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Overview: Self-Determination in Psychopathology

Psychopathology refers to the presence of a mental disorder where an individual involuntarily experiences a serious level of functional impairment and suffering (Widiger, 1997). One of the core tenets of the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT), one of Self-Determination Theory’s (SDT) mini-theories, is that the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness is essential for individuals’ growth, well-being, and adjustment. Whereas, frustration of these needs predicts problem behavior, ill-being, and psychopathology (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan et al., 2016; Vansteenkiste et al., 2020; Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013).

Research has shown that a low level of need satisfaction and a high level of need frustration are linked to several forms of psychopathology (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013), with most of these studies employing a cross-sectional design. To illustrate, need frustration was found to relate to borderline personality features, including identity problems, affective instability, negative relationships, and self-harm (Van der Kaap-Deeder et al., 2021). More longitudinal and experimental  evidence is needed to shed light on the enduring and causal effects of need-based experiences and on the distinctive effects of need satisfaction and need frustration across time.

There are, however, a growing number of longitudinal studies available that have looked into these issues. For instance, need frustration has been found to predict increases in binge eating symptoms among healthy adolescents, whereas need satisfaction predicted decreases in these symptoms (Boone et al., 2014). Further, need frustration (but not need satisfaction) has been found to predict increased symptoms of somatization, depression, and anxiety among high school students across a nine-month period (Cordeiro et al., 2016).

Although historically research within SDT has focused on the effects of need satisfaction, more recent findings indicate that frustration of these needs is critical in the prediction of ill-being or even psychopathology, with such frustration implying the active obstruction and undermining of psychological needs.

SDT postulates that need-based experiences account for both the “bright” and “dark” side of individuals’ functioning (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013). Where need satisfaction mainly predicts individuals’ growth and wellness, experienced need frustration is a crucial predictor of malfunctioning and ill-being. This is related to the asymmetrical relation between need satisfaction and need frustration, where low levels of need satisfaction cannot be equated with high levels of need frustration (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013). To illustrate, experiencing a low level of support from classmates (i.e., low relatedness satisfaction), is not the same as feeling actively excluded by classmates (i.e., high relatedness frustration). Previous studies employing factor analyses indeed showed need satisfaction and need frustration to fall into two distinct factors (e.g., Chen et al., 2015; Sheldon & Gunz, 2009).

Placing need satisfaction and need frustration on two separate dimensions has been fruitful. In one of the earlier studies distinguishing between the effects of need satisfaction and need frustration, it was shown that athletes' need satisfaction related to positive outcomes associated with sport participation (i.e., vitality and positive affect), whereas need frustration was a more consistent predictor of maladaptive outcomes (i.e., disordered eating, burnout, depression, negative affect, and physical symptoms) (Bartholomew et al., 2011). Besides studies looking into the unique role of need-based experiences in symptoms of psychopathology, there has also been a recent interest in the transdiagnostic role of need frustration in the prediction of several types of psychopathologies. That is, Campbell et al. (2018) showed that need frustration not only predicted both depressive symptoms and eating pathology, but also that introducing need frustration as the underlying source of both symptoms resulted in the concurrent relation between depressive symptoms and eating pathology to become statistically non-significant. Given that much of the work on transdiagnostic processes is atheoretical (Dalgleish et al. 2020), there is a need for a theory transcending the current diagnosis-specific frameworks. SDT has the potential to move this recent field forward, by providing a theoretically parsimonious model in the explanation of psychopathology.

In Practice: Psychopathology

  • Frustration of individuals’ psychological needs, for instance, experienced pressure (autonomy frustration), feelings of failure (competence frustration), and social exclusion and isolation (relatedness frustration) can, in the long run or when taking excessive forms, result in psychopathology
  • Given the promising findings related to the transdiagnostic role of need frustration, focusing on the psychological needs in prevention and intervention of symptoms of psychopathology is important
Suggested Readings & Research

(2011) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Self-determination theory and diminished functioning: The role of interpersonal control and psychological need thwarting

Cecilie Thogersen-Ntoumani Richard Ryan Nikos Ntoumanis

(2014) Journal of Counseling Psychology

Self-Critical Perfectionism and Binge Eating Symptoms: A Longitudinal Test of the Intervening Role of Psychological Need Frustration

Jolene Van der Kaap-Deeder Bart Soenens Maarten Vansteenkiste

(2016) Developmental psychopathology

Autonomy and autonomy disturbances in self-development and psychopathology: Research on motivation, attachment, and clinical process

Edward Deci Richard Ryan Maarten Vansteenkiste

(2021) Personality and Individual Differences

Emotion regulation and borderline personality features: The mediating role of basic psychological need frustration

Jolene Van der Kaap-Deeder

(2013) Journal of Psychotherapy Integration

On psychological growth and vulnerability: Basic psychological need satisfaction and need frustration as a unifying principle

Richard Ryan Maarten Vansteenkiste

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