Want vs. Need
**Unique disclaimer: If you desire a short post—the kind of TikTok-esque content that delivers unhelpful advice which may sound good, though isn’t representative of the complexity you experience in life—this post may not be for you. However, if you want to better understand how to get out of your own way, I invite you to read this entry in its entirety.**
Recently, I had a discussion with a longtime friend who I’ll refer to as “Spanky.” Having met him when we both served in the United States Marine Corps, in the field of military police (MP), Spanky was one of the few MPs who stood by my side during my most difficult year in the Corps.
In fact, Spanky supported me by attending in-person visits when I was in the brig, later having subjected himself to MP apprehension with me for a bogus traffic stop, and by testifying on my behalf at a court-martial—all matters addressed in a blogpost entitled Matching Bracelets.
As well, Spanky was the best man at my Justice of the Peace ceremony, he and I have remained in contact since having met in 2001, and he’s been more like a brother than a friend to me throughout the years. I think it’s reasonable to say that we’re close.
Still, it isn’t as though Spanky and I always agree on everything. In fact, I don’t always agree with anyone on every imaginable topic. I think it’s preposterous to expect otherwise.
During our recent conversation, Spanky and I discussed our perspectives relating to a want versus (vs.) a need. From start to finish, we disagreed about what does and doesn’t constitute a need.
When unable to persuade a person regarding my position on any given matter, I usually don’t dwell on disagreement. Nevertheless, I think the topic discussed by Spanky and I may warrant further consideration on my part.
The reason for this conclusion is that this is the sort of subject matter I often address when working as a psychotherapist. Sifting through the details in a logical and rational manner, using the chosen medium of the current blogpost, can help me frame my position for the future.
Framing my position
When considering my argument regarding a want vs. a need, framing my position is a crucial element for clarity regarding both sides of the topic. According to one source, “The way in which we frame an issue largely determines how that issue will be understood and acted upon.”
Therefore, I begin with defining terms. When discussing a “want,” I’m referring to a desire to possess or do something. By “desire,” I’m referencing what a person strongly wishes for.
Examples of a want relate to me expressing desires such as, “I hope that my flight arrives on time,” “I’d like to one day be financially secure,” or, “I wish for there to be nice weather this weekend.”
It’s worth noting that a want is different than a demand— an insistent and peremptory request, made as if by right and claiming as due or just. Per one source, “Demands can be conceptualized as rules of life that include inferences, evaluations, and/or philosophical beliefs with words related to ‘should,’ ‘ought,’ or ‘must.”
Examples of demanding statements would be if I required outcomes by expressing things such as, “My flight should arrive on time,” “I must one day be financially secure,” or, “There ought to be nice weather this weekend.”
The subtle difference between a want and a demand is that a desire for something suggests flexibility, whereas a command for such things infers inflexibility.
For instance, if I flexibly hope that my flight will arrive on time and it ultimately doesn’t, I may be disappointed. On the other hand, if I rigidly declare that my flight should arrive on time and it eventually doesn’t, I may end up distraught for having my unhelpful belief violated.
Now, when discussing a “need,” I’m referring to a something that is required, because it is essential or a necessity. By “essential,” I’m referencing that which is absolutely necessary.
Herein, “necessity” refers to the fact of being required or indispensable, and “necessary” implies the basic requirements of life, such as food and warmth. As such, a need is that which is absolutely required to sustain life—the things a person literally cannot live without.
I find that many people with whom I maintain contact are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s proposed hierarchy of needs. Though the psychologist’s theory has been challenged for its validity, I suspect a significant number of people are familiar with a depiction of Maslow’s perspective that was later formulated into a pyramid of “needs”:
Though perhaps well-meaning, I think people sometimes place too much significance in psychological theories, as though such proposals are concrete laws of the universe. Noteworthy, they aren’t.
In a review of Maslow’s theoretical framework, one source posits, “Although the most basic needs might get the most attention when you don’t have them […] you don’t need to fulfill them in order to get benefits [from the others].” Perhaps aside from objective basic needs, Maslow’s formulation is riddled with subjectivity.
By “objective,” I’m referring to that which is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. When discussing “subjectivity,” I’m referencing the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
In no uncertain terms, objectivity relates to truth and reality. Subjectivity relates to interpretation and desire.
It is an objective fact that in order for a person to exist in nature, one must have food, water, air, warmth, and shelter. To the contrary, it is a subjective claim that people must have belonging, esteem, self-actualization, and so on and so forth.
Think of a person in a frozen, barren desert, or tropical rainforest. Can the individual survive without basic wants (subjective) being met (e.g., warm hugs)? Undoubtedly, yes.
Will this person have a more significant probability of living with basic needs (objective) being met (e.g., food)? Certainly! The difference herein is that subjective wants are amenities and objective needs are vital components for living.
To summarize the proper framing of my position, I assert that while we may want subjective things, we do not objectively need these elements in order to sustain life. Though one may claim that one’s quality of life would be better with desires having been met, that is not a point of contention I’m arguing.
In the strictest terms necessary to adequately guide this topic, I postulate that needs are exceedingly limited for human survival though wants are diverse and plentiful. Despite the fact that colloquial rhetoric may posit otherwise (e.g., Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), we do not need our wants to be met in order to live.
The B-C connection
I practice Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) which uses the ABC Model to demonstrate that Actions do not cause the Consequence of our emotions, bodily sensations, and behavioral outcomes. Common misunderstanding about this relationship suggests an Action-Consequence (A-C) connection is responsible for the effects of events.
Contrarily, REBT affirms that an Action occurs, we Believe something about the event, and as a result of this self-disturbingbelief we experience unpleasant Consequences. As such, the cause of our undesirable outcome is better explained by the Belief-Consequence (B-C) connection.
Building upon the framing of my position, suppose person X—an individual familiar to Spanky and I—maintains that in order to live a fulfilling life he must have his subjective desires met, though he misattributes “needs” for wants. As such, person X’s rigid condition for the world is what induces an uncomfortable reaction when others do not do as he wishes:
Action – Person X isn’t shown affection by his spouse, though he uses an unspoken principle by which his partner is required to intuit person X’s apparent “needs.”
Belief – Person X believes, “My wife must make me feel good by showing me affection, satiating my sexual drive, providing supportive feedback, and not opposing my leadership in this family, as a man.”
Consequence – When person X’s spouse inevitably violates his inflexible demand, it isn’t the A-C connection that results. Rather, what person X believes about the violation of his stringent rules is what causes the consequence of anger, tight shoulders, queasiness, and continued verbal conflict with his partner.
Noteworthy, when people misuse feelings-based language, I invite them to consider how they frame what feelings are. “Feelings” are either emotions (i.e., joy, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust, etc.) or bodily sensations (i.e., sweaty palms, nausea, headaches, tightness in the shoulders, etc.).
Colloquially speaking, people tend to misattribute feelings-based language with thoughts and beliefs. For instance, when person X states, “My wife must make me feel good,” I would encourage him to describe to what feeling he’s alluding.
He may then say something like, “My wife must make me feel joy,” which is a proper use of the word though altogether an irrational statement, because other people aren’t responsible for how we feel. Still, there is another sort of feelings-based language I often observe being misused.
Person X may say, “I feel like she doesn’t care about me.” Not a feeling is expressed in this statement. If you can replace feel or feeling with thought or belief—and derivatives thereof, you aren’t describing an emotion or bodily sensation.
Aside from this minor quibble, understanding the B-C connection, person X could then Dispute his unhelpful belief so that he may choose a more productive and Effective new belief. Such self-narratives include flexible desires (e.g., “hope”) vs. rigid demands (e.g., “must”).
REBT also focuses on low frustration tolerance (LFT) which is exemplified by use of “I can’t stand” personal narratives. Although the aforementioned belief of person X is impactful enough to generate an unhealthy consequence, adding an LFT component further aggravates the B-C connection:
Belief – Person X believes, “My wife must make me feel good by showing me affection, satiating my sexual drive, providing supportive feedback, and not opposing my leadership in this family, as a man. And if she doesn’t fulfill her responsibilities as a wife, I can’t stand continuing on in this marriage!”
Reader, do you comprehend how the addition of an LFT narrative exacerbates the self-disturbing belief? Using LFT, person X has essentially convinced himself that he’s literally unable to endure having his perceived “needs” met.
Again, person X’s demands are not equivalent to an actual need. While he may “hope,” “like,” or, “wish” to receive strict adherence to his personal orders, there simply is no valid circumstance under which his partner is obligated to appease person X’s wants.
How then can person X resolve the inherent conflict between what he wants vs. what he incorrectly thinks he needs? In a blogpost entitled Desire and Disturbance, I stated, “Expressing preferences without demand, and acknowledging how little control we have in an uncertain world, may be a useful place to start.”
Tolerance is your willingness to endure the existence of opinions or behaviour you dislike or disagree with. Acceptance, on the other hand, is assenting and embracing someone or something you don’t like, without protesting and without trying to change them. You can tolerate something without accepting it, but cannot accept something without tolerating it.
When person X tells himself that he can’t stand when his belief about unfulfilled “needs” is violated, he can conversely admit that he can tolerate the outcome— allowing the existence, occurrence, or practice of something that one does not necessarily like or agree with, without interference.
Likewise, he can accept his partner’s behavior— the action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered, despite whether or not person X likes or loves the fact that his want is unmet. In the simplest terms, person X can tolerate and accept disappointment.
Yet another REBT technique person X can use relates to unconditional acceptance (UA). This method is predicated upon the foundation that we can only control ourselves, we may be able to influence others, and we have no control or influence over most aspects of life.
Unconditional self-acceptance (USA) presupposes that I am a fallible human being—always have been, always will be. Though I can’t control all aspects of myself (e.g., heartbeat), I am capable of adjusting how I respond to things (i.e., Actions).
Unconditional other-acceptance (UOA) posits that because humans are flawed, others are prone to err, just as I am. Although I may be able to influence people, I simply cannot control them—especially since I can’t even control all aspects of my own self.
Unconditional life-acceptance (ULA) proposes that the world is an imperfect place, the past is unalterable, individuals have exceedingly limited ability to control or influence most areas of observation (e.g., galaxy), and death is inevitable.
Whether discussing USA, UOA, or ULA, I tend to receive opposition to the concept of UA due in large part to two matters of contention. I don’t doubt the reader can imagine other avenues of repudiation.
First, I’ve heard pushback such as, “Deric, it seems like unconditional acceptance is a cop-out.” In this regard, rejection of UA is based on an inferred should, must, or ought-type statement: “I shouldn’t accept anything unconditionally, because I then give myself, others, or life a pass to disappoint, offend, or harm me.”
To me, use of a rigid demand to negate use of rigid demands seems paradoxical. Rather than allowing this self-disturbing circular logic to derail a person’s growth, I find utility in demonstrating the logical flaw at hand:
Premise 1: Any consideration of unconditional acceptance is an attempt to avoid responsibility.
Premise 2: Person X considers unconditional acceptance.
Conclusion: Therefore, person X is attempting to avoid responsibility.
Premise 1: No one should use unconditional acceptance, because doing so allows disappointment, offense, and harm into life.
Premise 2: Person X uses unconditional acceptance.
Conclusion: Consequently, person X allows disappointment, offense, and harm into his life.
Reader, do you see how rigid and irrational these major premises are (Premise 1)? I’ve italicized the rigid control mechanisms in the aforementioned complex syllogisms to demonstrate how inflexible logic follows the self-disturbing narratives one may use.
It simply isn’t a cop-out to acknowledge how little control we have over ourselves, others, and life. In fact, doing so is little more than admitting the verifiable truth.
Second, I’ve heard, “I don’t know about the unconditional aspect of acceptance, because there have to be some conditions in life.” Here, dismissal of this sort relies on a should, must, or ought-type statement—using a “have to” claim.
Claiming that there must be conditions—implying that otherwise catastrophe will result—requires vigorous stretching in order to make such a logical leap (jumping to conclusions). Together, let’s examine the logic:
Scenario 1 –
Premise 1: There must be conditions in life; otherwise, disastrous outcomes which a person can’t stand will result.
Premise 2: Person X uses unconditional acceptance.
Conclusion: As a result, person X will incur a disastrous outcome that he can’t stand.
Here, I’ve paired a rigid demand with an implied LFT statement relating to disaster. This sort of logic follows from the idea that we “have to” have conditions or else something bad will happen to us.
Let’s modify this unproductive self-narrative by use of a perspective shift—adopting a different way to think about or observe a matter. Instead of doom and gloom, let us presuppose that while not perfect—because life itself isn’t without its faults—UA can at least be somewhat helpful:
Scenario 2 –
Premise 1: If all unconditional acceptance is somewhat helpful
Premise 2: and if person X uses no conditions
Conclusion: then person X’s use of acceptance is somewhat helpful.
Which approach to life do you prefer, scenario 1 or scenario 2? Which would benefit your day-to-day functioning and quality of life overall, scenario 1 or scenario 2?
When we use USA, UOA, and ULA, we’re merely acknowledging that with what little control and influence we have, we choose to disturb ourselves less by abandoning those perspectives which do not serve us well. Herein, our perceived “needs” may be set aside and we can unconditionally accept it when our wants are not met.
The final element worthy of addressing when examining want vs. need relates to personal responsibility and accountability. Collectively, I relate these matters to personal ownership.
When referring to “responsibility”, I’m addressing the opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization. In this way, personal responsibility is about independent functioning.
Where “accountability” is concerned, I’m referencing the act of being required or expected to justify actions or decisions. As such, personal accountability relates to answering for the matters pertaining to personal responsibility.
As an example, I am responsible for getting out of bed when my alarm sounds each morning. If I neglect to do so and I miss a session with a client, I am accountable for having shirked my responsibility.
Therefore, I take personal ownership of my life by getting up when it’s time to do so, and I can justify my behavior by exhibiting continued competence when assisting client matters during sessions to which I’ve attended on time.
Here’s where the want vs. need discussion becomes more nuanced. I’ve made a case for wants relating to basic needs (i.e., food, water, clothing, etc.).
Now, I appear to be putting forth an argument in support of classifying adherence to an alarm-driven schedule as a need. Have I contradicted myself herein? No.
Suppose I don’t get out of bed and present to client sessions. I will quickly lose clients. If that happens, I won’t be able to afford the costs associated with operating Hollings Therapy, LLC.
Let’s say I lose my business, will I become destitute? No. I have veteran’s benefits which allow me to live comfortably within certain means. Therefore, the chain reaction of events that follows the sounding of my alarm each morning isn’t associated with a need.
Because I find purpose and meaning through operation of my business, I may “hope,” “like,” or, “wish” to continue getting out of bed in the morning and attending client sessions. However, it isn’t that I need to do so.
Truly, I’ve lived more of my life during which I wasn’t a licensed counselor and social worker than I have with these licenses and through associated practice. Therefore, while I may prefer to continue in my current role, I don’t need to do so.
Remarkably, people can maintain personal should, must, and ought-type narratives which aren’t absolute, rigid, or unhelpful demands which relates to actual needs. I can hold myself responsible for getting out of bed in the morning and remain accountable to myself when I fail to do so.
This sort of non-self-disturbing narrative relates to personal ownership that improves my life in some way. And yes, dear reader, I’m overtly stating that in can be helpful, healthy, and productive for each person to use should, must, and ought narratives which apply solely to that person.
It’s when we should all over ourselves, others, and the world, or when we musterbate into self-disturbance that these narratives can present problems. What you consume doesn’t make me should myself and I’d prefer it if others didn’t musterbate all over me.
In a blogpost entitled Personal Ownership, I stated:
Personal ownership entails looking at what role we play and what effect we would prefer, while understanding that not all matters within life are within our control. As an example, if something I say leads to conflict with a friend, I can look at my behavior as a contributing factor with the problem.
It isn’t that I should, must, or ought to convince a friend that my position is right and his is wrong, as though my points need to prevail in a conversation. Rather, I can reflect upon my behavior during the discourse and personally own that two people maintain opposing views.
As such, if someone like person X volunteers to remain willfully stuck in the conviction of his beliefs, I can practice UOA without trying to persuade him otherwise. Notwithstanding this fact, I can appeal to the rational sensibilities of those who will listen and who remain open to challenging themselves, pushing through discomfort, and growing accordingly.
I now turn towards Spanky and consider our discussion. To be charitable to his argument, I will attempt to steel man his position, as he essentially defended the attitude of person X—someone we’ve both known for quite some time:
On numerous occasions, person X has spoken with his spouse about their marriage. Though not expressly stated, person X maintains that his wife should know him well enough at this stage in life to deduce what he believes he “needs” from her as a supportive wife.
However, no matter how many discussions have been had, despite the fact that the couple have experimented with couples counseling, and although there have been intermittent changes over time, no intervention has been successful at resulting in person X receiving what he so desperately desires from his partner.
Person X believes his appeal for his partner to make him feel good through displays of affection, satisfying him sexually, providing supportive feedback, and submitting to his authority as the man of the house is reasonable, valid, and absolute. Through her behavior, his wife apparently disagrees.
Consequentially, when person X’s spouse violates his implied or expressed “needs,” he experiences unpleasant emotional, bodily sensation, and behavioral outcomes. Rather than continuing to advocate change, person X is now contemplating dissolution of the marriage.
Presuming the aforementioned steel man argument is sound, I suspect REBT techniques may be useful to address this situation. Herein, I’ve framed my position regarding want vs. need—carefully detailing the difference between both terms.
It isn’t as though person X needs his partner to fulfill implied or expressed responsibilities, because the marriage has lasted for well over a decade without person X enjoying lengthy periods of satisfaction in the relationship. Though he may not want to continue in this manner, it isn’t as though he needs to be treated differently.
Also addressed herein is the B-C connection. Expanding upon the want-need paradigm, person X disturbs himself by believing he deserves more than his wife has provided throughout the course of their relationship.
If I were to assist person X in a therapy session, disputing the belief that leads to an unhelpful consequence, I may go with the elegant solution—encouraging person X to imagine his belief is accurate, assuming the worst possible outcome, and work through whether or not he could build frustration tolerance and use UA to resolve the matter.
These are matters addressed herein, as they pertain to LFT and UA. Suppose person X understands the REBT tools I’ve used though he rejects them all the same. What then?
I’d use rational compassion when informing person X that “the tools we use less are useless.” This is precisely where personal ownership plays a crucial role in the discussion. Person X, who Spanky and I have known for years, is not a victim though a volunteer for his own misery.
He’s likely made himself luv(sic) by use of self-disturbing beliefs. He can’t control his wife and he likely has little influence over her. Moreover, it isn’t that life has played some cruel game on person X, because it is his own mind that has deceived him.
I know all too well how that happens, as I once lived a life of suffering for many years with the B-C connection in regards to a romantic relationship that was rife with miserable beliefs. Back then, I believed, “If you knew better, you’d do better.”
However, I’ve since changed my mind about that notion. Now, I realize that sometimes people will completely reject the practice that can help them get better in the long run, all for the sake of “feeling” better in the moment—even if they know better than to seek a fleeting emotional response.
For such people, they can take personal ownership of the suffering they will undoubtedly endure many times over while chasing illusive happiness. Regarding these individuals, I may “hope,” “like,” or, “wish” for them to find contentment in the standard of “good enough,” though I cannot affix myself to their self-determined and disturbed outcomes.
Though the perspectives of Spanky and I differed in this regard, we remain close and able to respectfully disagree. This appears to be a fleeting quality in many of the people I’ve encountered over the years.
As for person X, he can continue stroking his belief through practice of Albert Ellis’ three musts of musterbation: “I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.” Beat that belief as you may, though it doesn’t cum with pleasure—only unpleasant consequences.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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