Distinguishing Needs from Wants

Distinguishing Needs from Wants


I once told my mentor and therapist, Andrew Feldmar, that my wife “needed” more from me. He stopped me there and said, “babies need, adults desire”. At the time, the significance of this didn’t register. I thought he was splitting hairs. I forget when the coin dropped, but when it did it delivered the goods. (Thinking about a vending machine there folks!)

I’d always just clumped them together. But tease them apart and see what happens. If I “need” you, in anyway there is a flavour of desperation in the statement, as though I wouldn’t survive if you didn’t take care of my needs. I “need” more contact. I need more attention. I need more … fill in the blank. Notice that need carries with it an imperative that seems to be externally driven. It’s do or die. Now, if you’re living on the street and haven’t eaten for a few days, absolutely, you need some food and shelter. Not many of us are in that situation, yet at times we find ourselves acting as though everything is on the line if I don’t get my need met by you. Need is passive and externally determined. It happens to me. Want or desire is active and internal. I am actively responsible.

When we use the language of need with our intimate others, they are likely to feel, even if unconsciously, like we are asking them to meet a need that they can never actually meet. But if they don’t there’s hell to pay. So you try to meet my need, but it’s never enough for me. That’s because my “need” is my inner infant. I’m having a memory of a time when he didn’t get what he needed (enough comfort, food, attention) and the situation (then) was indeed desperate. My life was on the line. I convey that unbearable (then) pain to you in my “need” of you. So, I’m loaded up with all that unmet need. And I’m expecting you to take care of me now. Which will never, ever, happen, because that unmet need can never be met by anybody in the present. All I can do with that truth is to feel it, grieve it, and then being conscious of it, take responsibility for it—which means giving up the unconscious expectation that you will take care of it. Ain’t going to happen. Not in a million lifetimes. It’s mine to suffer, or create suffering in others by not owning it.

This is all amped up if I had a mother who had her own unmet needs, and expected me, as a child, to meet them (even if unconsciously). You support me. You take care of my feelings. You be what I need you to be because life is overwhelming for me. Which is way too much responsibility and will send me either heading for the hills (walling myself off from her need (and other relationships) because she has effectively taught me that “others” require more than I can deliver. Or I’ll actually try to deliver and in the process lose track of my own true needs and desires, just to make sure she’s okay so that she can maybe take care of me this time.  It’s fucked up, yes, but it happens—all the time.

This make its way into sexual intimacy. We bring our unconscious unmet needs  to our sex life. If that makes you cringe a little, it should. I wonder if this is what underlies sex addiction. I “need” to be one with you. I need to dissolve into you. I need to know you want me, that I belong, that I’m special. I “need” it over and over again, because the primal wound has already been enacted. No amount of sex is going to give me the sense of unity and connection that I didn’t get as a baby.

The only alternative is to stop, feel all this need, grieve, and then…

Allow desire. I desire you. Which means I’m coming to you as an adult. I’m vulnerable because once I’ve taken responsibility for what I want from you, you may choose not to give it. That would hurt. It might remind of all that I wasn’t given, which underlies the reason I shut down my desires. It hurts too much. But my desire might also arouse your desire, and then vitality comes on line. This is the fire of life. And don’t buy into that false neo-Buddhist crap, or false moral Christian crap for that matter,  that desire is the problem. That’s not the problem. It’ the solution. The problem is attachment to a particular outcome. All we can do is to reveal ourselves by announcing our desire, and risk the other saying, “not interested”. When we were young that was potentially humiliating, especially if that’s all we heard, we learn to associate desire with humiliation.  But when we’re adults, we can handle that without shutting down desire. Their “no” is  just a preference, information from whomever we’re in relationship with at the moment. No sulking. No evening the score with power trips. Disappointment, sure. Then maybe renegotiation.

Next time you hear yourself starting a sentence with “I need…” check in with yourself and see if it’s possible to change it up to “I want…” It’s just a preference, not a compulsive unmet need from childhood. (And if it is that, then bring compassion to yourself, comfort yourself, ask for somebody to be with you as you sit with the pain of it. Then come back into relationship as an adult.

Live Your Own Life Course

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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