The other day, my two-year old nephew provoked a collective laugh among his adult peers by declaring “I need a bit more cake Mummy!”, eyes wide open with desire. We laughed, of course, because though he may want more cake, he of course didn’t need it (although it was a bloody good cake, he’s got taste, what can I say?). I commented to my brother at the time that I hoped he never learned the difference between “want” and “need”, because it would make his life a lot less fun.
This little exchange got me thinking. At some point in our early lives, we are taught that wanting and needing things are different. You may want to stay up late, watch back-to-back episodes of First Dates, eat chocolate in your pants until you feel sick or drink six tequilas with your colleagues on a Tuesday night, but you don’t need it; no, what you need is often something completely different. This awkward tension between want and need is something that I had never acknowledged until recently. The problem is this: we are taught that what we want are the fun things, the out of reach things, the good-for-the-soul, bad-for-the-bank-balance things that often lead to negative outcomes: hangovers, morning after pills, heartbreaks and regrets. The needs, though, the needs, are much more virtuous, much easier to praise, much harder to force yourself into but much more likely to lead you to a positive set of outcomes: achievement, contentment, pride and fulfilment.
Striking a balance between these seemingly opposing forces presents quite the quagmire for any would-be hedonist, such as myself. In my early to mid-twenties, I prided myself on my don’t-give-a-fuck-about-the-consequences outlook. I’d drink the extra drink because it was fun, sleep with the guy I probably shouldn’t because why not? (at least it’d probably lead to a funny anecdote), stay out until 3am on a work night or eat unhealthy food without a second thought about exercise or my health. Then, one day, I woke up and I was 27, uhoh, I’d suddenly moved into the late twenties bracket, time to get my shit together. I got a boyfriend, who I decided I could marry, bought a flat, found a job that fulfilled me and took control of my health and wellbeing for the first time in my life. And they all lived happily ever after.
Not so fast. As I went careering off into the distance with my perfectly balanced and instagrammable life, I forgot to stop and think whether the situation I was in was the one that I wanted, or the one I needed. My relationship was a particularly difficult part of this. For so long I had wanted to find my One, my soulmate, the other half to my “unwhole” self. And when I met my ex and fell head over heels in love with him, I thought this is what I want! This is it. But somewhere along the line, I forgot that want can’t exist in isolation, and that understanding need is a fundamental part of what makes us adult. We both found this out in the hardest and most excruciating way possible, through the painful dissolution of the beautiful, loving relationship that we had built together, and the grief and suffering that came in its wake.
Pain, even at its rawest is there to teach us something, or so they say. As I approach the final few months of my twenties though, I’ve finally understood with far more nuance than my child self could possibly fathom, the difference between want and need. Beyond being simply something that is good for you or bad for you in the short term, it is about understanding how to recognise what nourishes you, what nurtures you and what builds you. Understanding and accepting this, I think, is the thing that separates adults from children. Because while you may want with every good intention, and every ounce of your being, for something to work, unfortunately, it is not always enough. And the only way to find peace within yourself is to start understanding your own needs and looking for ways to meet them, by starting to align what you want with what you need.
For me, step one on this journey was understanding that although I may not have wanted to confront my issues with my weight, I needed to, in order to regain a sense of control over myself and my destiny, and to unlock my inner potential. And accepting this and making peace with it has led me on a life-changing journey that has thrown me onto a totally different path.
If you can tune in with your own needs and start to make yourself want them, it’s an incredibly powerful thing. Because, it turns out that wanting what you need doesn’t make you boring, it makes you calm; it makes you happy, it makes you genuine and it makes you free.
So for those of you looking at your life at the moment and wondering why something doesn’t quite fit or feel right, tearing yourself apart with anxiety and not being able to understand why, you may find it useful to consider whether you’re doing something purely because you want to or because on a deeper level it is fulfilling a need. Training yourself to want what you need (ie. what is best for you both physically and mentally), I think is a crucial part of growing up, and one that everyone can achieve with a little work.
Although, in conclusion, I’ve decided that my nephew has it right, he definitely did need that cake.