Positively Wyrd – 7: Wants and needs

What do you want? What do you want out of life? What do you want now? Do you know?

If you do, you’re doing well…

And what do you need right now? Do you recognise any difference between wants and needs?

If you do, you’re doing well…

Most of us live in what is known as a consumer-society. The whole point of such a society is to encourage us to consume – consume food, resources, time, anything – as much as possible. The more we consume, the more we are considered to be successful: the true mark of success is ‘conspicuous consumption’. Everywhere we go, and in almost everything we see, there’s another message of ‘consume! consume!’: whatever we want, we ought to have it, we should have it. If we have enough money, of course. Otherwise, we can want all we like, but we can’t have it – whether we need it or not.

It’s a weird way to run a world… but it’s the one that we have, so we’d best find a way to deal with it!

What do you want?

It’s not easy to make a distinction between want and need: from what we learn in this culture, they seem at first to be the same. But it is important to us to be able to use the two terms to describe different expressions of the power we’re reclaiming from within us.

Wants and needs are different. Yet both are somehow undefinable: it’s difficult to pin either term down. We can see that they have different priorities – need usually seems more important than want, somehow – but it’s confused, confusing. And to add to the confusion, the two words have become part of the weaponry in the old game of power-under that we saw earlier: “I need this, whereas you only want that, so I should have priority over you…”

“I don’t care what you want, I need you to do this!” How often has someone said that to you? And how often have you said it to someone else?

Think of some examples. What was the distinction between ‘want’ and ‘need’? And how much was the power-under game being played in each case?

The dictionary isn’t much help, either: according to one, need is ‘that which is necessary’, whilst want is ‘something needed’… About the only distinction given is that need ‘arises from the facts and circumstances of the case’, whereas a want is more ‘something the absence of which is not desired’ – an odd way of putting it. With all the confusion, it’s probably best to invent an arbitrary distinction of our own: so we might say that ‘a want is the outward expression of an inner need‘. And whilst the needs themselves come from a variety of levels within us – needs of the body, the heart, the mind, the soul – they’re all expressed outwardly as things or actions that we want.

We need food, shelter; we need to love and be loved; we need things to make sense, to have meaning; we need to have purpose and a sense of fullness. These are all real needs: to survive, we somehow have to service them. If we don’t, we die – or at best we exist rather than live. An unserviced need comes back again and again: it demands our attention. And that demand for attention is expressed outwardly as an ever-changing stream of wants.

But if I don’t know my inner world enough to know what the true need is, I’ll have no way of understanding what my wants are about. All I know is that I want this; then I want that; then I want something else – with no connection, with no apparent rhyme or reason.

There always is a connection between the inner need, and what we find ourselves wanting: but it’s often neither obvious nor literal. Instead, it usually comes through the weird dream-like form of metaphor. For example, my child-like self, for a moment, needs mothering: and to me it might be expressed, in metaphor, as a desire for the sweet taste of mother’s milk. But since I fail to grasp that it is a metaphor, I take the message literally, and find myself wanting something sweet and sugary and liquid – a can of Coke, for example. Which doesn’t service my underlying need, of course…

These unserviced needs easily and quickly become unconscious habits – ones that are anything but easy to recognise or to stop. When I’m lonely, for example, I tend to go out shopping – looking for some external ‘thing’ as a token to prop up my sense of self. Or if I’m depressed, for example, or avoiding doing some boring task – ‘wanting Mummy to do it for me’, in other words – I start eating. A compulsion to eat, and eat… food as a metaphor for sweetness, as a metaphor for mothering!

Do you recognise within you any compulsive habits of this kind? Can you see the metaphor – different for each of us – that points to the actual need in any of them?

These too-literal habits don’t satisfy my inner needs, though they do service the underlying drive of the consumer-society… because the message comes back again and again from that inner need, until the next transitory need comes by. All I can see is the outward form: I want, I want, I want… a sense of being driven, out of control, addicted…

We all want more money

These habits become the compulsive substitute for servicing a need – each habit backed by all the force the commercial world can bring to bear on it. As soon as we find ourselves wanting something – in other words responding to a present need – all the old unsatisfied ones pop up again and get in the way. In the clamour and confusion, the present need is unlikely to be satisfied, since it will almost certainly be given something it doesn’t actually need – which then leads, of course, to another want. Under these circumstances, it’s hard work to bring any habit under conscious direction. It always seems much easier to rely on some external factor to discipline the wants – and we then complain, of course, that it does so!

In the consumer society, the primary limiting factor is money. We always want more money: ask anyone what they want most, and it’s likely the first answer you’ll be given is ‘money’. “If only I could win the lottery, I’d…” Sadly, it doesn’t work: in our culture it’s all too true that needs do arise from the absence of money – ‘a want is something the absence of which is not desired’ – but the presence of money, by itself, rarely solves anything at all. ‘More money’ doesn’t serve our true inner needs, but just gets swallowed up in more and more wants – the same pointless process as before, but on a larger scale.

In principle, every monetary transaction could be replaced by the phrase “What do you need?” – a simple process of trust, of honesty. But only in principle – it seems highly unlikely in practice!

But why? What are the fears that prevent us from reaching that level of simplicity? Can you recognise some of those fears within yourself? Look for a while at the distortions that a money-based economy creates: for example, that the closer we get to tangible work, the less we get paid – the extreme of which is the unpaid work of parents… can this really be said to make sense?

Look around you, at the reality of this black joke we live in: the old communard slogan, “From each according to ability, to each according to their need”, has become twisted by a world-full of ‘between-takers’ – the literal meaning of ‘entrepreneur’ – into the cynical “From each according to facility, to each according to their greed”… It’s clear that no-one, individually, is to blame, yet it seems there’s no other way to do things: like it or not, we’re all tied in to supporting this mess. And even if we want to opt out, we can’t: we’re trapped in it – “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…”

But we’ve heard that before: the answer would seem, then, to be to look at the whole in the bucket, to look inside, through the threads of wyrd, to reach a saner connection with the whole.

What do you need?

Within the culture in which we live, we’re trapped by our wants: whatever we have, we’ll always want more. As in the power-under game, our own energy gets turned against us, re-woven into a web that enmeshes us all. And as in that game, we break free not by fighting against it, but going deeper into it – deeper into ourselves, to find our own part of the game.

We want something; money seems to allow us to get it. So we all want more money – but what do we want it for? What’s the underlying need? Could we serve those needs without this never-ending stream of material things? Remember that what we seem to want is often a metaphor of what we need – especially if the need itself is of the heart, the mind, the soul. So when we find ourselves in a new compulsive habit, it usually means that we’re failing to grasp what we’re being told from within: if so, it’s time to look a little deeper, into the threads of wyrd within us.

Talking this through with a friend, she admitted to owning a sizeable collection of negligées – not one of which she’d ever worn. “I keep on buying them”, she said. “I know it’s because I want someone to tell me I look beautiful, and sexy, and exciting. But they never have – perhaps because I’ve never had the nerve to wear one…!” We all need to be loved, admired: but often the need is better served by loving and admiring ourselves, rather than by rushing from shop to shop, trying to find something that money can’t buy…

If you find yourself wanting something compulsively – a new car, for example – look closer at the need behind it. What does the car represent – a need for recognition, perhaps? Look deeper: look into the weird twists through which your true needs make themselves known.

When we want something, it’s an outward expression of an inner need. When the need is physical, there is usually little difficulty in connecting need, want and action: if I’m hungry, I look for food. I eat. No problem. But we have other needs too: and that’s where the problems start.

Consider all those different needs: not just of the body, but the desires of the heart, the will, the passion of the soul. Think about the many ways they combine: body and mind as the need for recognition; body and heart in the need for touch, for pleasure; mind and soul, in the need for validation, for meaning, the sense that “I’ve done something useful with my life”. These are all needs. They are part of us all; on the threads of wyrd, they pass through us all.

The problem is that to a large extent we can express these needs only as outward wants, as things we can act on – something in the physical, tangible, shared reality. We can’t act on a metaphor: I can’t eat my words, though I’ve often tried… A metaphor has to be deciphered, translated into appropriate action. If we don’t decipher it correctly, we get into a crazy loop of cravings, doing the wrong thing again and again. If I’m lonely, I eat, and eat, and eat, because I’m hungry for company; someone else might not eat at all, though, because their metaphor is that they’re starving for company. And as the old song goes, “Money can’t buy me love”… certainly not on my income, at any rate!

What do you want from me?

The real problem is that we’re used to relying on others to service our needs. Again, we learned this as children – partly because, as children, we had no choice in the matter. We had to have support then, or die: a child, perhaps even an adolescent, cannot really care for itself, let alone a baby. But it takes a deep awareness to be able to support another person’s needs, even those of a child.

The simple, literal, physical needs of food, warmth, shelter, most people can manage to supply; but beyond that, at the deeper levels of emotion, mind, spirit – especially emotion – it’s a sad fact that few people can cope. I remember seeing an American report, for example, that said something like 90% of all US families could be considered toxic, in the sense of being inadequately supportive, or even outright destructive, at the emotional level. In this culture, most people have too many troubles and emotional needs of their own, to be able to support even a baby fully – let alone anyone else. We rarely get what we need: in fact, if we’re not careful, we end up – even as children – living to service other people’s wants.

For me, there’s a painful personal example: setting myself up as scapegoat at school, from childhood right through to adolescence. Well, the other children wanted someone on whom to take out their frustration, didn’t they? For whatever reason, it seemed natural for me to take on that rôle: but I’ve been learning how to recover from it ever since… And the main reason I was sent to that school, I’m told, is because my grandfather demanded of my parents that ‘your children should follow the family tradition’…

Many parents act out their wants by trying to live vicariously through their children. A son is told that he must ‘follow in his father’s footsteps’; a daughter is forced into a career she doesn’t want in order to ‘raise the family status’ – or perhaps prevented from going to college “because you ought to be a good wife and mother”. You wouldn’t be offered a choice in the matter – you’d be told you must want it, you should want it, it’s ‘expected of you’.

Did this happen to you? Is your career or life-path one that you chose, or was it chosen for you? Is it what you want – or what someone else wanted, what someone else taught you to want? And is it what you want now?

We end up being focused outward – either trying to live for others, through others, or both. And often with no idea of our own needs at all. This just doesn’t work: other people aren’t necessarily very good, or even capable, of servicing our needs, and often don’t know what they want, either. Yet in many senses it’s dangerous not to know what we truly want – dangerous for everyone concerned!

Some needs always seem to have to be focused outward. The quest for love, for example, is what gets us most into all this mess. We all need to be loved. As children we have to look to others for love – even though they’re rarely much good at giving it… When that love we need is not forthcoming, we devise all sorts of methods to gain a little bit of attention instead – “Look at me, Daddy, I’m here!” (or “Look, Mummy, I’ve fallen downstairs”…) – in the hope that it might attract some love.

It doesn’t work. Love comes in the moment, from the heart… it can’t be given on demand. But attention – physical action – can: and demands no emotional commitment from the giver. So attention becomes confused with love – an unsuccessful substitute for love, since attention alone doesn’t service the need. Yet in time the childhood habit sticks – we cry out for attention whenever we feel a need to be loved.

In many countries you’ll see what one friend sarcastically refers to as “pick-up trucks with hormone trouble” – small utility trucks with big tyres, big sound systems, expensive paint jobs… That desperate need to show off… Look closer, and you can see the thought behind it: “Look at me! Look at me! If the girls notice my truck, they might notice me, and perhaps I can make them love me… But I have to get in there before everyone else… So look at my car… look at me!”

What do you do to get attention – particularly in relationships? Does it actually get you what you want? Or does it only, by the usual weird twists, get you the wrong kind of attention?

Another habit to unlearn… About the only way to do that is to break free from the senses-taker and watch closely – watch how we act, watch to see whether what we get back is what we truly want.

And just in the process of watching, things change. By being conscious about our choices, about what we do – but without appearing to change them – the results change. On their own, apparently. It’s weird, but that’s the way it works… just watch, watch…

What do you need from you?

If we rely on others to give us what we need, we’re trapped: being dependent on others makes us an easy mark for the power-under game. But in a sense, if we rely on others, we cannot afford to let them be free either: we have to trap them, to tie them to us so they’ll always be there to give us what we need – or what we think we need. Our neediness drives us into ‘co-dependent’ relationships, where each party is acting out the other’s expectations: and that can include all kinds of abuse if attention has become confused with the love we crave. All too often, as John Bradshaw put it, we don’t have relationships, we take hostages…

That’s behaviour we’ve carried over from childhood. But as adults we do have the option to no longer rely on others: we can learn to give ourselves what we need. Since we cannot rely on others to love us – it’s not that they won’t do so, but that they can’t – we have to learn to love ourselves.

We can use the twisted sense of wyrd to help in this: whatever I’m asking others for, especially at an emotional level, is likely to be a reflection of some way I’m not loving myself. For example, if I find myself angrily thinking “I need more respect from others”, what I’m actually saying is that I don’t respect myself – which is probably why they don’t respect me!

Do you recognise how this happens in your life? Try turning these thoughts round in an affirmation – “I, _, now truly respect myself and my abilities”, for example, or “The more I, _, respect myself, the more others respect me” – and watch how the resistances come up, showing how you’ve learnt not to love yourself! How do you turn these resistances round?

This isn’t easy. And often it hurts… Giving to others is easy; taking is even easier, since what you’re doing is giving the absence of something in return to what you’ve been given. But giving to ourselves means not giving out, but giving in – a form of surrender. And that’s risky… frightening…

It’d be so much easier if we could always get others to give us what we need – but it doesn’t work. We can’t rely on it: and when we need love, for example, we need it. Since the only person who’ll always be with me is me, the only person I can rely on loving me is me. Accepting myself, loving the whole of who and what I am – “I am what I am!” – gives me freedom of choice, gives me the power to be me. It gives me the choice to be independent, yet interdependent, as and how I choose.

But don’t expect others to like it! If we’ve been caught up in a relationship with family, partner or business colleagues, that’s co-dependent – and in this culture most are to some extent – they are not going to want us to break free. They need us to be dependent, so they can depend on us: they dare not let us have any choice in the matter. For a while, we’re likely to find every weapon in the power-under game being thrown at us: we’ll be accused of cruelty, treachery – “How could you do this just when we need you?” – selfishness, stupidity and almost anything we’d care not to name. It can hurt, and hurt a lot, but wait it out: use it as an excuse to look deeper into what we need, rather than what others want from us. Take it, perhaps, as the wyrd’s way of showing us that we’re on the right track in finding our own path through its web?

“I’m a substitute for another guy…”

Much of this weird behaviour comes from the fact that we’re usually trying to borrow other people to substitute for old unsatisfied needs. Time after time, for example, I’ll find I’m relating to some man not as himself but as a ‘Daddy-substitute’ – which at some level he’ll know, and won’t be pleased about at all… But we all do it: as one writer put it, it’s as though we’re running around with great armfuls of masks and costumes, asking every passing stranger “Put this on for me! I want to see if it fits!” – with each mask or costume representing the expected supplier of some old and probably long-forgotten need. It’s usually unconscious, but it’s there, all the time. Again, a weird way of running a world…

What’s embarrassing is that so many of these needs are amazingly trivial. A need for approval, for an ego boost to get over self-doubt, in some minor incident in early childhood: “Daddy, look at me!” But Daddy didn’t look – for perfectly good reasons! – and I’ve been looking for approval ever since, from every person I can hand the ‘Daddy’ mask-and-costume set to… asking them to be ‘a substitute for another guy’, as the old Who song puts it. Crazy! But there are hundreds or thousands of these old ‘lost wants’: and all of them firmly rammed down into the unconscious layer precisely because they’re so ‘silly’.

Perhaps it’s traceable back to that “Oh damn the child – Chris’s got it right again!”: but after all these years I still seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get approval from others for my ideas. If they don’t even respond, I can be depressed for days. I know it’s silly, I know it shouldn’t affect me: but it does. Every time…

Do you recognise a repeated pattern like this of your own? Does it seem childish, silly? What do you do about it – pretend it’s not there, for example?

Silly or not, they’re still very firmly there – and they crawl out of the woodwork, demanding my energy and attention, every time I want anything now. And there’s often no way I can get the person I originally wanted to service them to do so: I’m many years older, and many of the people concerned are either dead or thousands of miles away. Yet if I can trace back to the original need and consciously satisfy it – consciously provide a substitute – the pressure, the driving urgency, just evaporates. Gone. It’s an amazing sense of relief…

It’s also not easy, because of our old friend, the silliness-barrier. Finding a conscious substitute for an old childhood want often means consciously being childish – which is usually one of the things we most fear. Giving out is easy, taking is even easier; but receiving, especially from ourselves, means giving in. Surrender. And that’s not easy at all. But that’s often what we most need to do. Learn to play again…

In this bewretchedly serious world, when did you last allow yourself to be childlike? To skip down the street? Build a sandcastle? Read a children’s story? Curl up with a teddy-bear – your own teddy-bear?

If you haven’t done so for a long while, do it. Face the silliness-barrier, and do it anyway. Treat playing as a kind of affirmation, giving the play as a conscious gift to the child within you – and as with affirmations, watch your resistance to letting go! What happens? What memories and resistances come up?

Most of us need a safe space, or safe company, with whom to let go. Being with children is often the most popular excuse. Think of the absurd things people say to babies – how many other times will you hear serious adults talking absolute nonsense in public! But it’s easy for this to become a new way of trapping others into living for us – remember the infamous “it’s a model train set for my son, honest…”? Instead, we do it consciously, as a way of giving to ourselves – then if others want to join in, that’s fine.

It’s interesting – weird – to see how others do want to join in… but someone has to take the risk, and be the first to play. It does take courage – none of is any too keen to be thought of as weird in the wrong sense…

Another weirdness is that while the “wear this mask for me” substitute game creates all sorts of problems when it’s unconscious, it’s quite a different matter when it’s done consciously, with awareness.

Many forms of therapy are based on this experience – especially as they provide a safe space for doing so. By exchanging masks – often literally a mask – deliberately with someone else, we not only get a chance to uncover and release old needs, but also to see who the other person truly is, behind the masks we give them.

For most work like this you need a partner, and usually some direction; but some you can do on your own, with yourself as your partner. Make or buy a few masks, showing different characters – there’s a
beautiful Victorian set available at the moment, for example. Try some on: pick out one that seems to be you at the moment. Look at yourself in this mask in the mirror. What does this character – this you – want from you? What do you want from the person behind this mask? What do you feel? What memories of old needs does this bring up?

Consciously using – rather than unconsciously abusing – other people as ‘substitutes’ to release old needs can be an enlivening and empowering experience for everyone concerned: one that really can ease the confusion, and get closer to the aim of a better world for us all.

Take aim…

Wants hit us in the moment – and as far as possible it helps to respond to them in the moment. (If we try to push them away – “not now!” – they have a nasty tendency to hang around forever, as another hard-to-get-rid-of habit.) But it’s also important to build some kind of clear longer-term aim: “It’s dangerous not to know what you truly want…”. By now we can recognise that externally-defined aims like ‘more money’, ‘a bigger car’ – or even ‘a better partner’ – are unlikely to be useful: we can’t rely on others, or things external, to give us what we need. An aim has to be centred, grounded, in who we are.

A comment: “What is your aim in life?” is rarely an easy question to answer – most of us spend our lives trying to find out! But do you have any sense of direction, any pointers – especially once you detach from aims given to you by others? What would you choose? And how would you know you’re on the right track?

Once again the nature of wyrd complicates the issue: there’s always a choice, but there’s always a twist. Whatever track we think we’re taking, it always twists and turns. Very often we find that a step that fits the logic of what we’re doing doesn’t work; whilst an apparently backward step turns out to be the best thing we could do. It’s never easy to make sense of it.

But perhaps it’s best not to try to make it make sense. It doesn’t: so don’t worry. What we can do is work by the feel of it: act, follow what seem to be our needs, our wants – and then see what we get, see what the wyrd gives us. What it gives us is what we actually ask for, not what we think we ask for: it’s up to us to notice the difference, and change what we ask for accordingly. It’s a strange juggling act…

When our wants and needs mis-align – such as when we’ve interpreted a need’s metaphor too literally – we get stuck in childishness. We run around looking for attention – overgrown children in fancy dress or fancy cars – when what we really need is love. Especially self-love, self-acceptance: and that’s hard, because once again it requires us to give in, to surrender to ourselves, without needing to rely on anyone else at all.

There’s a magic moment, a real sense of power, when all our needs align: body, heart, mind and soul, all leading to action. It works: in that moment, there’s no doubt about it. But it requires that we respond in the moment, responding in a way that is not childish but childlike, trusting that whatever we want in that moment is right. And to get there we have to reach past the silliness barrier, past the social ostracism that would describe us as ‘weird’, and move to a state of ‘fool-hardi-ness’ that is not out of control, but somehow beyond the need for control – a different state entirely.

But that childlike-yet-not-childish state is in some ways the opposite of the casual ease of the child. It demands from us vast resources of courage, of fearlessness, of self-awareness – simply to let go. In reaching to reclaim our own power, releasing our need to control may be the hardest lesson yet.

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