Psychology Sociology

Identity and The Need to be Needed

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.




  1. This thought of being needed has been crossing my mind often. But is it right to feel purposeful only when we are needed? I think the concept of purpose is wrongly ingrained within us. It is good to serve others but we cannot allow that to be our purpose. It should be within us. The purpose.

  2. I just re-read this and wanted to comment further. Let me state this is not a political comment. Mr. Trump apparently has appealed to older, white males. The main characteristic supposedly revolves around their economic/career status. These people lost their jobs both due to the economy and the shift of manufacturing overseas. These workers valued their jobs and the lifestyle it afforded. Now that it is gone or certainly changed Mr. Trump gives them an escape. My life may have changed due to “things beyond my control” but my life still has meaning. This meaning to me seemed to be misplaced. How do these essentially working class people find meaning or self worth in this current time?

  3. Amazing piece. And I came across at the perfect time! It has given me a clear understanding into some aspects of my personal journey of self discovery. Thank you for this!

  4. All people feel a need to matter. That need can have numerous impacts and varying impacts in the various stages or transitions through our lives. Our life vision at twenty may drastically change by forty either due to not realizing our earlier vision or lifestyle changes such as your article references. How we adjust to those life changes is beyond my knowledge but to me having a good self image is essential. The lack of such an image can certainly lead to some of the less desirable consequences which you appropriately described.

  5. It is interesting that you mention Erik Erikson in both this post and the former which you refer to here. Erik himself must have had a bit of an identity crisis as he is the father of conversational hypnosis, which is the forming of masses to agree with an espoused viewpoint, without them ever knowing it.

  6. A thought occurred to me when reading your post: “Identity Crisis,” and then again when I read it’s follow-up: “The Importance of Social Health,” but it wasn’t until I read this post that the idea took shape. In his book, “Ishmael,” Daniel Quinn comments on how man, through a series of technological advances, removed himself from the natural process of evolution; Is it possible that we’ve done something similar, but on an emotional and social level e.g. because of technology we’ve ceased the engagements required to evolve, as a whole, socially or emotionally? Conversely, do you think technology itself, is part of evolution, and that, perhaps the isolation and alienation being experienced today are actually natural parts of the evolutionary process?

  7. I have direct experience of suicidal thoughts through feeling useless, lacking meaning and purpose following taking early retirement from my “identity” as a Holistic Practitioner, due to illness. Recovery came through gaining enough strength to do voluntary work, this worked for a while then a relapse, until finally I understood I was “using voluntary work” as a way to avoid real deep self healing. Now I live more from inspired trust in the universe and take my direction within a larger purpose with no agenda’s.” Thank you Steve, as ever your blog posts are thought provoking and insightful.

  8. Your comments relate strongly to two events in my life — giving up sport (the so-called hanging up the boots) and retirement from full-time teaching. In both cases I went through a mini-identity crisis. In the case of retirement (forced upon me by age, I might add) it took me a long time to re-find myself and settle. Thank you for your insights: they help me to understand myself a little better.

  9. I have never quite belonged or
    Fitted to anyone group yet I have identity in my purpose of service to people. I have changed country and job but have remained rooted in my
    Identity of service to others in whatever form that takes. I find Identifying with love and awareness and the rest follows.

  10. You say some true words.

    I struggled with this for a while until I found the RPG community – a gathering of about 30 teens/young adults – and everyone contributes something and feels a part of it.

    Until then, I had nothing like this. Parents love it when their children only go to school but we need communal lives. We need a community to be a part of, to contribute to and to gain something from. I wouldn’t know what to do without the RPG community. Life would be so lonely.

  11. We ARE social beings, but, the development of the person as a separate entity shouldn’t be overlooked, and i get, that people have a need to belong somewhere, but, if you can’t find that sense of comfort, sense of belonging within yourself first, then, how can you find a place that you can fit comfortably into on the outside…

    1. Thanks for the post Steve. When it comes to military veterans, I also agree with the comment by TaurusinGemini. Namely, that adolescents and young adults who do not have a solid sense of self-worth (influenced heavily by developmental environments) as a person may be drawn to institutions, first response organizations in particular, which hold the promise of providing them an alternate identity to fulfill this basic need for self-worth – larger than life. When these men and women are medically released, in addition to resolving the consequences of military service they also face a crushing emptiness that comes with the loss of a self-worth identity that was largely external to themselves. I have explored this issue in a book recently released – Ghost in the Ranks.
      Keep up the good work.

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