Unlocking and understanding the keys to living your best life
The need for closeness, autonomy and competence are the drives that govern much of our lives, writes psychologist Maureen Gaffney whose new book is out this week
How often do you think about your life and yourself? If you’re like most people, you do it a lot. In fact, there is a special part of your brain devoted to doing just that.
Most of the time, however, your brain is busy getting things done, thinking about what’s just happened and making plans for the future. But whenever the external demands of your life let up, and your brain goes into a resting state, it primes you to start thinking about yourself and how you are living your life.
You think about what kind of person you are, how you are the same or different from other people, what makes you happy or miserable, and how your life in general is going. You think about how you have changed, what has stayed much the same, and what you may be like in in the future.
This kind of reflection is usually brief, squeezed into whatever time you can carve out for yourself, or maybe when you are on holiday.
It’s time well spent when you do. These periods of self-reflection are potentially very significant turning points, opening up a new opportunity to review, reassess and renew who you are and how you are living your life.
They can motivate you to rethink your life, to make a new plan, or change a situation that is holding you back from your full potential for happiness. And when you do that well, it imbues your life with a new purpose and meaning.
But be aware of the mood you are in when you do think this way because the nature of thinking is associative — one thought, feeling, or experience setting off a rapid train of associated memories.
So if you are in a good mood, this flood of associated memories amplifies your feelings of happiness and well-being. If you are in a low mood, the associative process is even more intense and can turn what started as self-reflection into prolonged bouts of rumination which can put you at higher risk of depression.
That is why it is so useful to have a psychological framework that helps you think in a more structured and considered way about your own development as a person over time — a grid on which you can locate the key events in your life that have an emotional resonance and linger in your memory. It will help you trace how you have negotiated each stage and turning point of your life so far and how well you met its challenge.
The best starting point is a deeper understanding of the three basic psychological drives that account for most of what we do in life — the need for closeness, the need for autonomy, and the need for competence.
These needs are not just “feelings”. They are the psychological equivalent of your biological needs for food, water, sleep and sex, influencing the neural circuits in your brain, and activating the hormonal and operating systems that influence motivation, behaviour, and the stress response system.
They are the big engines of personal growth and development, and meeting these needs is a critical component for happiness, psychological well-being, and for success in accomplishing what’s important to you in your life.
These needs are connected and embedded, one in the other.
Your drive for autonomy is shaped and nurtured in your close relationships, achieved not at the expense of closeness, but with the assurance and confidence that comes from it. So the more secure your close relationships, the less compromised your capacity for autonomy, and your drive for competence is strong, energising and liberating.
When your needs for closeness and autonomy are thwarted, you can still become competent, but your desire to succeed has a more driven, anxious, and draining quality to it, and success will be at a higher cost to yourself, to your relationships — at home and at work.
There is a natural tension between each need.
For example, sometimes you want to be deeply engaged with other people, and when you experience a satisfying closeness, you feel happy, valued and understood. But after a while, you want to pull your energy inwards again, to be alone and free to focus on your own thoughts and projects. Then the wheel turns again, you feel bored or lonesome, so you re-engage.
There is a tension too between how you like to have your needs met, and how other people do.
As most couples find out, even in the best of relationships, negotiating the “right” level of physical closeness and autonomy can be a minefield. Your idea of intimacy or autonomy may leave your partner or friend feeling pushed away or neglected. Or their desire for closeness may result in you feeling overwhelmed or crowded.
Similarly, there may be tensions as to what constitutes doing something competently — one of you is satisfied with “good enough”, and the other feels that something is not worth doing unless it’s done as perfectly as possible.
Most people readily understand the need for close personal relationships; for a secure and intimate relationship with at least one person; for friendships and a sense of belonging. The world leaves us in little doubt of the need for competence in managing our lives.
But autonomy is somewhat of an orphan need. The word itself tends to provoke a small frown, a slight pause, as if the desire for autonomy carries a whiff of selfishness about it, associated with a cool self-sufficiency.
However autonomy is a much richer concept than that. It is the desire to be your true self, to govern yourself, to exercise reasonable control over the direction and organisation of your life, and to shape your destiny as best you can.
At its most basic, the experience of autonomy is knowing that what you are doing is initiated inside you, not forced on you by external circumstances. You endorse what you do in life in a more heartfelt way, and you take responsibility for it. You act more authentically — there is a unity between how you think and feel inside, and what you say and do outside. That’s what being authentic, “being true to yourself” actually means.
When you don’t have that sense of inner freedom, you silence that self and if you keep doing that, it brings a deadening sense of hollowness and depression.
The opposite of autonomy is not dependence — it is feeling controlled. Feeling controlled runs counter to something deep in human nature. When you feel controlled by forces outside yourself, you are dissatisfied and unhappy, uneasy, anxious, or resentful. Your functioning, your performance and your creativity in every domain of your life are undermined. If that sense of being controlled is chronic, you can become despairing of yourself and of your life.
You can, of course, feel just as pressured and controlled by forces inside you — by anxiety, guilt, perfectionism, harsh self-criticism, a desperate need for approval, or by compulsions or addictions of any kind, a kind of internal tyranny.
Or you can externalise the tension by tyrannising those around you. You try to control their behaviour as a way of managing your own pressurised inner state.
Your three needs — closeness, competence, autonomy — are always present, but ebb and flow in intensity and urgency at different times and stages of your life. There is a natural tension between closeness and autonomy, between being deeply engaged with other people and being alone and free to focus on yourself. The attempts to resolve these conflicts, to bring them into some kind of balance, account for much of the activity and drama of development right through life and for the unique colour and flavour of each stage of life.
When you succeed in meeting your three psychological needs, you feel happier and more satisfied, that your life is in progress, not blocked, suspended or stagnating. You see yourself as doing, in some general way, what you were put into this world to do. That is why understanding the story of your own attempts in life to meet your basic psychological needs reveals so much about your past and present.
But that story is not set in stone. You are always the author of your own life, interpreting and reworking your lived experiences into an evolving narrative. So, at any point, you can also revise your interpretations, reassess the past, reframe the present, reimagine the future, and reset your development on a new course. There is always a new chance to heal old wounds and to deal with unfinished business — and to do it better this time.
Originally published in the Sunday Independent
Posted: 12 September 2021