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The Self Development Basics 6 How To Tell The Difference Between a Want and a Need

Is there a difference between a want and a need?
In self development it is common to question the difference between a want and a need. I think this is largely healthy.

Usually when people say that something is a want rather than a need the needs they have in mind are the most basic physical needs. “You don’t need that extra slice of cake you just want it”. This may not be a major drama. But there are other things that may be, like:

  • You don’t need a job where you are treated with dignity, you just want one.
  • You don’t need to be in a supportive relationship you just want to be.
  • You don’t need long-term affordable housing you just want it. (Sleeping on someone’s floor won’t kill you.)
    Reducing people to the level of physical subsistence isn’t very attractive; and so distinguishing between wants and needs is seen as a pretty unpleasant thing to do. I absolutely agree that reducing people to the physical in this way is appalling.

    So let me say that when I talk about needs I mean what we need to thrive. I don’t mean the maintenance of physical life; I mean a life of meaning and connection.

    The needs we have to maintain a worthwhile life will vary from person to person. Some people simply need music in their life, or a tidy office, or friends that they can call on, or time alone. The possibilities are endless. Not having these needs met can make life intolerable for people.

    When people distinguish needs and wants on the basis of physical needs then ‘want’ is presumed to mean ‘indulgent’. And indulgent is meant to be morally bad. I’m pretty sure that this morality contains some truth but is fundamentally mistaken.

    Will focusing on a bigger range of needs (say beauty or work with purpose) than the basic physical one leads us to a life of narcissistic self-indulgence? In my experience the unequivocal answer is, “No”. The reason is the way that needs work.

    How Needs Work
    When a need is denied it doesn’t go away. Instead it becomes more insistent. This is obvious with our physical needs. If we don’t eat we get hungry, if we can’t breathe we crave air more and more strongly.

    The other needs we have take a little closer observation perhaps. But we can still see the same process at work. We can recognise:

  • the desperation for connection in someone who needs friends;

  • the posture of resignation in someone who doesn’t find meaning in their work; or,
  • the muscular tightness of someone unable to express one or more emotions.

    The effect of the denial of these needs may not be as obvious or immediate as with our physical needs but the lessening of thriving is plain to see.

    However, we can become habituated to our needs not being met. Just as a bad habitual posture means less thriving, so does becoming habituated to not having our other needs met inhibit our living. Our lives can be lessened by:

  • an ugly environment;
  • work that contributes nothing worthwhile, or is even destructive; or,
  • relationships where our individuality is judged and not welcomed.
    If our needs aren’t met then they don’t go away. But we may become used to them not being met. We develop habitual ways of dealing with the lack. The need is still there but we become less conscious of it.

    When our needs are met then they subside (for now). Those with their needs met don’t need retail therapy. They are not ‘self-indulgent’ – they are engaged with meaningful activity.

    Wants Are Not Bad
    By expanding the range of needs beyond the physical I don’t want to suggest that wants are bad. We all have preferences and being able to shape our lives in accord with our preferences is no bad thing.

    Being able to deal with wants not being met is also a part of life in my experience.

    I would much rather:

  • not worry much about choosing clothing (I usually wear polo’s and chinos coloured blue). Dressing up occasionally isn’t a big deal I’d just rather not. When I’ve had to wear other kinds of clothes to suit employers this hasn’t been a drama.
  • Have all my books readily available. Currently all but my most favourite are in storage but I can get at them if I need to. This hasn’t caused me a moment’s worry.

    These things aren’t needs (for me) but they are a long way from being bad.

    How to Tell a Want from a Need
    The way to tell a want from a need is that when a need is not met then it becomes more insistent. When a want is not met then we can move on to something else; it doesn’t become more insistent.

    Where it Gets Tricky
    Where sorting out the difference between a want and a need can get tricky is when we have got used to a need not being met. The capacity of people to adapt is truly extraordinary. The down side is that we can adapt to awful situations and keep up this adaptation after the situation has passed.

    This is probably most important for those who have been through childhoods of abuse or relationships that were abusive or warfare. People find ways to survive these horrendous experiences, but when the experiences end it can be enormously difficult to find a different way to live.

    There isn’t an easy answer to this. A first step I think is to ask what it is that we need to thrive and not just survive.

    If you would be willing to say I would like to know what you feel you most need in order to thrive. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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  • I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

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    { 12 comments… add one }
    • Justin | Mazzastick 2011/06/14, 12:52 am

      Hi Evan,
      I like what you said about “what we need to thrive.” This is a great example of what most are talking about when referring to their needs. I rather be thriving than surviving.

      In order to thrive I need lot’s of space to do the things that I need to do. The more to do’s on my list the less time I have for creative and joyful activities.
      Justin | Mazzastick recently posted..Are You A ZombieMy Profile

    • Celeste Varley 2011/06/14, 2:52 am

      What you said about long term unmet needs jumped out at me. Until 3 years ago, when I was 69, I hadn’t ever been truly loved, but I had no way of knowing that my growing depression wasn’t my fault, or that this was an unmet need at all.
      Once I was connected after 46 years with someone who had loved me all that time, something in me just knew without a doubt. So I can answer your question.
      The one need I most have so I can thrive is to be with this person in mutual love. And the ills from all the years of unrecognized deprivation are healing themselves rapidly, so I am more and more able to be an authentically trusting, loving person in general.

    • Evan 2011/06/14, 1:06 pm

      Thanks Justin. For me itis very important to have control of my time.

    • Evan 2011/06/14, 1:10 pm

      What a wonderful thing. Wishing you both much joy.

    • farouk 2011/06/15, 7:21 pm

      hi Evan
      its my first time in here and i love your blog and posts
      keep it up:)

    • Evan 2011/06/15, 9:51 pm

      Thanks Farouk, great to have you here.

    • Shen 2011/06/16, 1:01 pm

      Hi Evan,

      Great post. Lots to think about.

      For the last three and a half years, my therapist and I have been working on “needs meeting” – that is, meeting the needs that were not met well when I was a child. What I’ve found is that as I’ve gradually added things to my repetoire (realizing that now that I’m adult I am capable of meeting these needs for myself that were not met well in the past) I find that what I “need” is more than what it used to be.

      On a very basic level, it surprises a lot of people that I seriously did not think I needed sleep. For most of my life, I slept less than four hours a night and spent at least two or three nights each week without any sleep. Once I learned how to sleep – beginning with medications and tapering off as I got into the habbit – I’ve now discovered that I need sleep a great deal more than in the past. I never felt tired in the past, whereas now, if I sleep only five or six hours in a night, I do feel tired. (It took six months of good rest before I felt tired for the first time.)

      I did not think I needed things like affirmation, connection, attention, and so when I didn’t get them, I didn’t need them. As I’ve learned to appreciate what it’s like to really connect with people, to accept compliments and not disregard them out of hand, and to move towards attention rather than away from it, I find I miss those things when I don’t have them.

      My very basic needs were met, when I was a child, in the sense that I never had to go to school naked and there was always a roof over my head. I also always had food available, although I came to believe I did not need to eat and still struggle with remembering to eat when I’m under stress (I did not eat yesterday, for instance… I just dind’t think of it.)

      It was a struggle for me to get things most people would consider needs – safety, positive attention, respect, age appropriate responsibilities – were not met consistantly. They were sometimes met and sometimes poorly missed. I did survive… but I would still consider these things needs.

      I love your idea of those things we need to “thrive”. That is a much better way to think of it.

      There is also the aspect of self-respect, which has increased what I feel I deserve… and thus has increased what I would put in the need category.

    • Evan 2011/06/16, 2:26 pm

      HI Shen. People I know who have dealt with really awful pasts have often found that they need more than they realised. I guess this is part of needing to be more independent than they should have had to be (so they don’t know what they need or how much of it). I do think thinking about ‘thrival’ rather than survival can help. Self-respect was something I didn’t think of but now you mention it is really important. Thanks for mentioning it and thanks for your comment.

    • Dia 2011/06/17, 12:02 am

      Hi Evan,

      Nice distinction between a need and a want. In short, a need is something that we can’t live without, where “want” we can live without it, but we prefer not to. 😉 Thanks for sharing Evan, nice post.

    • Evan 2011/06/17, 12:30 pm

      Thanks Dia, glad you liked it. Good to have you here and thanks for your comment.

    • Chris Edgar 2011/06/20, 4:33 am

      Hi Evan — yes, I like your observation that calling something a “want” conjures up images of (as I’d put it) a “spoiled brat of a kid who asks for too much from his parents,” and so admitting that we want something can bring up a lot of shame. Recently I’ve felt like I’m moving in the direction of treating my wants as a gift to others — after all, if I admit what I want to another person, I connect with them in a way that I wouldn’t if I pretended not to want anything in the name of “unselfishness.”

    • Evan 2011/06/20, 10:16 am

      Oh Chris, I like that thought very much: Recently I’ve felt like I’m moving in the direction of treating my wants as a gift to other. That is really quite a breakthrough. If you have time to write more about it on your blog that would be excellent. Thanks for the comment, Evan

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