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  • Writer's pictureZali Yager

Wondering why you are having a bad day? Motherhood and psychological needs frustration

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

So you know that at BCM, we are the queens of evidence-based nerdiness…

But as I read a paper the other day, I had a huge moment of realisation (this doesn’t often happen when reading scientific papers, just so you know!)… I realised that I might have been feeling a bit down because I wasn’t really getting my core psychological needs met- and this is what Self Determination Theory is all about.

Much of the behavioural sciences lean on Self- determination theory to explain why we do things, but the theory also presents three components as the ‘universal and essential ingredients for healthy psychological and social development‘(Brenning & Soenens, 2017). It turns out that we need Relatedness, Autonomy, and Competence in order to feel a sense of wellbeing.

Let’s see some definitions:

· Relatedness- The experience of reciprocal care and concern for each other.

· Autonomy- Having freedom and control over what you do.

· Competence- Feeling effective when engaging with things around you.

As outlined in the paper, these are pretty much the exact things that are taken away from you in early motherhood:

· Relatedness- Suddenly, your connection with friends and loved ones can change.

· Autonomy- Suddenly you can’t even eat or pee, let alone have much other control over your life. If you've just had a c-section, you can't even drive!

· Competence- It can feel like you are failing at everything! You may be struggling with breast feeding, or getting your baby to sleep. Everyone has opinions and it can be a struggle to feel like you are doing a good job or that you achieve anything in a day.

And, let’s be honest, these core needs are still not being met even now with pre-schoolers and a school-aged kid (just in different ways). I have been struggling with feeling like all of my basic psychological needs have been met at the moment- and it doesn’t feel good!

Plus, in this ground-breaking Belgian study, Brenning and Soenens (2017) found that, when mother’s basic psychological needs were fulfilled, they were also able to be better parents of their two-year olds- as indicated by their results on measures of parental responsiveness and supporting their child’s autonomy.

But my own brain wave that I had while reading this study is that we can also take this approach to making ourselves feel better- given that these are the three core needs for psychological wellbeing, we can try and top up one or more of these buckets if we are feeling down… and it’s probably more likely to be effective than reaching for the chocolate, wine, or scrolling endlessly on our phones (guilty to all three – hands up emoji!). Sometimes ‘self-care’ can seem so fluffy and vague, but it’s more than just having a bath or a hot cup of tea- it’s literally about feeling like your needs are being met- and what better way to know that you are meeting the right needs than to take them directly from a well-established theoretical framework (or is that just me?!)…

Here are some ideas for how we can take direction from these three basic psychological needs:

· Relatedness- Reach out and connect to a friend or loved one or say 'Hi' to that mum at the park. Try to find or rekindle genuine connection in the ways that feel meaningful to you.

· Autonomy- Decide to do something (that you can control) and do it- like booking in some mindful movement or finally trying meditation or journaling.

· Competence- Do something that you know that you are good at (that you enjoy)- especially if you haven’t done it in a while!

Reframing my self-care, and examining what I needed in order to improve my mental health, in terms of these three core needs has really shifted the ways that I try to make myself feel better in those moments of feeling down. I’m interested to hear whether this changes anything for you too?

Dr Zali Yager is an Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, and Body Confident Mums leader of the blog and social media content.


Want more help feeling better? Our Body Confident Mums totally free, and theoretically inspired (but still fun) feel-better sanity planner is available here .



Brenning, K., & Soenens, B. (2017). A Self‐Determination Theory Perspective on Postpartum Depressive Symptoms and Early Parenting Behaviors. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73(12), 1729-1743.

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