How do you know when what you want is also what you need? When they’re opposites? Want can compromise you, as much as it might entertain or satisfy you. While need is essential to survival and greater quality of life.
Sometimes you mistake one for the other. A craving can become a force so powerful that it feels like a requirement, something you must fulfill, or else you might not make it through the day. (This link will lead you to the work of artist Erin Hanson, who makes some very witty observations about this issue.)
How do we tell the difference between want and need? Oh, I think we know. Sometimes we deny or ignore it. That can be part of the danger to ourselves (and others). But often enough, we know what can be most satisfying and also most damaging at the same time.
We all have soft spots. Me? I have plenty, I admit it. I know it.
Food is an old friend, and a particular weakness. I sometimes find myself by the pantry or fridge, craving a bite. Not as tempting as it once was, because I have recognized and worked hard to gain balance when I lost it, but oh, there are times when I want something … Sweet. Salty. Mmmmm. And it’s not because I’m particularly hungry. Could be stress. Boredom. Bad habits. Social routines.
Sometimes we have instants of epiphany. When we actually look at ourselves, and what’s happening, and see just how out-of-balance we’ve gotten. I’ve had my share of wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee (okay, tea for me) moments. Really, these I’m-not-in-control-and-this-has-gone-too-far insights can be as powerful as being converted to a new religion. Transformative.
Then again, sometimes someone else has to express their concerns: a loved one, friend, colleague or medical practitioner. Maybe you have to hear it from someone else to realize that there’s an issue.
Mainly, I think, you have to be ready to listen. Then to admit that there’s an imbalance you need to pay attention to. Maybe it’s not an addiction, maybe it’s just too much of a good thing, but there’s still a message that it’s time to pause, focus, and regain equilibrium. Or perhaps it is that dangerous; you must realize that something vital is at risk. Your health. Your safety. Others’ safety. Your relationships. Your work. Your home.
That’s the start. But what comes next? The long, slow and imperfect journey of changing bad habits, and realizing the context that leads us toward the not-so-good-for-us decisions. For many behaviors and obsessions, there’s a state of mind and series of events that lets us negotiate with our own conscience, and make deals, and excuses, and half-hearted promises that we won’t keep for ourselves or anyone else. There’s a rush and a reward, short-lived as it might be, that causes us to desire this activity in the first place. Maybe there’s also a social context, among a specific group of friends or acquaintances, that reinforces this choice. Or a true payoff, some measurable value that makes it hard to offset.
Regarding behavior around food, I’ve learned to debate with myself. Have a little discussion. Test the signal from my mind that says I’m hungry. Sip some water and wait 10 minutes. Do I still have the same craving? Or did it fade away? Would a small portion be sufficient to feed the craving, or should I substitute something else, or just ignore the craving entirely? I consider these options, and try to choose the most effective one.
There are other tools. Maybe you have to keep a journal, to make yourself accountable to yourself, and actually acknowledge, list and monitor (by quantity of time, distance, volume, servings, whatever measurement) your own patterns. Weigh the decision against its cost, such as the exercise involved to work off what you’re about to ingest. Ask yourself … really picture this … how do you feel after you nibble on that snack (or sip another drink or take extra time in front of a screen or buy another scratch ticker or spend free time sitting or lying down)? Can you stop? If the picture in your head isn’t nice (your stomach or your head is upset, you’re disappointed in yourself and diving into a loop of negative self-talk, because you indulged and then over-indulged) that’s a deterrent. Who wants to do something temporarily pleasurable, if the result is that nasty and self-loathing experience on the other side? Visualize who you want to be (maybe an image of yourself fit, happy, connected to other people, active, balanced and in control). And yes, you can pray. Ask for help from a power outside yourself.
What else can give us the same … or maybe a better … fulfillment? Depends on your longings, and what will sate them instead. Also depends on how hard the work is to overcome those cravings and desires, and find an alternative that slowly becomes your new passion. When you want a cigarette, getting on a bike might not sound tempting at first. But over time, the feel of the bike ride, the beat of your heart and lungs, the place your mind can go, will be it’s own sort of rush … it’s own form of high.
Maybe you can’t do it alone. Maybe you need support. Share your goals with your family, so they can also help you (if they’re willing to help versus sabotaging or enabling). Tell your friends, too. Work with a counselor or caregiver. Join a group. Take a class. Find a trainer or a coach, a mentor or a sponsor.
I grew up in a family filled with “isms.” Substance abuse. Mental health issues. Depression. Bipolar. Weight. Money. Physical abuse. Lots of tough stuff (though plenty of goodness, too), and most of it quietly tucked away, until it couldn’t be hidden anymore.
Based on that experience, I would say, “don’t hide it.” Don’t make it a secret that you or others must keep. When it’s possible, and there are circumstances that might make that inadvisable, but more often it’s safest to be open, you can claim it. Make it something that is part of who you are, and something you can live with, and find balance around. You are stronger for it.
And you know what? You may slip. We’re humans. We backslide. And we have to let that be part of the process, and be kind to ourselves, but also disciplined. And expect the best. Want the most. Try to honor our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our relationships, and that spark of the sacred that is burning inside each of us.
I have named one of my own habits and temptations. But we all have them, and they can take many forms.
Challenge yourself, in the face of the old habit that might be slowly stealing away other aspects of your life. Do I need to invest more time in front of this screen, as riveting as these posts and search results seem and as tempting as that next clickable link would be, instead of doing something else like reading a book, spending time in conversation with a loved one, or going outside to do something more active? Do I need another bite of comfort food, as much as it might sound very consoling right now, rather than a glass of water or a walk? Do I need another hour of work, as simple as it would be to stay here and keep going on this project in which I’m involved, instead of putting down this labor and allowing myself to be more available? Do I need to sleep in for 27 more minutes, as cozy as it is under these covers in this bed, instead of waking up and moving? Do I need to use the car to run that errand, as quick as it would be to complete the task, when a walk downtown will take more time and use more energy and slow me down … maybe in a positive way?
When possible, our lives can be about letting go of want, and discovering how to fulfill need. Yoga. Fitness programs. Self-help education. Motivational classes. Many forms of physical-spiritual practice or faith lead us in this direction. Letting go. Desiring less. And conversely, having more.
The poet Linda Pastan wrote about this issue.
What We Want
What we want
is never simple.
We move among the things
we thought we wanted:
a face, a room, an open book
and these things bear our names–
now they want us.
But what we want appears
in dreams, wearing disguises.
We fall past,
holding out our arms
and in the morning
our arms ache.
We don’t remember the dream,
but the dream remembers us.
It is there all day
as an animal is there
under the table,
as the stars are there
even in full sun.
We are all full of goodness. And we all have passions and pastimes. Often we also have cravings or yearnings, some of which are good for us, and some of which can hurt us. There’s always a chance to shift the balance. It may not be easy. It may not be 100% consistent. But it’s possible. And it makes a difference, for ourselves and those with whom we seek connection.
Previously Published at Journeyz
All art work by artist Erin Hanson