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 life-transitions, we may find ourselves beginning to doubt our sense of contribution that gives us a sense of purpose and direction. It is the ability to feel needed through our specific method of contribution that gives us our sense of identity.
As described in my last post, an identity crisis can result from a lack of identity when role confusion occurs, as discussed by Erik Erikson. Building on Erikson’s conception of this adolescent phenomenon, I argued that perhaps we are moving into an age where this is an issue associated with all stages of the life-course, or what I call “the adolescentification of society.” Confronted by fleeting relationships and tenuous social arrangements, we are tasked with constantly renegotiating our identities in relation to this shifting social order. At it’s core, we are constantly renegotiating our sense of contribution to fulfill our need to be needed.
In extreme cases, when this need is not met, thoughts of suicide can occur. As demonstrated in research by Thomas Joiner, the risk of suicidal thoughts increase when individuals feel like they are a burden on others and feel like they no longer belong. These two factors increase the risk particularly among individuals who fall into a sense that there is no hope of escaping this state of burdensome isolation. Feeling hopelessly not needed diminishes one’s ability to form a positive relational identity, causing a great deal of mental pain.
On the societal level, we need to consider problematic social arrangements that contribute to this thwarted sense of contribution. Problematic life-transitions are one way this might occur. This 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. On the individual level, we need to be aware of how we can harness our skills to regain a sense of contribution that is not dependent on a specific role or job title. Also, we need to be aware of how a thwarted sense of contribution affects others and have empathy when witnessing behaviors that appear to be a reaction to this situation.
We are social beings and our need to be needed is rooted in this reality.