Balancing “need” vs “want”

Stories of COVID-19
9 min readAug 24, 2020

And why it can be so tiring.

Sometimes, doing the right thing can be exhausting. The time it takes to hesitate long enough to sort out the consequences — mentally fumbling through what you know vs what you think you know, second-guessing yourself, fighting your intuition as the temptation to just give up comes in strong — can be incredibly draining.

And that’s just the mental side of things.

The physical act of actually doing the work is a whole other ball game, especially when we have all these other responsibilities in our personal lives we need to take care of. And when we feel like we’re at the end of our ropes, we will act and react in ways we aren’t proud of because we don’t have the energy or the wherewithal to do or say the right thing. Hopefully, this teaches us how to have grace, but sometimes, even that seems exhausting.

What I’m learning to balance is what I need vs what I want.

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, what we need and what we want are one and the same. But it seems that even more of the time, need and want are two things on very distant ends of the spectrum. All the reasons to do what we want typically come in loud and compelling, while all the reasons to do what we need sound tiresome and unmanageable.

Do I want to quit my job, team, or relationship because I’m faced with a challenge I’m struggling with, or because I’m somewhere I’m not meant to be? Am I refraining from doing yardwork or other chores because I’m legitimately tired, or because my brain (a not-always-trustworthy ally) wants an excuse to relax? Relaxation is enticing, it feels good, it’s always going to sound like the better choice. Especially during the pandemic, when we’re so strung out that any excuse to distract from our hardships is tempting. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice.

It’s strange, but I’ve been noticing that self-care seems to have gotten so commercialized that it’s become more an engagement with self-indulgence than an act of self-love.

We’ve been sold this idea of “individualism” for so many decades, that by the time we’ve hit the pandemic, self-care is being extorted and used as a reason not to engage with our higher purpose.

Don’t get me wrong, I know how tiring it can be to do what we know to be right all the time, and sometimes you just want to give in and do the thing you know you shouldn’t. Or you want to not do the thing you know you should. Especially now, we tend to use whatever excuses are necessary to help us feel better about getting out of certain responsibilities.

Sometimes, the excuse is simple: “Because pandemic.”

Of course, we are in a totally unprecedented time in our lives, let alone history, and indulging ourselves in whatever we need in order to cope is perfectly acceptable. The problem only comes when we start using the pandemic as justification to engage with something we know isn’t healthy for us, but we want permission to do anyway.

I catch myself rationalizing unhealthy habits with the pandemic all the time, and it takes constant attention on my own motivations to be able to spot the difference between “I want” vs “I need.”

Other times, we shift the blame for our mistakes onto something more palatable, more digestible. Something that isn’t the real culprit, but is easy enough to accuse.

Back when bars were still a thing, I used to stay out until 1 or 2am with friends fairly regularly. It was easy to do — I was with amazing people that kept me laughing all night long, and I was living in, and exploring, the wonders of downtown Seattle for the first time.

Reasonable, right?

Except that the next morning I would be too tired or too hungover to write, and so I would have to push my production back a day. Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but when it happens again… and again… and again… there comes a point when you have to be honest with yourself about where your priorities lie. As much as I would claim that writing was my priority, my actions said otherwise.

Then, rather than accept the fact that it was my fault I wasn’t writing because I was staying out too late, I would instead blame it on my sister plunking around the apartment too loudly in the morning and waking me up, or the construction going on outside at 9am. I would complain and deflect.

And we do this kind of thing all the time, don’t we?

We blame our lack of boundaries and unwillingness to own our problems on social media, or on a relationship that’s not working, or on a job that takes up too much of our time.

It’s understandable, of course, but it doesn’t make it right. (Or any easier on ourselves.)

I mean, let’s be honest. It’s hard work to grow ourselves — to face trauma, mistakes, and challenges in order to bring us into the healing network of our own power. It’s complicated, messy, and often requires a good deal of dedication, courage, and vulnerability. It also often requires stepping into and charting new territory, which can involve our egos interceding and trying to tell us a very particular (often scary) story about what might happen if we try.

Our egos know that the more awakened we become and the more work we do, the less the ego is needed, and so it will use whatever resources it has (such as relaxation) to convince us to go back to metaphorical sleep. In some sense, unconsciously it can even become a fear of success — of actually achieving our higher purpose and activating our highest potential.

In his book The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield describes it as this:

“We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove worthy of them.”

Ie, our actions must line up with our words. That in itself is daunting, because it means holding ourselves accountable to all of the biggest dreams we may have had for ourselves, such that we might — just maybe — achieve them.

He goes on to say the following:

“This is the most terrifying prospect… because it ejects [us] at one go from all the tribal inclusions [our] psyche is wired for and has been for fifty million years. We fear discovery that we are more than we think we are.” If/when this happens, we also then fear we might “wind up alone, in the cold void of starry space, with nothing and no one to hold onto.”

But we must remember that we’re not alone.

“We’re tapped into an unquenchable, undetectable, inexhaustible source of wisdom, consciousness, and companionship. Yeah, we lose friends. But we find friends too, in places we never thought to look. And they’re better and truer friends. And we’re better and truer to them.”

When we are most fulfilled, when we’re in true alignment with our highest purpose, that’s when doing what’s right for us is no longer exhausting.

It might still be hard, but it won’t deplete us the way it used to. When we’re in tune with ourselves, when we know how to listen and respond, to deeply trust ourselves, the scary things become less scary; the right things less hard.

Likewise, when we’re out of alignment with our deepest and truest selves, when we don’t give ourselves what we need, it will feel like everything is exhausting; everything is difficult. Obstacles will pop up left and right, and it will feel like nothing is going our way.

Only you can know your own limits. No one can pour from an empty well, and no matter how well-intentioned your actions or how much you want to help, if you don’t consistently attend to your own needs, your desire for Good (whether for yourself or others) will never outlast your body’s own limitations.

We have to be honest with ourselves as to what we can and can’t do, what we need, and what our constraints are — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

We also have to be honest with ourselves as to when we’re making excuses to do the easy thing just because we “don’t want to” do what’s right.

At that point, I often find myself looking to outside sources for permission to indulge myself, even as my intuition is screaming at me to reconsider.

But when you listen to the advice of fools, you will do foolish things. If you have to ask ten different people for input before finding one who finally tells you what you want to hear — that’s a pretty good sign you’re just looking for approval to do what your heart’s telling you you shouldn’t. Trust me when I say it’s so much easier (and you’ll have so much less regret) if you just follow the wisdom of your gut, rather than having to learn from your mistakes.

The other day, my partner was looking to make dinner with me (we hadn’t spent a lot of time together recently), just as I’d been ready to go downstairs and watch a show alone. I stood in the middle of the kitchen, wine glass in hand, my body itching to go downstairs as my brain was making a very strong argument for why I should be allowed to do what I’d planned: “I’m too tired, I don’t want to stand around and cook, I just want to take this glass of wine and go downstairs and watch a show, and it should be okay for me to do that because I’ve been writing all day and maybe I’m feeling introverted and we can always spend time together later.”

See how many justifications I tried to give myself there? Yikes. Using my introversion as an excuse was an especially lowball technique because I knew it would be an extremely easy thing to latch onto and validate. At the same time, when I analyzed what I was truly feeling and forced myself to be honest, I wasn’t that tired, and I wasn’t feeling that introverted. They were merely truths that had worked in the past when I did need alone time, and I wanted to use them now when I wanted alone time.

But the truth was, I also wanted to make my partner happy, and in a relationship, you can’t always do what you want all the time. I suppose that’s what they mean by sacrifice, even in something simple like this.

I pictured my going downstairs (which I knew he wouldn’t stop if I told him it was what I wanted), and then him cooking up in the kitchen, alone and disappointed. I realized I was engaging with my self-indulgence, rather than self-care, and willing to give up a potentially great date night because of it. That was the risk, and, weighing it, decidedly not one I was willing to take.

Ultimately, my empathy won over, and I forced myself to stay in the kitchen (keeping this little dialogue in my head for the moment), and cooked with my human. I had just finished chopping up a green pepper and moved onto an onion when I checked in with my body to realize I was actually thoroughly enjoying myself. It was crazy. Literally 5 minutes before that, my brain had conditioned my body to desire alone time and had done everything it could to justify my want of it, such that it took far too much willpower than was reasonable to break away from it. My ego did its best to control me, and it was incredibly convincing — like, scarily compelling — but, eventually, I won.

It was an interesting lesson for me, that no matter how strongly we try to tell ourselves that we should do the easy thing, sometimes when we just start engaging with what we know is “right,” all the obstacles just fall away.

At point likes this, I try to remember another thing that Stephen Pressfield writes:

“Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find who we already are and become it.”

Finding “who we are” is a consistent journey of self-rediscovery — of shrugging off all the untruths we’ve allowed others to define us by in order to embrace the beauty that has always been with us. Sometimes, that will be hard too, but few good things in life come without risk — and they make the reward that much sweeter in the end.

Just remember to be honest with yourself. Check in with your body and your desires, your wants and your needs. Listen for the call of your higher purpose, and engage in acts of self-love more than self-indulgence. Watch Netflix and play video games just as much as you play an instrument or take pictures of flowers or go on hikes. Find pleasure in the small things, like cooking meals with a loved one, or writing a letter to a friend, and spend time doing things that fill you up rather than drain you. Who you are deep within will always know the right thing to do. All you have to do is listen, and then do that thing for you, and no one else.



Stories of COVID-19

My name’s Julia. I’m a writer, and these are my COVID-19 weekly letters of encouragement.