b. Contra-needs and Existentialism

Contra-needs and Existentialism

For every human need there is a contra-need. I have coined this word because the English language has no suitable opposite to “need”. Contra-needs are physical and psychological states that we wish to avoid, such as injuries or illnesses. In the same way that we are motivated to satisfy our needs, we avoid anything that causes a contra-need.

Maslow incorporated our physiological or existence contra-needs into his hierarchy by referring to the need for safety and security. This list, however, is incomplete. To describe all of our contra-needs, I will use the modified ERG model from the previous article.

  1. Existence and procreation contra-needs. These provide the strongest behavioural predispositions. They include the opposites of Maslow’s safety needs. For example, diseases, illnesses, addictions, physical harm, assault, torture, pain, and death. They are caused by various threats in our environment. These contra-needs also include the opposites of Maslow’s security needs. For example, fear for one’s material wellbeing, which can be caused by crime, unemployment, war, or social instability.
  2. Kin relatedness contra-needs. These provide the second strongest predispositions. They include the opposites of Maslow’s love and belonging needs, but only insofar as they refer to our kin or lack of kin. For example, a feeling of isolation, which can be caused by rejection, conflict, or enmity. They also include the opposite of Maslow’s self-esteem needs. For example, despising oneself as a result of failed endeavours or the contempt of others.
  3. Non-kin relatedness contra-needs. These provide the third strongest predispositions. They are the same as the kin-relatedness contra-needs but apply to non-kin-relationships.
  4. Growth contra-needs. These are the opposites of Maslow’s self-actualisation needs. For example, a feeling of not being in control of one’s life; that one’s personality is suppressed; one’s existence purposeless, or feeling just “one of the crowd”, rather than an individual. They can be caused by a lack of freedom of choice regarding how to live one’s life, which, in turn, can be caused by the effort required to satisfy lower needs, by overly oppressive social norms, or by an authoritarian society.

If a contra-need is sufficiently pressing, we may plan to avoid it. However, like needs, contra-needs often result in behavioural predispositions which are only acted upon when a threat arises. Some behavioural predispositions, such as the “fight or flight” reflex, are strong enough to be inherited. Others are learned.

It is not usually the case that a single need or contra-need motivates a single action. Normally, several needs or contra-needs acting together result in an action.

A longstanding predisposition to avoid a contra-need can have an adverse effect on our sense of wellbeing and mental health. It is not good for us to live in fear. In recognition of this, existential philosophy focuses on how to cope with contra-needs, such as death, that, ultimately, are unavoidable. It recognises that life is not fully satisfying and is a journey in search of meaning. This philosophy was developed in the mid 20th Century from the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. Their writings followed the Great Depression and the two world wars when the world turned from a sense of optimism to one of despair. In the late 20th Century, it was developed into a psychotherapy by the American psychotherapist, Irvin D. Yalom, and others.

In Yalom’s view, we must learn to accept and manage four which cannot be avoided. These are:

  1. Death. Yalom regards death as being the most pressing of our concerns. One’s death is inevitable and the knowledge of it pervades the conscious and unconscious mind. This leads, at times, to great anxiety. He suggests that the recognition and acceptance of death leads to a better appreciation of life and encourages us to make the most of it. Grief at the death of a loved one is another inevitable fact of life. It is a consequence of our connections to others and is often managed through the same connections. Death, however, is the ultimate expression of entropy in our lives. There are other inevitable effects that we also need to come to terms with, such as illness and aging.
  2. Freedom (lack of guidance). In the existential sense, freedom does not mean social and political liberty. Rather it means fear arising from a lack of guidance in our lives. Awareness of this and accepting responsibility for our own guiding principles is important for an emotionally healthy life.
  3. Isolation (separateness). Existential isolation is not the same as loneliness. The latter arises from the physical absence of other human beings with whom to interact. Existential isolation refers to the unbridgeable gap between oneself as an individual, others, and the world that we inhabit. It means that, inevitably, we are apart from others and cannot merge ourselves with them. There is no solution to this form of isolation. It is a part of our existence that we must face up to and come to terms with.
  4. Meaninglessness. Yalom argues that we need meaning in our lives and its absence can lead to distress and even suicide. Ultimately, however, meaning is a human concept which does not exist in the external world. We inhabit a universe that has no inherent meaning and so must create it for ourselves.

Duality pervades human understanding. There are two sides to every coin, but we often focus on one side, whilst neglecting the other. The theory of human needs appears to have neglected those things that we are motivated to avoid. The “existential givens” are the unavoidable contra-needs that we must come to terms with. Needs, contra-needs and “existential givens” all form part of the human psyche. There are no apparent inconsistencies between them, which implies that they are each part of a complex structure seen from a different perspective, as shown in the table below.

Modified ERG NeedsExistential Given or Unavoidable Contra-Need
Existence and procreationDeath (personal)
Kin Relatedness
Non-kin Relatedness
Death (grief)
Freedom (lack of guidance)
Isolation (separateness)

Needs and contra-needs motivate our physical behaviour and interactions. Reconciling “existential givens” is about personal, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

In the next post, some of the implications of these needs and contra-needs will be discussed.

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