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Three Key Elements of Personal Growth

Basic psychological needs to achieve personal growth.

What does it take for someone to become mature, responsible, and decisive? Self-determination theory (SDT), put forth by Deci and Ryan (2017), maintains that pursuing three goals or needs are crucial to becoming a fully functioning person. These basic psychological needs are competence (i.e., feeling effective), relatedness (i.e., feeling significant and connected), and autonomy (i.e., feeling volitional rather than controlled).

The satisfaction of these needs contributes to personal growth and well-being. People feel more energy whenever they experience more competence, relatedness, and autonomy in their daily activities. Working on tasks that are freely chosen, or discovering a new skill as a competence satisfaction, can enhance vitality and aliveness. The frustration of these basic needs often leads people to become self-focused and pursue need substitutes (such as money, fame, and image) to obtain temporary feelings of worth (admiration and respect).

1. Competence. The need for competence refers to one’s desire to experience oneself as capable and effective. When individuals are prevented from developing knowledge, skills, or mastery, the competence need will be unmet. When we feel incompetent, we are less motivated to initiate the required work. The feeling of incompetence and low self-esteem make people believe that they are unworthy and unlovable.

2. Relatedness. The need for relatedness refers to the desire to feel connected to others and to be treated as a respected member of a social group. For example, when adolescents are securely attached to their parents, they are more likely to internalize their guidance and values.

3. Autonomy. The desire for autonomy refers to the experience of being in charge of one’s actions. The autonomous actions are supported by choice and willingness versus feeling forced or compelled. Autonomous activities are originated from the self, and they fully engage individuals’ talents, abilities, and energies. For example, self-employed people are more satisfied with their jobs than employees because of more autonomy, and more flexibility.

Researchers have observed that people experience more flow when their psychological needs are being met. People in flow tend to be less aware of themselves and forget that time is passing by.

These three basic needs are necessary conditions to maintain intrinsic motivation for a particular activity. Intrinsic motivation refers to activities that are done for their inherent satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation is involved in some of the most cherished human activities. Activities such as music and the arts, reading, and intellectual discovery, sports, and a host of other fulfilling pursuits are often sustained by the joy of the activity itself. Intrinsically motivated people tend to learn more deeply, be more creative, and perform better at tasks requiring high-quality engagements.

In contrast, extrinsic goals (wealth, fame, and image) are dependent upon external reward or punishment. The external reward is a powerful motivating factor that can compel or seduce people into action. However, when the incentive is discontinued, the desired behavior also stops. For example, some parents reward their children by giving them money or other objects for doing well on a test or getting a good grade. However, when the reward goes away so does the behavior.

Failure to satisfy these needs leads to compensatory, defensive behaviors. When these basic needs are threatened or thwarted, people attempt to compensate for what is missing, as manifested in motives of greed, power, or distractions. For example, self-critical perfectionism can be considered as a battle for love via competence. Perfectionists are often at risk for mental distress, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

In sum, the insights from SDT suggests that people naturally develop their full potential when circumstances allow them to satisfy their basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. People will experience meaning to the extent that the behaviors they choose to perform are ones that reflect their value.

To allow a person to develop his or her full potential, SDT suggests that it is vital to nurture the person’s capacity for autonomy. Social contexts that facilitate satisfaction of these basic psychological needs will promote high levels of psychological well-being. Sometimes even well-intentioned interventions to solve people’s problems for them are likely to backfire by promoting external dependencies and limiting people’s agency.


Ryan R. M., & Deci E. L. (2017). Self‐determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Press.