The Existential Anxieties

So far, I’ve talked about the general framework and the tensions between the needs. To explore how the character moves across the Four Needs coordinate space, let’s study how the character might experience the tensions between the needs. In this story, our character is largely unaware of the pairwise polarities of the four needs. Instead, the character senses the tension, and can only relate to needs in the context of experiencing this tension.

To put it differently, the character feels that something is tugging at it, something beyond the grasp of the character’s understanding. This framing reveals a set of counterfactuals. In relation to each need, the tug produces a question of potential absence. What would happen to me if a particular need went unsatisfied? What if I didn’t have Belonging? What if I didn’t have Agency? What if I didn’t have Safety? What if I didn’t have Purpose? These counterfactuals give rise to four Existential Anxieties, the fears of the unknown, the fears of the potentiality that a need may not be satisfied–or perhaps even satisfiable.

In the context of the need to Belong, the experience of the tension in the Agency+Belonging polarity is thus interpreted as the threat of not belonging, giving rise to the Anxiety of Not-Belonging. In the context of the need of Agency, the same tension manifests as the threat to one’s agency, giving rise to the Anxiety of Not-Agency. Similarly, the character develops the Anxiety of Not-Purpose and Anxiety of Not-Safety through its experience of the tension in the Purpose+Safety polarity.

When I constantly seek others’ approval, I crave Belonging, and that craving ultimately comes from the perception of a deficit of Belonging, my underlying Anxiety of Not-Belonging. When a company decides to centralize and streamline its operations, it’s seeking efficiency and predictability, which is a marker of Safety. Lurking underneath, there’s organizational Anxiety of Not-Safety.

Existential Anxieties predict deficits of needs. They turn tensions into conflicts, each unwilling to let go, leading to vicious cycles. They vie for our character’s attention, providing catastrophic prognoses of needs being unmet. They are what compels the character to shift their position in the coordinate space.

This is an important point, so I’d like to give it more consideration. When the character is not subject to Existential Anxieties, it rests at the center of the coordinate space. The tension across the needs holds it perfectly at peace. It is only when the question of overcompensating, when there’s anticipation of a dire outcome does the change in character’s coordinates happen. Only when the character believes that there is some yet-unseen force that might push it off center does it begin to crave toward or avert away from one Need or another. These beliefs are supplied by the Existential Anxieties, and thus the anxieties are the driving forces behind the character’s journey across the coordinate space.

Once the change of coordinates happens, the balance in the conflict of Existential Anxieties shifts with it: anxieties are allayed or aggrieved. Moving away from one Need flares up its respective anxiety. When, late for class, I decide to take a shortcut through a dodgy alley, my Anxiety of Not-Purpose, combined with Anxiety of Not-Belonging supply a convincing argument of upholding my identity of a “good student”, causing my character to shift to the Purpose+Belonging quadrant. Then, as I hear a strange noise behind me, the aggrieved Anxieties of Not-Safety and Not-Agency savagely pull my character into the Safety+Agency quadrant. Similarly, an organization might find itself stagnant and uninspiring after another round of streamlining driven by Anxiety of Not-Safety, yearning for something courageous and bold as the indignant Anxiety of Not-Purpose drags its character toward Purpose.

A peculiar quality that seems to be common to all characters I’ve encountered so far is the presence of delays. Perhaps because Anxieties compete for attention and attention is a serial device, or perhaps for other reasons, the predictions of catastrophic calamities that Anxieties provide tend not to be punctual. I may sit up awake in the middle of the night realizing what a terrible goof I’ve made at the last week’s meeting and how that would definitely ruin my career. It might take years for an organization to suddenly snap into a belief that it needs a different culture. And at the same time, who hasn’t felt the visceral, immediate emotional response to a seemingly innocent remark of another? Sometimes anxieties trigger instantaneously, and sometimes they take time. As a result, the character tends to travel in wild oscillations that are common to complex systems with delayed feedback loops: as Anxieties conflict with each other, they pull and push the character along a messy, chaotic trajectory.

The paradox here is that while the journey marked by this trajectory is taken under the auspice of going back to center, it is also pretty clear that the method of the journey is unlikely to result in such outcome. Yet at the same time, this journey is truly the destination: it is only through experiencing this journey that the character may be able to glimpse the nature of this journey, and perhaps transcend the Anxieties that fuel it.

Tension between Purpose and Safety

Now that I described the tension between agency and belonging, I’d like to look at how the tension between Purpose and Safety plays out.

Within the framing of the the Four Needs framework, there’s a story being told, and I find that looking at the story through the eyes of the character of the story is helpful to zero in on the definition of the needs.

The need for Safety is usually the easiest to spot. It’s the one that drives the character to seek stability and order, where it wants to make sure that things are “predictable”, “coherent”, “legible”, “stable”, “certain”, “well-defended”, “supportive”, “at home” and so on. It’s the need to self-protect, to endure, to continue being. It’s easy to spot because this need’s most powerful manifestation is the survival instinct, an embodied response to a threat of existence. Based on my understanding, this is the most basic and first-acquired way of making meaning about the surrounding environment: will I get hurt? People and organizations alike take steps to ensure that they can see another day, whether through thoughtful accounting, planning, following laws, diet, or hygiene.

When craving Safety, there’s a sense of wanting protection, having capacity to defend oneself, the desire to predict and react appropriately to any external circumstance. The aversion to Safety feels like judgements of inflexibility, decay, obsolescence, boredom, and resistance to change.

If the need for Safety aims to reduce the risk, the need for Purpose moves in the opposite direction. Through the lens of the Four Needs framework, it’s that sense of wanting to be more, to expand, to grow. Purpose is about wanting to matter.

When people talk about Purpose, they usually say words like “change”, “hope”, “revolution”, “achievement”, “delivering”, “growth”, “outreach”, “destiny”, “challenge”, and alike. Purpose sometimes feels aspirational, carrying the implicit hope of tapping into the character’s full potential. In such situations, high moral principles and ideals tend to be at the center of organizational discussions or individual reflections. The need for Purpose could also animate something entirely self-serving, as it sometimes happens with communities that merely want to expand and consume or destroy everything in their path, like malignant cancers. In itself, the Need for Purpose is neither positive nor negative. It’s just a fundamental need that lurks in questions like: “Why am I here?” or “Is this all there is?”

When craving Purpose, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, impatience, restlessness, desire to do something, to change the circumstances. The aversion to Purpose feels like seeing something risky, unwise, not-well-thought-out, and just plain stupid.

In a weird way, both Safety and Purpose are trying to achieve the same thing: to continue character’s existence. The Need for Safety takes the approach of prolonging existence, and Need for Purpose wants to redefine what it means to exist. While Safety takes existence literally, Purpose seeks immortality. Be it the scores of thriving descendants, enduring memories or actual physical artifacts representing character’s glory, Purpose is about making a mark on the world that transcends physical existence.

This desire for leaving a mark comes at the expense of Safety, producing the tension. To change the world, our character must interact with the world, which means putting itself in situations where there’s risk, spurring the Need for Safety’s protests.

I found James Hollis’ formulation of the tension enlightening: “we need to remember that these twin agendas of progression versus regression war within us each day.” Here, James assigns a more optimistic, high-minded sense of “progression” to Purpose, and uses a somewhat negative word of “regression” to describe Safety. Notice also the hostile juxtaposition of the needs in their tension in the use of the “daily war” analogy.

Arthur Schopenhauer has a more dour take: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom,” situated in the perspective of begrudgingly seeing Purpose as the animating force.

Organizations experience Schopenhauer’s pendulum as they cycle through the innovator dilemma’s S-curves: Purpose-driven disruptive innovation gives way to protecting the user base animated by Safety.

As our characters persevere through their struggles, swinging back and forth between Safety and Purpose, I can’t help but observe that one output of these undulations is suffering. As one need is sated, the other is aggrieved, setting up the next round. The unending tug-of-war is certain and present in every moment of our collective being. What if this is also how we learn to transcend it? What if every battle in that daily war is a small step toward learning to see this tension as a polarity to be managed, rather than a battle? What if the other output of these undulations is development of the character’s sense-making capacity?