To say that we all need to do basic things like eat, drink potable fluids and sleep would be to state the obvious. Regardless of your gender, ethnicity or religion you will be hungry if you have not eaten in a while, thirsty if you are dehydrated, or tired if you are sleep deprived. To eat, drink and sleep are some of the physiological needs we are born with. And they are important – their function is to keep us alive, functioning well, and healthy.

A, perhaps, less obvious statement would be to say that we all share the same psychological needs. After all, we all seem to be so different from each other and to need things that are so dissimilar. We have different values, personalities, motivations, cultures, priorities, preferences, things we enjoy and things we dislike, just to mention a few.

However, research indicates that beneath this apparent variation lies an innate architecture of shared psychological needs[1]. Psychological needs that we all have in our nature, that drive us, and that largely define how well, effective and successful we are in life and at work. So, what are these psychological needs? Why do they matter so much for our growth, well-being, and success? And, how can we satisfy them to achieve our full potential?

What are psychological needs?

According to self-determination theory, psychological needs are the essential nutrients we all need to fulfill our natural tendencies for growing, doing meaningful things, and being well[2]. Just like our bodies need proper nutrition, our minds need proper psychological nutrients for optimal and healthy functioning.

So far, researchers have identified three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness[3] [4].


Competence is our need to develop new skills, learn new things, and master the world around us. We need to influence the environment so that we have some control over the outcomes we produce. When you feel capable and confident that you can do something well, you have this need satisfied. In contrast, feeling insecure and doubtful about your ability is a strong indication that this need is somehow being frustrated.

This psychological need is so important that we invest billions in our education systems[5], spend years of our lives in them, and keep updating our skills throughout our adult lives. It is also probably one of the reasons you are reading this right now – to learn new things so that you have more control in your life and work.

Here is a simple example of how pervasive this need is in our lives. Can you recall the last time you entered a new hotel room? Probably, and without even thinking about it, you immediately checked the room, the bathroom and the closets. In this new environment, our natural tendency to explore, master and control the environment just kicks in. Without this psychological need you would probably hurt yourself falling into every piece of furniture in the hotel room – this would be a rather painful way of understanding how the room was organized.


Relatedness is our need to feel connected to others, to care for others, and to be cared for by others. You do not satisfy this need by simply being surrounded by people. You satisfy it by having close and genuine relationships with others and by being part of a group or community. Feeling excluded, lonely or ostracized is a strong indication that your relatedness need is being frustrated.

Like the other psychological needs, relatedness has an evolutionary purpose. Thousands of years ago, those who belonged to a group were more likely to survive. For example, food could be harvested and shared collectively, and staying safe from large predators depended largely on the efforts of the entire group. In contrast, those who found themselves without a group could face severe consequences, such as limited resources and protection.

This need appears to have had such an important role in our evolution, that we are particularly sensitive and alert to things that may frustrate it. For instance, we evolved so that being rejected by others and suffering a physical injury activate the same structures in our brains[6]. Hence the pain we feel when we are socially rejected[7]. As another example, we feel that our relatedness need is being frustrated regardless of whether we are excluded by a group we admire or by a group we despise[8]. Even clear discounting circumstances appear not to waive our sensitivity to sources of potential frustration to this need. For example, research participants who knew that others, or even a computer, were instructed to ignore them in a toss-ball game, still felt that their relatedness need was being thwarted[9].

Here’s a video, from Harvard Professor Robert Waldinger, on the importance of relatedness and meaningful relationships for our happiness, well-being, and longevity:


You are autonomous when you own your behavior, are at the origin of your actions, and have freedom of choice. You have this need satisfied when you have free will to pursue your interests and values, and you feel that your behaviors are a reflection of who you are. In contrast, the feeling that you are being forced or pressured to do something is a clear indication that your autonomy need is being frustrated.

Being autonomous is not the same as being independent or even rebellious[10]. When what you do is the result of your choice, you satisfy this need, regardless of whether someone has asked you to do it or not. For example, let’s say that your boss asks you to work on a Saturday morning to finish an important project. If you feel forced or pressured to work on the project, your autonomy need is frustrated. In contrast, if you feel that you have the power and the opportunity to make your own decision, without facing consequences, this psychological need is satisfied. In such case, agreeing to work on a Saturday would not frustrate your autonomy need.

This need was (and still is) more critical to human survival than it may appear at first glance. Without this individual will, it would be easy for others to take advantage of us. Those who were able to create strong connections with others (relatedness), while knowing and maintaining their unique wants, desires, goals, and opinions (autonomy) were the ones most likely to survive. They could, for example, choose to follow another person’s lead, but if that person was abusive or egotistic they had the freedom to seek alternatives elsewhere. They would collaborate only towards something that mattered, both for them and for others and, as such, enhance their chances of survival. None of us is immune to external influences, but autonomy gives us the capacity to choose to follow those influences or not.

Our psychological needs: relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

Do we all share these psychological needs?

There are three main reasons to believe that our psychological needs are, indeed, universal and shared by all of us.

First, large scale studies indicate that age, gender, preferences, culture, and how strong we think our needs are, make practically no difference to the role that each need has in our personal and professional life[1] [11] [12]. They matter, regardless of where we come from or where we are going to in our lives.

Second, these psychological needs are so central for our psychological functioning that they play key roles in all facets of our life. For example, at work they are important for our creativity, engagement, and overall performance[13] [14]. Even our personality and our sense of purpose in life depend to a certain extent on the satisfaction or frustration of our psychological needs[15] [16]. For example, if you tend to be extraverted, but are working on a demanding task, you may temporarily become more introverted (spend more time alone, reading) just to satisfy your competence need.

Third, their influence is so pervasive that in our day-to-day life, any fluctuation on how satisfied or frustrated our psychological needs are influences our well-being[17]. For example, if you are having a great day at work and you sense that an esteemed colleague ignored you (relatedness need is frustrated), your well-being suffers a bit.

This means that whether we like it or not, these are innate and universal needs, and we are stuck with them. However, we can satisfy our needs in many different ways[11] [18]. While our basic psychological needs are universal, the paths we follow to satisfy them are personal and depend on multiple aspects. For example, if you are extraverted you may satisfy your relatedness need by continuously building a large network of people to work with. However, if you are shy you may satisfy your relatedness need by working with a more restrict network of people.

Do you need to satisfy all three psychological needs?

You may think that just because you do not value one of the needs as much, you can focus more on taking care of the other two. On the surface this appears to make some sense. However, research indicates that this lack of balance has consequences[19].

In life, things are extremely interconnected. Let’s look at the example of performance at work. Although competence is the most relevant psychological need for our performance at work, the other two needs also matter[20]. For example, autonomy is the most important psychological need for intrinsic motivation – the type of motivation that most enhances performance[21]. Also, being connected to others at work (relatedness) is a primary booster of how well we are satisfied with our lives. In turn, this satisfaction feeling tends to enhance our performance[22]. The takeaway is that although each psychological need has a different role in our lives, those who take care of all needs are better off than those who take care of some needs at the expense of the others.

Keeping psychological needs satisfied in all facets of our lives is also important[23]. Let’s say that you are career-oriented, and see your friendships as secondary. Although you could have all your needs satisfied at work, at least some would likely be frustrated in your private live. This would be a source of distress that could undermine your well-being and your probabilities of career success.

This is sometimes signaled by the experience of a slight discomfort. For example, you may think “Why am I not thriving at work? After all, I have achieved the top of my dream career!” Frequently, this discomfort goes away and your well-being and success get a boost, when you start taking care of your psychological needs in a neglected facet of your life (for example, friendships).

Each need is important and has a unique role in our well-being, growth, and performance. Keeping our three psychological needs satisfied, within and across all areas of our life, tends to be beneficial.

How much do your psychological needs matter?

If these needs are universal and we benefit from taking care of all three, the question then becomes how much do they matter and for what. The short answer is that they matter a lot – but their effects depend on whether needs are being satisfied or frustrated.

When satisfied, our psychological needs supply the energy we need to learn, establish meaningful relationships with others, and make meaningful choices in our lives. Indeed, large scale studies[20] [24] indicate that these three psychological needs are responsible for between 15% and 50% of our well-being, psychological health, performance at work, and overall success in life. Given that they can account for up to half of our overall wellness and success, taking good care of our psychological needs should be a priority for all of us. They are not a “nice to have” thing, they are a necessary condition for our psychological health and well-being.


Our psychological needs are responsible for up to 50% of our well-being, performance at work, and overall success in life.

If taking good care of our psychological needs pays off in many aspects of our life, frustrating them is quite a different story. When our needs are temporarily frustrated we, almost instinctively, take restorative measures as soon as we can[25]. For example, feeling lonely elicits a desire to establish contact with other people[26]. Likewise, failing at an important task motivates us to make an additional effort next time we face a similar task[27].

One of our friends told us about the first (and only) time she failed in a school test as a child. She felt inapt, incompetent, and disappointed in herself. Her intuitive reaction to this competence frustration was to over-study for the following test, where she ended up getting an almost perfect mark.

You can probably identify many episodes in your own life that resemble this one. In those cases, you likely looked at such isolated sources of frustration as challenges that could be surpassed with effort. The problem is when our psychological needs are intensely and systematically frustrated. In such cases, we may start seeing the sources of frustration as unsurpassable challenges. When we do so, we can face a variety of severe consequences (such as depression, burnout, anxiety, workaholism, and turnover intentions[28] [29] [30]), and even engage in dysfunctional compensations (such as becoming greedy, nasty, unethical, overly aggressive, and excessively focused on power[2] [18]).

Another of our friends, let’s call her Jane, was a preschool teacher. Jane is introverted, caring, and an outstanding professional. Jane knew that her introverted approach was effective and that students really liked her. However, during her many years of service, performance evaluation committees would often ask her to act as an extravert (autonomy frustration), arguing that she would enthuse her students more. The evidence she provided on her effectiveness did not seem to convince the committees, who rejected her introverted qualities (relatedness frustration). The pressure was always there in one way or another, to the point where she would sometimes get low evaluations on her performance assessments (competence frustration).

Her psychological needs were frustrated for years. After a while, it all started to take a toll on her. Long story short, she spent a long time in therapy dealing with depression and things only got better after she decided to pursue a different professional path.

Nurturing your psychological needs boosts your well-being and growth. Having those needs frustrated for short periods can be followed by functional reactions in some circumstances, but most of the time it reduces your well-being, leaves you with dysfunctional compensations and even ill. If, for any reason, you cannot satisfy your psychological needs, try to at least not frustrate them.

Why do your psychological needs matter so much?

Large scale studies indicate that we are naturally inclined to grow psychologically, to do things that we value or attribute meaning to, and to thrive and be well[2]. Our psychological needs matter so much because they are the necessary nutrients for us to healthily pursue these natural inclinations or tendencies. Let’s look at each of these natural inclinations.

Psychological needs fuel your psychological growth

When we feel autonomous, connected, and competent we continuously seek out (or create) challenges that we enjoy and find interesting[3]. We find ourselves doing things out of curiosity and excitement. We do it without effort as the challenges we face tend to be at the right motivational level – neither too easy nor too difficult. The reward is on doing something for its own sake, not on obtaining something external (for example, money or recognition).

This happens naturally and, from time to time, to almost everyone. When you pick up a new instrument and cannot stop playing it. When you start a project you like and cannot stop working on it. Or when you visit a new place with your significant other and cannot stop exploring it. In situations like these you probably enjoy what you are doing. You also take pleasure from figuring out the solutions for the challenges that you set for yourself or face. In other words, you are intrinsically motivated and growing from it.

If you want to know more about how our psychological needs fuel intrinsic motivation at work, check the following interview to Edward Deci, one of the founders of self-determination theory:

Psychological needs help you pursue things that you value or attribute meaning to

Enjoying what we do and growing from it is a crucial part of our life. Yet, many of the things we do are not done out of enjoyment or interest. For example, even if you are currently at your dream job you still have to deal with a lot of tasks you may dislike, like paperwork and tense situations at work.

When you dislike an activity or find it uninteresting, you have two main options (we are not counting the option of not doing it – although it would be nice to skip disliked tasks, it is often not realistic to do so in real life). One option tends to frustrate your psychological needs. In contrast, the other option is a natural tendency we all have that keeps our psychological needs satisfied. Let’s start with the one that may put your psychological needs working against you.

When a task is not pleasant for us, we may tend to rely on extrinsic rewards to push ourselves to do it[31]. For example, we might do the task to feel worthy and to avoid feelings of guilt or embarrassment. Or we might do it to get others’ approval, to seize the associated financial rewards, or to keep a job.

When you are pressured by others, or pressure yourself, to chase a feeling or a reward you may frustrate your psychological needs. You are not autonomously choosing to do it; you are being controlled by the feeling or reward you are chasing. As long as the reward is there, you do it. If it is no longer there, why bother.

The other option to deal with uninteresting or disliked tasks is to do what is known as internalized identification[32]. This happens when you see a task as important for who you are, in line with your values, or personally meaningful. You are still doing the task because of extrinsic factors, not because you find it inherently enjoyable or interesting. However, instead of being controlled by those factors, you identify with their value or see how important they are for your personal goals. You are no longer being controlled by others or by yourself, but rather owning your behavior and identifying with the reasons behind your efforts.

There are many examples from everyday life of the importance of internalized identification. Let’s say that you dislike negotiating but nevertheless decide to master the art of negotiation because being a successful entrepreneur is a key aspect of your identity. Let’s say that although you dislike dealing with clients, you make an effort because getting the sales’ commission is important for the value you have of providing for your family. In all these situations you, and your values, were at the origin of your behavior. Nothing and no one pushed you towards a direction. In these situations, your psychological needs tend to be satisfied and to help you pursue valued or meaningful things. And this is something we are all naturally inclined to do.

Psychological needs contribute to your well-being

As human beings we are also naturally inclined to experience hedonic and eudaimonic well-being[33]. You experience hedonic well-being when you are happy and satisfied with your life. You experience eudaimonic well-being when you feel alive and with energy to reach your full potential. Our psychological needs supply the required nutrients for both types of well-being. When satisfied, our needs give us both a sense of happiness with our current situation (hedonic) and the energy to continue growing and developing (eudaimonic).

How can you satisfy your psychological needs?

When we take good care of our psychological needs, we immerse ourselves in a journey where we have the opportunity to continuously grow, find meaning and value in the things we pursue, and be well. We believe this is a good journey to be immersed in.

We have a natural inclination to keep our needs satisfied. Yet, despite our good intentions, many things we do in life and at work end up frustrating our psychological needs. Here is a list of things and tools you can pay close attention to and start using right away to take good care of your psychological needs and reach your full potential.

Although this list is backed by solid research, keep in mind that there are no magic pills to satisfy your psychological needs. Life and work can be messy and complicated. These tools take time and practice to master. In many instances, you may go back and forth on your efforts. Some might even be too farfetched for your current situation. Nevertheless, it might be worth it to look at those that may be useful at this moment and to take a note on others that may come in handy in the future.

Satisfying your psychological needs: Look at your aspirations and goals, motives, language and thoughts, plans, surroundings, and personality.

Watch your aspirations and goals

Not all goals and aspirations are created equal. Some are more prone to satisfy our needs; others to frustrate them. Most of our goals and aspirations can be organized in two types[34]:

  • Intrinsic goals (for example, personal growth and meaningful relationships);
  • Extrinsic goals (for example, money and fame).

Intrinsic goals are naturally satisfying of our psychological needs, largely because they are perfectly aligned with our needs[35]. For example, the aspiration of developing caring and meaningful relationships directly feeds your relatedness need.

In contrast, the link between extrinsic goals and psychological needs is not always clear. For example, being promoted does not necessarily mean that you are going to gain autonomy and nurture meaningful relationships. You may end up working more hours (reduced autonomy) and spending less time with your loved ones (reduced relatedness). Focusing exclusively on extrinsic goals may, therefore, limit your ability to pursue the intrinsic goals that are critical for your psychological needs.

Intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations have, by themselves, a role in the satisfaction of our psychological needs. However, the relative importance we give to each has an equally, or even more, important role[36]. Having extrinsic goals is not the problem; after all, we all have to pay our bills. The problem is when we start prioritizing extrinsic goals over intrinsic ones. For example, giving precedence to recognition and fame over competence and caring relationships might be problematic. Recognition is nice to have but, if not continuously fed, goes away after a while. If recognition is your top priority you may end up in chase mode all your life. In contrast, competence and meaningful relationships stay with you and assist you in becoming even more competent and related.

Watch your motives

Let’s say that you want to accumulate wealth, or achieve any other extrinsic aspiration. Are you doomed to be miserable in the process? Not quite. The motives behind what we are trying to achieve also define how satisfied or frustrated our psychological needs are[37] [38].

Take the case of making money. Pursuing wealth is a source of frustration to our psychological needs and hampers our well-being when our money motives are external. For example, you may want to buy happiness, or to show off your wealth to others. With these motives you are chasing an external reward. As we have seen above, when we are pressured (by others or by ourselves) to chase an external reward we end up controlled by it. We frustrate our need for autonomy, for example.

However, pursuing wealth can also be a source of satisfaction to your psychological needs and boost your well-being. If you view money as important for who you are or in line with your values, the pressure goes away. You are no longer in chasing mode, but rather owning your behavior and identifying with the reasons behind your efforts.

For example, you may want to accumulate wealth because you take pride from being able to financially deal with any curveball that life throws at you, because you enjoy spending time on the hobbies that money gives you access to, because you want to donate more to charity, because you value a fair compensation for your work, or even because you enjoy the freedom of living without interferences from others. All of these motives tend to satisfy your psychological needs because you identify with them and they are part of you.

You see a lot of successful entrepreneurs identifying with and fully endorsing wealth creation. Dan Peña, the 50 billion dollar man, said in a recent London Real podcast something like “Money is not the only thing in life (…) but it gives you more choices”[39]. As another example, Grant Cardone recently said something around the lines of “I am going to fly home tonight, on my plane. I am going to spend 40K getting home tonight, so I can be with my kids, tomorrow morning when they wake up”[40].

Your turn

By finding value in the activity or in its outcomes you are autonomous and not dependent on rewards. So, check if the motives for your extrinsic goals are on your psychological needs’ side, or against them, and consider making the necessary adjustments.

Watch your language and thoughts

Things can become even more subtle. For example, language shapes the way we see the world around us[41]. Accordingly, the same motive can frustrate or satisfy your psychological needs, depending on how you frame it.

For example, simply switching “have to” for “want to” can have a remarkable impact. “Have to” implies that you have no choice – so you thwart your autonomy need. “Want to” suggests choice and ownership – so you satisfy your autonomy need.

The language we use may also frame a goal as extrinsic or intrinsic[42]. Saying “I will buy a house and a car better than those of my friends” frames your goal as extrinsic. You might frustrate your autonomy need because you are chasing an external reward, social approval or positive comparison. However, saying “It is important for me to buy a house and a car that reflect my efforts in life” frames the same goal as intrinsic. You might satisfy your competence need because you value something and achieve it through your efforts.

The language you adopt also influences the meaning you attribute to objective things that happen to you. For example, a performance bonus can be seen as your company trying to control you and pushing you to work more. Yet, the same bonus can be seen as an affirmation of your competence[2].

Your turn

Next time you feel uneasy due to need frustration, take a closer look at your language. This simple exercise gives you two things. First, you increase awareness of the language you use. Second, you gain the opportunity to align language with your true intentions and motives.

Watch your plans

Without a well delineated “goal achievement plan”, your goals and aspirations may work against your psychological needs. Creating a goal achievement plan that takes into account your psychological needs makes it less likely that you fall into one of the psychological traps associated with goal pursuit.

Let’s look at competence. When we only do things that we fully master, life and work can seem uninteresting and unsatisfying. One of the reasons for this is that we are no longer fulfilling our natural tendency to boost our level of influence over our environment. An overly demanding goal is also likely to be a source of frustration. Since it largely surpasses our current capabilities, it might be seen as unreachable, and we may simply give up. For example, if you are unemployed, focusing on making a million rather than on the small steps necessary to create a company may be frustrating. Finally, constantly pushing ourselves further also frustrates our competence need. This happens mainly because we never give ourselves the chance to feel confident at doing something well and to consolidate a certain level of proficiency.

A well-thought plan should put you in a position where you have multiple successes and few failures[2], not the other way around. Understanding where you are right now is also an important step to make a plan aligned with your psychological needs. Say that you are the unemployed person described above, and that you actually made a plan focused on the small steps necessary to open a company (rather than on making a million). If everything goes according to the plan, you take a small step forward in the right direction. A small success leads to the satisfaction of your psychological needs, which builds the foundations for more small successes that keep satisfying your psychological needs. If the plan doesn’t work, you have likely learned something useful you can apply next time you take a similar step. Either way, you have probably satisfied your psychological needs. And as many small steps accumulate, you may eventually even get to the point of making a million or more.

Being aware of yourself and your surroundings plays a direct role on your ability to come up with effective plans. When you are aware of your values, feelings, and interests, and of external barriers and facilitators, your ability to create a plan that works for your psychological needs is enhanced[43]. For example, you might be able to anticipate and find solutions for unsuspected barriers and obstacles.

A satisfying goal achievement plan tends to be at the intersection of where you are and where you want to be. It tends to give you the opportunity to not only consolidate your current skills, but also stretch them further. Depending on where you are right now, it may imply dividing a big goal into small chunks, or setting more ambitious goals. It may imply consolidating a skill (if you just reached a new level) or pushing it further (if it is becoming uninteresting).

Your turn

A goal achievement plan, supportive of your psychological needs, has multiple manageable steps; gives you time to appreciate and consolidate each milestone achieved; and establishes optimal challenges where you are much more likely to succeed than to fail. Now that you know this, check if your goal achievement plan is aligned with your psychological needs. If not, consider taking some of the remedies discussed above.

Watch your surroundings

Our surroundings can take many forms. In addition to family and friends, they also encompass colleagues and supervisors at work, workplace policies and politics, and so on. These surroundings can have a lasting effect on how satisfied (or frustrated) your psychological needs are.

Take a look at the following two workplace environments[44] [45]. In the first, your inputs are valued; you have access to clear and meaningful feedback; you can, within certain limits, choose how to do your job; and people actually take the time to know you. In the second, your supervisors and colleagues pressure you to do things their way, doubt your competencies, and show signs of disconnection when you spend time with them. The first environment is a source of satisfaction to your psychological needs, as it directly supports your autonomy, competence and relatedness. The second, a controlling environment that tends to frustrate your needs.

This seems pretty obvious. However, more nuanced distinctions between need-supportive and need-controlling environments can also exist. For example, incentives that are directly tied to your performance (called directly salient incentives) tend to be seen as controlling[21] [24]. Although you can reframe the meaning of these incentives, receiving something like a sales commission every month is a constant reminder that you are chasing a reward and being controlled by it. However, when your incentives are only weakly tied to your performance (a fixed salary, for example), you have more room to fulfill your natural tendencies at work. That is, to enjoy the work you do and to identify with its value.

We are naturally inclined to identify with the values and goals of those we admire. This has many advantages, but can also have unintended consequences for your psychological needs. Let’s start with the advantages. By taking in what is endorsed by those you admire, you develop a sense of belonging and relatedness. You can also become more competent because, among other things, you learn how to effectively navigate that group or profession. With time and practice, the behaviors, values, and goals of those you admire become largely automatic and part of yourself. When this happens your autonomy need also becomes satisfied because you are no longer pressuring yourself to do something.

The tricky bit happens when what you take in from those you admire is actually a source of frustration to your psychological needs. This can happen in many different ways. For example, you might want to accumulate wealth for intrinsic motives, and find yourself showing off your wealth because you took in this extrinsic motive from someone you admired. As another example, the same way you can take in a morally sound work ethic or code of conduct, you can also internalize questionable practices and lack of integrity.

Taking in values and practices from your surroundings can also lead to internal conflicts and, consequently, need frustration. This might happen when you take in a value, but fail to integrate it within your current set of values[2]. For example, let’s say that meritocracy is one of your values for career progression. However, after a while, you discover that career progression in your job is more a matter of politics than actual performance. Under the influence of that environment, you take in and identify with the value of politics for career progression and actually get promoted. If you do not integrate and conciliate these two values for career progression, you might end up conflicted and with your psychological needs frustrated.

Given the importance of conciliating the different values we take in from our surroundings, scientists began to ask why some people did it better than others. They found that well-adjusted people did two simple things: they maintained a close connection to their past value or behavior, and accepted the importance of their past value or behavior for who they are now in a non-defensive way[46]. In the example above on the value of meritocracy, this could mean continuing to pursue outstanding performance, while incorporating the additional strength of politicizing. In the example of taking in a questionable practice from your surroundings, this could mean reflecting on that questionable practice and learning how to better deal with similar situations in the future.

Here are some additional tips on how to create a workplace that supports autonomy by the bestselling author Daniel Pink:

Watch your personality

Throughout the years and as a result of multiple influences (environment, parents, friends, significant other), we end up developing a tendency to see most things around us in a certain way[47]. This tendency may remain enclosed within a facet of our lives (for example, work) or spread throughout most facets of life.

Some of us tend to see the environment as supportive of autonomy, regardless of the situation or context. Even when something is severely regulated by the environment, these people are still likely to feel autonomous. This is because they naturally adjust the work to their own values and needs, and they focus on the parts of the work that are actually autonomous. Those who see the world through these lenses tend to have their psychological needs satisfied.

Not all of us have this orientation, though. Some of us tend to experience almost any situation as controlling and, if possible, to be controlled. Those with this tendency tend to be irritable and impatient when things do not go their way, and to be very ambitious. When they succeed, they feel great. When they fail, they feel guilty or angry. They see themselves as importantly as the achievements or rewards they have. Those who see the world this way tend to pursue things as long as they pay off. As such, their goals are largely external.

Finally, some of us see almost all situations as uncontrollable. Those who have this orientation tend to struggle with depression, anxiety and hopelessness. This is the least healthy orientation, as it consistently frustrates psychological needs (particularly autonomy).

Your turn

Your tendency to consistently see things in a certain way matters for your ability to satisfy your psychological needs. So, what can you do if your personality is standing in the way of your psychological needs’ satisfaction? There are three main tools at your disposal.  First, you may seek out an environment that fits your personality. For example, if you are ambitious and see the environment as controlling, consider seeking out places that offer constant rewards and where you can achieve the things you are looking for. Second, change your environment. Again, if you are ambitious in an environment without rewards, reward yourself when you achieve a milestone.

Finally, you can also boost the precision of your assessments. Consider these steps. First, based on the descriptions above, tell yourself the truth about the typical way you see most situations. Second, every time you find yourself looking at a situation in a certain way, hit the break and ask yourself: Do I have evidence for this or is my personality kicking in? All of us have, to a certain extent, a bit of each orientation[46]. These are good news. It means that if we pay close attention to the clues around us, we may start taking care of our psychological needs by adopting a more functional orientation.


Underneath our diverse behaviors, goals, values, and personalities, lay three shared psychological needs we all have evolved to have: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. These psychological needs give us the necessary energy to fulfill our natural inclinations: to grow, to do meaningful things, and to be well.

Thus, taking good care of each psychological need should be a top priority for all of us. This, however, is not a simple task. For example, it is relatively easy to find yourself in situations where one of your needs is being frustrated, or where pursuing the satisfaction of one need frustrates another need. So, consider keeping an eye on your goals, motives, language, plans, surroundings, and personality. Keep in mind that you can satisfy your psychological needs in many different ways. And, in many cases, small changes have lasting effects. If you don’t mind sharing, let us know in the comments below the specific things you did to satisfy your psychological needs. We can always learn from each other.

As always, thank you for trusting your time with Managing Life at Work. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. See you all in the next post (do not forget to subscribe to our newsletter and/or to bookmark us). Until then, keep satisfying your psychological needs.

References and further reading

  1. ^ a b Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. (2000). “The “What” and “Why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior“. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2017). “Self‐determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness“. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  3. ^ a b Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., and Ryan, R. M. (2017). “Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science“. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19–43.
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