Military Psychology

The Need to be Needed

lingu-translation-services3“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. Beyond the basic physiological requirements of nutrition and sleep, Maslow held that a sense of safety and security is our most basic need. I argue that this is simply not the case; 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. If a sense of safety and security is not the most fundamental human need, what is? I believe the answer is the need to be needed.

What is this need to be needed? It is an individual’s sense of significance; the feeling that they have a community, group, or individual that needs them. This sense of self-worth can also be called ‘self-esteem’. Although the concept of self-esteem has gained somewhat of a bad reputation in academia since the rise of its use in the self-help genre, recent research suggests that lower levels of self-esteem leads to higher levels of suicidal ideation.

Maslow’s hierarchy is controversial since it is not based on empirical findings. Although this is the case, a study with data from 123 countries found that Maslow’s constructs  do correlate to life-satisfaction. The interesting part of the research is that they found individuals were able to achieve the highest levels of the pyramid without having satisfied the lowest levels, suggesting individuals in poorer conditions with regard to safety and security are still able to achieve high levels of life-satisfaction if the social needs of love, belonging, respect, as well as autonomy and self-esteem are met.

My own sense that self-esteem is more important than a sense of safety and security comes from analyzing several war-memoirs and conducting qualitative interviews with combat veterans about their experiences transitioning 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, their role being 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. The new veteran transitions to a civilian environment that is by far 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 ideation. As stated in a previous post, “War is Hell, Civilian Life is Worse.” 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.

Although this may often be the case with veterans – especially with those who experienced the highest levels of combat – this is not the fate of all. Those who flourish are those who find a new purpose. Some find it in family obligations, meaningful employment, or humanitarian assistance programs like Team Rubicon.

The sense that one is needed is more important than the struggles one must face. As stated in the beginning: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” The ‘why’ comes with feeling a sense of obligation, feeling needed, and contributing to a cause outside oneself. No matter the harshness of a condition, individuals flourish if their need to be needed is satisfied.

In my book, The Art of FulfillmentI delve deeper into this need to be needed. I show how our behavior is shaped by a search for inner-fulfillment and discuss how people are using these lessons to develop meaningful life-journeys, despite all of life’s uncertainties.

You can find more in my book on Amazon: The Art of Fulfillment.  

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  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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. 😉

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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!

      1. 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!

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

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