‘Want’ and ‘need’ – the age-old dichotomy that catches all of us out at some stage or another. On the surface, the difference between our wants and needs might seem banal or trivial. After all, it’s fairly obvious that while we may want a faster car, we don’t need it like we need food and water. Yet in our relationships and emotional lives it can be much harder to tell these impulses apart.
Wants and desires are contextual, shifting with our environment and the people we surround ourselves with. As we move through life the experience of having our wants fulfilled or thwarted reveals aspects of our character that drives us forward to new, different desires. These revelations can be painful or uplifting, and the realisation that getting what we want doesn’t always make us happy is one that can’t be imparted, only experienced.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. Often, realisations about what we really want and need come to us in the rear view mirror, as we reflect on people or things that have come and gone from our lives. Yet if we can learn to be present in ourselves, actively seeking out the core of who we are, we will find it easier to know the truth of our desires in the first instance – holding on to those that serve us and letting go of those that don’t.
Finding a way to be fully and consciously ourselves requires listening deeply to our inner voice with a spirit of honesty, questioning our assumptions, beliefs and motivations. Which of these feel true to us? In this process we often come to recognise aspects of ourselves that have been shaped by external events – ideas or behaviours formed as a subconscious response to the world that, in turn, shape how we move through it.
Sometimes desire can feel so powerful that we mistake it for a fundamental need; the need to win, the need to be seen, the need to be something we are not. Yet in learning to know ourselves better we begin to break through these damaging assumptions that trap us in a narrow conception of self. Once we are able to detach our sense of self-worth from things which exist outside of us, we can begin to recognise what is truly essential to our existence.
This isn’t to say that all wants and desires are inherently suspect – they can also be a powerful motivating force for us to grow and enact change in the world. The key is discerning which desires are true to the core of who we are, and which are ephemeral distractions. Learning how to see this distinction clearly is a lifelong process of nurturing our mental health and emotional wellbeing.