The Danger Of The Word “Need”

photo by Omar MK

[In this series we examine the importance of the words we use and how changing our vocabulary can change our mind, thereby giving us opportunity for transformation. More articles can be found in this series @ Tools: Words]

Because of my training in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), I listen very closely to the words that people use. My clients find this skill very useful because it is helpful in finding the logical errors in their speech which, in turn, helps us to find root causes of core issues. My friends, on the other hand, simply find it annoying (kind of like the verbal grammar police).

One of the words that I always focus-in on is the word “need”. Very rarely when we use the word “need” do we mean “need”.

Recently Leo Babauta wrote very elegantly on the topic of need on his blog Minimalist in the article Letting Go of Fake Needs:

Our lives are filled with things we need to do. Until we look a little more closely at those needs.

Think about what needs you might have: the need to check your email every 15 minutes, or empty your inbox, or read all your blogs, or keep something perfectly neat, or dress to work in the latest fashions. The need to constantly badger your kids about things, or control your co-workers, or meet with everyone who wants a meeting, or be wealthier and wealthier, or own a nice car.

Where do these types of needs come from? They’re completely made up.

Sometimes the needs are created by society: the industry you’re in requires you to work until 9 p.m. or dress in impeccable suits. Your neighborhood has certain standards and if you don’t have an impeccable lawn and two BMWs in the driveway, you’ll be judged. If you don’t have the latest iPhone, you won’t have your geek cred or status symbol, and you’ll be jealous of those who do.

Sometimes the needs are made up by ourselves: we feel the urge to check our emails or RSS feeds or news websites or text messages or Twitter accounts constantly, even though there is no negative societal or work consequences if we don’t keep up with them. We want a perfectly made up bed even if no one else cares. We want to create a list of goals in life or for the year and achieve every one of them, even if nothing bad will happen if we don’t achieve most of them.

This article clearly points out one of the ways we use the word “need” inaccurately. Most of the time when we use the word “need” we mean “really want.”

The problem with the word “need” isn’t a problem of communication with others. When you say, “I need a cup of coffee,” I don’t think you need coffee to live the same way you need oxygen to live. I know you are really saying, “I would really, really like a cup of coffee and the quality of my life will improve in the short term with a cup of coffee.”

The real problem with the word “need” is a problem of communication with ourselves. When we say we need something our system responds by trying to fill that desire as if it were an absolute.

If we take the body’s need for oxygen as an extreme example, we can quickly see how this can cause problems. When the body is without oxygen it will do anything it can to get it. Try to prevent your body from getting oxygen. No matter how hard you try you can’t prevent your system from trying to get oxygen.

Even if you go under water to prevent getting oxygen, at a certain point the system is going to force your mouth open in an attempt to get what it needs. Obviously, in the example of being under water it is not going to work, as you will suck water into your lungs. Even with the conscious knowledge that opening your mouth under water to get oxygen is not only going to not give you oxygen, but will be harmful to your health, your system’s real need forces you to do it.

Our subconscious mind is very literal. It doesn’t understand nuance. It doesn’t understand the difference between “need” and “really, really want.” Each time we speak a desire we are giving a command to our system.

  • “I need coffee to get going in the morning.”
  • “I need to get this done before I move forward.”
  • “I need to get rid of this debt before I can start a long term relationship.”

With each of these statements you are creating a contract with yourself that part of your system is going to want to live up to. I am not saying that the entire system is going to spend all of its resources to live-up to these contracts the same way the system seeks oxygen, but it is going to strive to fulfill this named need.

Here is how the system responds to these simple statements.

  • I am going to spend part of my time and attention on finding coffee regardless what task is in front of me. AND, I am not going to believe I am not happy and ready for the day without coffee.
  • I am going to ignore any and all opportunities that present themselves for me to move towards my goals until I get everything done I feel I need to get done.
  • I am not going to start dating and sabotage any and every relationship until I get rid of this debt.

In all three examples there is a kernel of truth. A small caffeine boost can be helpful to start the day, being distracted by future projects can hinder us from getting done what needs to be done, and it is good to start a long-term relationship without a lot of personal debt.

I know you consciously understand these statements are not truly absolute terms.

The system doesn’t notice these subtleties and this is where the problems begin.

To solve this problem all you need to do is pay attention to what you are saying. Every time you use the word “need,” transform the statement into a more accurate statement.

  • Most mornings I feel a lot better after my first cup of coffee. Today I have a feeling I will feel better after having some coffee.
  • It is really important that I don’t get too wrapped-up in future projects while I still have tasks to get done.
  • It would be really nice to start my next long-term relationship without a huge amount of debt hanging over my head.

Those changes seem very small, but they make a big difference in the way we respond to our day.

If this is something you sometimes struggle with, here is a way you can use Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)/tapping to respond:

I say the phrase “I need” a lot . . . in most cases I don’t really mean that I need something . . . but instead I really want something . . . I know there is a difference between these two ideas . . . but sometimes my system doesn’t know the difference . . . there are going to be times in the future where I will say “I need” when what I really mean is “I want” . . . that is okay . . . right now my goal is just to be more observant of my speech . . . when I say “I need” I am going to take a minute to rephrase what I mean . . . by saying what I really mean . . . as I start to see the way I use the word “need” I am going to get better and better about what I am saying . . . as I start to describe my wants better . . . then I am going to set myself up for success . . . it is okay that I said “I need” too much in the past . . . now is the time to be more accurate with what I say . . . as I change this it will make moving forward easier and easier.

Stop Self Sabotage NOW!

The biggest obstacle to our success is ourselves. We know what we want and often we know exactly what action we need to take… but we remain stuck. Here is an easy way to use tapping to stop self-sabotage now!


  1. hans says


    The nice/relaxing thoughts about ‘need’ gave me suddenly a lot of rest sitting here behind my PC and thinking about the things ‘to be done’ today.


  2. says

    Really great article. My children use to say, “I’m hungry”, “I’m tired”, and “I’m bored”, and I would introduce myself to them, “nice to meet you bored!” After a while, they caught on and then started saying “I feel bored”, or “I feel hungry”…at which point I started asking them, “What are you going to do about it?” This is just a variation of what you are talking about. I like how you integrated EFT into this process, very unique! Thanks!

  3. Russ says

    Hi Gene,
    Another great article.
    I agree that the word “need” is used far too much.
    I find that “needs” only exist in relationship to outcomes.
    “I want to drive my car. I need fuel if I am going to drive my car.”
    “I want to get paid. I need to go to work if I am going to get paid.”
    “I want to survive. I need oxygen if I am going to survive.”
    These are simple if/than needs that are pretty self evident.
    The problem comes in when we use the word “need” in a way that limits ourselves.
    ” I want to be accepted. I need to hide my emotions if I am going to get accepted.”
    “I want to honor my father. I need to limit how much money I make so that I don’t show him up.”
    “I want to be safe. I need to stay inside my comfort zone if I am going to be safe.”
    In each one of these examples I have set up the needs as the only way to get what I want.
    Once I can see them as just being one possibility out of many I can make other choices to get the same results for what I want.
    I see some needs as being valid. I DO need fuel if I want to drive my car.
    Most of the other ones I see as limitations coming from our old beliefs.
    Want=I want to be accepted by others.
    Belief=Others will not accept my emotions.
    Need=I need to hide my emotions to get accepted.
    Once I can change my belief that others will not accept my emotions the need to hide my emotions goes away.
    Time for some tapping. ;o)
    Thank you for what you do Gene.

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