Basic Psychological Needs

9 Months To Birth Your Play

9 Months To Birth Your Play is a new series designed for artists to explore well-being-centred approaches to their practice whilst gaining a more rigorous understanding of the psychology of drama. 8 Well-being Workshops by neuro-psychodynamic coaching psychologist Anna Webster run alongside Writing Workshops from 9 exemplary artists working in the wonderful world of new writing today.

The next workshop to be published will be Creating Characters & Giving Them Voice by Jasmine Naziha Jones on Friday 5th July

Well-being Workshop 3: Basic Psychological Needs

Welcome to Workshop 3 on three basic psychological needs and motivations. In this workshop we will be building on our exploration of the 7 feelings systems in Workshop 2. We will be looking at what our three basic psychological needs are and how they evoke the feelings systems of seeking, play, lust and care.

To survive and thrive, we have basic biological and physical needs such as water, shelter, and safety. But we also have basic psychological needs that are behind what our seeking system is driving for. Needs which evoke our feelings and motivate our behaviour.These three basic psychological needs have been identified by Self Determination Theory. All three of them underly the core need which is the seeking of certainty in relation to survival and thrival of the self. 

If we move closer to satisfying our three basic psychological needs, we’re moving closer to the certainty of survival and thrival and it feels good. If we move away from satisfying our three basic psychological needs, we’re moving away from the certainty of survival and thrival and it feels bad.

Now let’s look in more detail at each of the needs. 


This is the need to self-regulate our experiences and actions and feel like we have some control and choice over our behaviour. It is about our behaviours being self-endorsed and in line with our interests. We are free to act in accordance with our own will and be relatively in charge of our own actions. This is opposed to being regulated, coerced or compelled by internal or external pressures that overrule or bypass our self-regulation. The satisfaction of the need for autonomy allows us to feel less threatened and more certain of the our survival and thrival through empowerment and volition.

It is through the regulation of behaviour that people access and fulfil other basic biological and psychological needs so autonomy has a special status as a need. It can be a vehicle through which other psychological needs are actualised. 

Now take a few minutes minute to think about characters either in your own playwrighting or others that either express or whose behaviour is motivated by this need for autonomy as we have defined it. Jot down any you can think of.


This is the need to be able to operate effectively and experience mastery. It is the need to experience the satisfaction of producing effects on our internal and external environments. Even apart from the rewards and material benefits that might accrue from competent behaviour, there is a strong intrinsic need to experience feelings of efficacy. The satisfaction of the need for competence allows people to feel less threatened and more certain of survival and thrival through effectance and mastery. This is in opposition to challenges being too difficult or feeling undermined or diminished by negative feedback or comparisons.

To develop a true sense of perceived competence, people’s actions must also be perceived as self-organised, self-regulated or self-initiated, which relates to our need for autonomy. Competent activity that is alienated and results from controls, doesn’t have the important positive effects that accrue from feeling efficacious at an activity that is autonomously initiated or endorsed.

Take a few minutes now to think now about characters either in your own writing or others that express or whose behaviour is motivated by this need for competence. Jot down any you can think of.


This is the need to be socially connected. People feel relatedness when they feel cared for by others and care for others. If you remember, in the Ted Talk by Jaak Panksepp in our last workshop, he talked about the key need and desire for attachment rather than separation. We have evolved to survive and thrive through the protection of our primary caregivers and we have a care system that means we seek to bond with our caregivers to get the sustenance and security we need to survive and thrive. We also need to belong and feel significant among others and have evolved to survive and thrive through being part of the pack.

This is in opposition to being or feeling rejected, insignificant, disconnected and separated. The satisfaction of the need for relatedness allows people to feel less threatened and more certain of survival and thrival through being cared for and feeling belonging with others. 

The need for relatedness is the motivation behind a great deal of human behaviour. It is also important to recognise that behaviours intended to achieve relatedness wont necessarily satisfy this basic psychological need. People can behave in ways that they think will make them significant and belong with others such as looking a certain way or being rich. But if they don’t feel cared for, significant or a sense of belonging for themselves, the need for relatedness may not be satisfied. It is not merely being admired that counts but having the perception that others care unconditionally and being accepted for who we are. 

Take a few minutes to think now about characters either in your own playwriting or others that express or whose behaviour is motivated by this need to feel significant or belong with others. Identify characters where the need for relatedness may or may not be satisfied. Jot down any you can think of.

It is important to be aware that ways in which we satisfy our three basic psychological needs and the degree of ease we experience in satisfying them can be affected by neurodiversity and or trauma and also our experience in social systems. This could affect your playwriting and the degree of ease you experience in the following activity.

Identification of Needs & Motivations Activity

It can be really helpful for our wellbeing if we grow our awareness of our three basic psychological needs and the extent to which they’re being satisfied or frustrated.

We’re now going to do a reflection activity on our three basic psychological needs in playwriting and to help with this we’ll start with a 1 minute meditation led by Tara Brach: Brief Meditation: Arriving in Mindful Presence (1 min) – Tara Brach

Now I’d like to invite you to think about the extent to which your psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are being satisfied in your playwrighting. Try to notice any sensations and feelings in your body and ask yourself the following questions:

  • To what extent do I feel my playwrighting is determined by me, that I have agency and choice over the process and that it is in line with my interests?
  • How, in what contexts and when do I feel this? When I don’t, is there anything that might help with this?
  • How capable do I feel in my playwrighting, feel like I’m being effective and that the challenges aren’t too great? How, in what contexts and when do I feel this? When I don’t is there anything that might help with this?
  • How much support do I feel I have from others in my playwrighting?
  • Do I feel significant, cared for, and a sense of connection in my playwrighting?
  • Who currently supports me, when and how?
  • Are there ways in which I could access more support, connection or sense of belonging?
  • Are there ways in which I seek significance and belonging with others that I could become more aware of and reduce because they don’t actually satisfy my need for relatedness?

How was this exercise? Have you ever considered your basic psychological needs in this way? Could it make a difference to become more aware of them going forward?

Psychological Needs and Feelings Systems

The three basic psychological needs also relate to three of the feelings systems as defined by Jaak Panksepp that we outlined last week: care, lust, and play. The three needs evoke these feelings systems and motivate us to act from these feelings systems to seek certainty of survival and thrival.

In the final part of today’s workshop we’re going to focus on the play system as defined by Panksepp as this is particularly relevant to playwrighting. Through play, we can satisfy all three of our basic psychological needs. 

Firstly, we develop our ability for autonomous self-regulation through finding the limits of what is socially tolerable and permissible. Play has rules. It is a basis for cooperation and the adaptive self-regulation of aggression. A game in which there’s no rules is no fun and when a playmate decides their friend isn’t being fair a limit is reached. Secondly, play helps to satisfy the need for competence and mastery through enabling people to develop and refine their physical, emotional, and social competencies in a safe context.And thirdly, play also satisfies the need for relatedness.

Through the marking of limits, boundaries and rules that regulate play and group behaviour play is crucial for the formation and maintenance of social groups and hierarchies. Maintaining play also requires and conditions us to take account of the feelings of others and is a vehicle for empathy. The empathy that arises from play is a way in which the relatedness needs of care, belonging and significance to others can be satisfied. 

The play system is also particularly significant to playwrighting. Through the writing, acting out and trying out of different social roles and stories, plays are one way in which we can play through virtual pretence, imagination and the symbolic. Thought is a form of learning how to meet our needs in the world by trying things out or reflecting on things virtually before or after we act. Plays can also serve that function of learning how to meet our needs in the world.And because we are playing and this is not real life, we are free to try things out in the safe ‘as if’ mode. We are free to explore thoughts fantasies and feelings of our needs being completely fulfilled and certainty reached. We are also free to engage the seeking system of curiosity, anticipation, excitement and thrill of uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknown. This is without feeling the fundamental risk to our survival and thrival that uncertainty signals to us in real life.  We are also able to experience virtually and symbolically both the feelings, fantasies and behaviours associated with both the fulfilment and thwarting of our basic survival and psychological needs without these being a threat in reality.

Ways in which writing and acting out plays involves this safe ‘as if’ quality include: 

  • Exploring and experiencing power, status, hierarchy and both the triumph and violation of rules and self-regulation. We have the potential to experience the thrill of power, transgression, conflict and violence in the safety of a play, without the risk of threat to our autonomous survival and thrival through violating rules and laws in reality.
  • Experiencing feelings of competence, efficacy and the thrill of mastery. At the same time it is possible to explore feelings of failure and the validation of not feeling alone in this without the threat of failing in reality.
  • Trying out different social roles, exploring, expressing and processing feelings and relationships, care, lust and sex. This includes both feelings and fantasies of fulfilment of these needs and the validation of exploring loss and grief without the real threat of this. It also includes the curiosity and excitement of virtually violating typical rules of relatedness.

To recap, in today’s workshop we’ve looked at our three basic psychological needs as defined in Ryan and Deci’s Self Determination Theory. We’ve explored how our characters express or are motivated by these needs and to what extent they’re satisfied in playwriting. We then looked at how the three needs relate to three feelings systems with a particular focus on play and how that is significant to playwriting.

Home Practice

The home practice for this workshop is to notice when we or are characters are expressing or motivated by autonomy, competence or relatedness. Try also noticing the ways that your and other plays involve the safe ‘as if’ mode of play. In our next workshop we’ll be looking at what happens when our needs and feelings systems are threatened and thwarted.

In our next workshop we’ll be looking at what happens when our threat systems get overwhelmed.

About Anna Webster…

Anna is a Coaching Psychologist, Wellbeing Coach and Psychotherapist in Training. She specialises in coaching psychology workshops and 1:1 programmes informed by emotion neuroscience, neuropsychoanalysis, and dialectical behaviour therapy.

Anna works for The University of Salford on SPECIFiC; a 7-session therapeutic psychoeducation coaching programme on the neurodevelopmental condition FASD, the first of its kind in the UK. She co-wrote the manual, co-delivers the programme and leads on Public Involvement. She was a member of the Steering Group on the UK’s first FASD prevalence study and was consulted as an expert by experience for the NICE Guidelines on FASD. She is also a Health and Wellbeing Coach for the NHS.

Published on:
14 Jun 2024


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