The Three Levels of Desire: Need, Want, and Hope

By Greg Baer M.D.

September 2, 2016

Joann called me to talk about how she had tried to use Real Love to help her adult son, Max, who was lost, wandering, and miserable. “I really WANT to help him,” she said.

“Listen to yourself carefully. Listen to the tone with which you say that you WANT to help him. When you really want to help him, and he doesn’t respond at all positively, do you feel disappointed?”

“Yes, I guess I do.”

“So although it’s entirely unconscious on your part, the truth is that you have an agenda here, an agenda for yourself. You WANT Max to trust YOU in his condition of weakness. You want the role of being indispensable to him. Do you see that?”

“I didn’t before, but yes, I do now.”

“And Max can FEEL the selfishness of your agenda. No blaming or criticism of you here, just a description of how things are.”

“I get it now. So what does NOT having a want look like?”

“Your answer indicates that you’re willing to learn, instead of arguing that you’re doing it for his own good. That is lovely. To answer your question, it's okay to have a genuine WANT if it’s for HIS benefit.

But the trap here is that when you want a good thing for him, it is so very easy for your own selfish desires to sneak in and take over. Your NEED for Max to get out of his pain will then blind you to whether your motivation is for him or for you.”

It can be helpful for many of us to understand three levels of desire:

First, let’s look at NEED as the most energetic and demanding form of desire. When we’re dying of thirst, we have a NEED for water. When we’re empty and afraid, our NEEDS are similarly insistent. Needs take over everything. We will manipulate, lie, steal, intimidate, and more in order to meet our need for less pain.

Expectations unavoidably accompany needs, and with that combination we can rationalize almost anything we do. Regrettably, this leads us to use unloving behaviors, and we are certain to experience enormous disappointments.

Second, WANTS. We can potentially want results in a healthy way. If I pay the clerk at the store the exact amount of the price of an item in my hand, it can be healthy for me to want—even expect—the transaction to happen with a relative lack of difficulty.

But we must be aware of the slippery and short slope between wants and needs, as illustrated by Joann. It’s also nearly effortless for our healthy wants to become selfish. In short, wanting can be healthy, but it’s often a difficult ball on which to balance.

Third, HOPE. Hope is a pure desire for something good.
Let’s imagine that I spend many hours talking, texting, emailing, and more with you. I love and teach you with all my heart. Do I need you to become happier as a result of my efforts? Ideally, no. It’s your life, and I don’t have a need to control you, even for “good” reasons.

Do I WANT you to be happier? Here’s where it can get slippery. If I want you to be happier after all my efforts, but you FAIL to become happier, there will tend to be a strong temptation for me to manipulate you in subtle, unconscious ways so that you will at least simulate happiness.

I’ll manipulate you in part for your good but also so I have the satisfaction of seeing my efforts “rewarded” in some way. As soon as my motivations are tainted with selfishness, the process of loving falls apart.

Moreover, if I want you to change, I presume that I know that this is the right TIME for you to change, but sometimes you’re simply not ready. In the latter case, I would be wanting what is impossible, and then manipulation, disappointment, and frustration are inevitable.

But is it acceptable to HOPE that you become happier? Of course, as long as the hope is pure. In fact, without some hope of helping you, why would I even bother to try loving and teaching you? Without some hope, I would devote my efforts elsewhere.

But if my hope is pure, and you fail to become happy, I will NOT experience disappointment. If you do become happier, I will also not become proud of myself. In short, hope is not tainted at all by ME, whereas wanting often is. Hope is a lovely motivation in the process of loving and teaching others.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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