sense of contribution to something beyond ourselves.

When this need is unfulfilled in the case of job loss, divorce, or significant life-transitions, we may find ourselves beginning to lack a sense of contribution.

When this sense of contribution goes away, we lose a sense of purpose and direction.

Let’s look take a closer look at how major life transitions affect our need to be needed.

Veterans in transition to civilian life can teach us a great deal about this topic.

The Need to be Needed in the Military

My argument that belonging is more important than safety and security comes from my research on veterans in transition to civilian life.

Many soldiers in combat flourish while knowing they could be killed at any moment. Sebastian Junger, in his book War, writes:

“It’s as if there was an intoxicating effect to group inclusion that more than compensated for the dangers the group had to face.”

Individuals in the combat unit rely on one another to fulfill a specific duty. Each person experiences the highest degree of being needed because their role is essential to the success of a mission.

Compare the high degree of being needed within a combat unit to the prospects facing a recent veteran. Veterans transition to a civilian environment that is much safer, but often fails to provide them with a sense being needed. Rather than flourishing, many begin a downward spiral into despair and suicidal thoughts.

Besides the lack of job prospects in general, employers often fail to recognize how a veteran’s skills can be valuable in a civilian role, and veterans may experience difficulties translating their professional military experience in an interview for a civilian position.

If you’re interested in exploring some life-lessons I’ve discovered in my in-depth discussions with veterans, you can check out my article, 6 Things Veterans Can Teach Us About Life.

When the Need to be Needed is Unhealthy

Although we need to feel needed, we need to be mindful if this turns into a form of addiction. Addiction to the need to be needed can also be called codependency.

Codependency occurs when our desire to contribute stems from a sense of not being enough. We are no longer human beings; we become human doings.

Every basic need has a dark side.

Our basic need for food can turn into an addiction, our need for safety and security can turn into anxiety and obsession, and our need for self-esteem can turn into narcissism.

The dark side of these needs comes from an attempt to fill an inner void with an external substance or behavior.

If our need to be needed is not met, we may overcompensate for our lack of love and belonging by trying to gain acceptance through continually doing things for others.

There are many different forms of codependency, but the most common is enabling someone with addiction by continually doing things for them to keep everything together. This form of “helping” is often an attempt to gain a sense of love.

In reality, the codependent person is operating in a state of complete self-neglect. Their self-worth and identity quickly erode into nothing. This sense of emptiness further fuels the addiction to helping others, giving gifts, or generally attempting to gain a sense of significance.

If this resonates with you and you want to learn how to be more effective in your attempts to help others, check out my article, When Does Helping Become Enabling?

In that article, I present an in-depth distinction between helping and codependent enabling, particularly when helping someone with an addiction. Helping allows you to be the most effective version of yourself in your relationships with others, whereas enabling keeps you trapped in this unhealthy dynamic.

The key to recovering from codependency is developing personal boundaries and starting to focus on self-care. Over time, a person suffering from codependency may build a sense of identity and self-esteem.

Conclusion

We are social beings, and our need to be needed is rooted in this reality.

We can fulfill this need in healthy ways, so long as we maintain personal boundaries, engage in self-care, and have a foundation of self-worth.

We can fulfill our need to be needed when we find a way to make ourselves useful within our social context.

On a public policy level, we need to consider ways to reduce the impact of life transitions on our need to be needed.

Problematic life transitions could include students in transition to the work-world, retirees transitioning out of their profession, veterans in transition to civilian life, professional athletes leaving their sport, and priests retiring from their role.

Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and when our social needs are met, we feel a sense of belonging and purpose.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to build a sense of purpose, you can check out my article here: What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

If you are in Canada or the US, specifically looking for support for an addiction to alcohol, substances, gambling, or gaming, I offer online counseling services. Check out my services page here, contact me here, or send me a message directly at steve@steverosephd.com for more information.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you want to learn more about how to find the right support, check out my recent article on Why it’s so Hard to Find a Good Therapist.

If you’re bored and looking for a new productive hobby, I highly recommend checking out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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29 Comments

  1. Fraser Harvey

    The problem in choosing a theory of motivation is that there are according to Kleinginna and Kleinginna (1981) 140 different definitions of motivation. The second problem is that it is often assumed that the choice of one excludes all others, that is, they are mutually exclusive. How can one test the relative merits of Maslow’s need theory versus Inglehart materialism-postmaterialism theory when individuals are asked only questions regarding attitudes or values or only questions concerning the extent to which their social needs are being met? Such problems make it difficult (or depending on standpoint) or easy to prove a theory of motivation.
    Self esteem (or self worth) can lead to depression, hopelessness and suicidal ideation. And as the ‘recent research’ points out, increase risk of suicide in teens. Even self esteem may be too narrow of a concept to describe what is happening to our veterans. I think the answer can be found in the work done by Deiner – Subjective Well Being. The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. In “Mental Health and Well-Being across the Military Spectrum” the authors build on SWB looking at the overlap between wellness and well being. It does not take a scientist to see that the well being/ wellness of Canada’s veterans (and here I use the VAC definition: Any former member of the Canadian Forces who successfully underwent basic training and is honourably discharged.) is suffering.

    Reply
    • hml21

      This was a very interesting article–it really made me think because initially I disagreed with the idea that self-esteem would determine one’s sense of fulfillment; however, I agree that feeling needed can lead to a more fulfilling life. On a side note it made me think about how a sense of spirituality or a connection with God can also lead to a more purposeful, and hence fulfilling life.

      Reply
  2. pickleclub1971

    Reblogged this on PTSD and Me and commented:
    Boy, do I ever relate to this! As one who has to spend a lot of time at home due to health issues (and away from my kids, since they have a healthy dad and step mom) I feel like I only find meaning in finding ways to help others. Sometimes I may get a bit ridiculous in looking for those who may need a listening ear, or finding subjects that people around me might need as much as I do. I “need to be needed” in a big way. He calls this “self-esteem,” if I were to be nit-picky I might call it “self-worth” instead. And when my health changes (for better or for worse) I have to redefine and change what I’m doing without hating myself.
    I just really, really relate.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for the reblog! I’m glad you can relate!

      Reply
    • Princess Chaos's Oma

      I hear you. Having gone from being the person everyone turned to when all hell was breaking loose, because I was calm in a crisis, I came home, against my wishes (had I had a choice at the time, because of an injury), feeling like I had not only lost my military family, but my real-life family as well. My son, who had recently gone off to college, didn’t really need me as much, as he was starting a family of his own. A few things give me peace. Volunteer work has helped a bit. Thanks for a great article!

      Reply
      • pickleclub1971

        Glad you’ve found things that have helped. I got that article from a really great blog by a sociologist who is studying veterans in Canada. Check it out if you have the time. I tend to think of myself as picky about bloggers and their research, but I’m so impressed with what he’s doing. Best wishes to you, and thank you so much for your service!

        Reply
  3. ednaenriq

    Reblogged this on DreamGal and commented:
    I found this post to be very relatable. The topic of “Self-Worth” is so important and this post talks about a big factor that goes into our self-worth—the need to be needed. Part of our self-worth is derived from our sense of purpose and belonging. This idea resonated with me because the whole purpose of this blog is develop this sense of purpose for myself and for my audience. I wasn’t sure what was my “purpose” in life and that created a lot of internal struggles within me. Until, with a little help, I realized that all I wanted to do is help others, be creative, and enjoy what I do. So I created this blog, which is designed to inspire those that are, like me, striving to be the person they want to be and figure out their place in the world. So, I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did.

    Reply
  4. LaVancia Phoenix

    What really seemed to ring true to my tunes was the phrase “…rather, Individuals may flourish in the most dangerous and unforgiving environments; likewise, those in the safest and most secure environments may experience a great deal of despair.” Having spent over ten years in a mental institution it was easy to see how some of the ones who’d been there over 20 years felt at home there. They simply would say things like they didn’t want to get out…3 hots and a cot…but like you mention there’s much more in that setting…something that the psychiatrist told me at our very first encounter once I was admitted after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for my crime…she said it like we’re one “big family”…
    Making the transition into normal society for me wasn’t easy at first due to the fact that the owner of the boarding home I stayed at accused me of writing a complaint to the head General Advocate for the Mentally Ill in my state and as a consequence, they had someone from the higher ups come and do an on-site inspection. I was so appalled at this man’s audacity to point the finger at me because I had once made an in-house complaint to him about one of his employees rather abusive inter-social skills with the residents. I told him it wasn’t me and he didn’t believe me. He threatened to send me back to the hospital where “I was happy.”
    I went back to my room and just cried. I called my Dad and told him what happened. I was paranoid that someone had used my name on the complaint to the Advocate General. Dad told me to file a complaint with the Advocate General for his obvious abuse and threatening demeanor. After that, the boarding home moved me to a different bedroom that had less than half the space as five single beds were all crammed in there. I made the decision that I had to move to a different boarding home in the state. This was difficult because the owner, I found out later, was giving me a bad reputation as a “trouble maker.”
    I thank God the facility I’m at now saw thru this man’s façade. I’ve been here three years now and this place is really one of the best in our state also one of the few that have a housing program to really get you moving in small steps back into society. I lived at a “supportive living home” with 5 other clients for over a year and now am in my own apartment.
    Anyway that phrase really caught my attention because it was difficult at first being in my own apartment and only knowing people from the mental health facility; however, with time I befriended a neighbor and also got to become friends with some of the other client who attend that facility that live in these apartments for the disabled. I recently hosted my first Christmas get together with just my specialized group members, about ten people. That sense of feeling like you belong was very overwhelming to me as the “party” with no alcohol happened to be on the anniversary of my son’s birthday. He’d be 22 if he were alive and I smile because I know he is in heaven, happy that his Mom is finally learning to spread her wings….thanks for following me. – LaVancia

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad you were able to relate to this post and I wish you the best on your road to recovery.

      Reply
  5. Mary Rogers

    You have great insight and this hits home for me. Since I had to quit my job with a mental health social center because of health problems I have had a very hard time coping. This job gave me a sense of purpose as a peer mentor after I had lost everything due to bipolar disorder. I had never felt needed my entire life. I always felt like a burden. When I found out that I could use my experiences to help others, it literally saved my life. I got as much from the clients as they got from me and it was like a big family.
    My physical needs are being taken care of. I have shelter and food. But no I am not happy. I have to find ways of being useful but my condition is such that I can barely do anything. But even so, i can write my blog and maybe brighten a friend’s day by sending them an inspirational story or a funny video.
    I keep meaning to read Viktor Frankl’s book as his work sounds amazing. The dynamics of how to survive in the very worst of conditions, a German concentration camp, surely has a lot to teach us. I would probably be the type to give up, but maybe I can learn to be stronger. I certainly would not blame anyone for giving up under such horrendous circumstances, but those that found meaning and purpose in a situation of having to endure pointless random cruelty certainly have much to teach us about survival. The fact that Frankl HIMSELF was part of this “experiment” in survival by being in the concentration camp himself adds an extra personal dimension that is generally lacking in psychological and sociological research.
    This is such a great blog and i am glad you visited mine so that I could find you! Good job and good luck with your research and education. 😉

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you so much for this comment! I am glad you could relate to this.

      Reply
  6. Haylee

    This was a very interesting read and I wholeheartedly agree with your idea.
    It’s definitely a fundamental desire by all humans (even those who distance themselves from others) to be wanted and needed at some level by someone/thing. Even blogging and the use of social media (for its good and bad) feeds into this – the need to be validated and a recognition that even a simple, quite possibly mundane sentence has struck a chord and been appreciated by someone, some place.
    And on that note, thank you for following, appreciated. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Evang.Gretiana

    A few years ago I had a stable job and a stable income, but I was still suicidal and depressed.
    The day I discovered my purpose and passion I began to live. This is just to say “Yes” to your post. It’s good, it’s true.

    Reply
  8. artenthusias

    Very interesting; we all have that need to be needed feeling.

    Reply
  9. Steve Games

    I especially appreciated the article having recently discovered Dr.Viktor E. Frankl serendipitously on my GF’s bookshelf. Couldn’t put down “Man’s Search For Meaning” to get on with the day until I was halfway through it – then couldn’t wait to pick it up again.
    Thanks for your interest in Otherearths!
    – Steve

    Reply
  10. hopeunveiled

    Thank you for this post! I love Viktor Frankl’s book because it helps identify one’s search for purpose and meaning BECAUSE of the trials. In other words, it’s a positive spin on a horrific life experience. Could it be that we can each learn this lesson? Think about it. Ultimately, we have two choices when life gets tough: 1. Bitterness 2. Wonder what the “bigger perspective” is within a theological framework that transcends our narrow vision. When we begin to take that specific trial and surrender it, it can be used for a much bigger good than we ever dreamed of. Not easy…..but it’s what fulfillment is all about. And what else happens? Discovering that our experiences are what are NEEDED to encourage someone else, thereby resulting in our being NEEDED.

    Reply
  11. rogermoorepoet

    Nice article, thank you. It brightened my day and I have sent it to a friend who needs to be needed.

    Reply
  12. peggy

    Your thoughts on the need to be needed are most interesting. Thank you for writing.

    Reply
  13. Life's Lessons- Last Times

    I’m sure you have a lot more information available to you and I admire your dedication to the work you are doing.
    I’d like to add that purpose is important but to me to love and be loved and feel love may just be more important. New born babies (human and animal) will not survive without “attention” which can be translated as love and devotion.
    Fulfilling their basic need for nutrition alone will not work. Touching and nurturing are required.
    Just a thought.
    Keep up your good work!
    Yodamann

    Reply
  14. rishaep

    This post was a wonderful reminder!!

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    I look forward to reading the book!

    Reply
  16. spiritcatrunner

    Fascinating! It matches more recent research about how people are happier when they have a life purpose.

    Reply
    • Steve Rose

      This is very true! Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  17. kinasakimara

    Thanks for sharing this info. Liked it and sharing it with my collegues.

    Reply

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