You Can’t Always Get What You Want

You can’t always get what you want. It’s a simple sentiment, and most of us have found that it’s true. Of course that doesn’t change the fact that we want what we want – and some part of us thinks maybe, just maybe, it’s possible.

Thumbnail Mick JaggerWhat’s impossible – for me – is to read or hear those words and not think of the Rolling Stones!

I can’t get no… satisfaction…

As long as we’ve moved to Rolling Stones lyrics, let’s go with the flow for a minute. Somehow, in our culture, we seem to think we can – and should – get everything we want. Or most of it.

And what does that include? Pretty much everything and anything – satisfaction of our desires, whatever they may be. Financial hardship has chipped away at that belief for many recently, but recession aside, let’s think about personal wants and personal satisfaction.

Theoretically, it’s possible to achieve both, isn’t it?

Is the problem what we want? Is it our impatience? Our priorities?

And what about needs? Should we be shifting focus to what we need rather than what we want? Are we confusing wants and needs?

Can you distinguish wants versus needs

How often do you say “I need” and “I want” interchangeably? Can you distinguish between what you require and what you desire?

You know when you’re deprived of something truly necessary to your physiological well-being – food, water, shelter, heat – and to your sense of safety or security. Then there is the gray area (for me) of needs and wants that deal in both personal and social contexts, like recognition for your accomplishments, and the drive to achieve. For those who took Psychology in college, this is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I’m glossing over these principles (forgive me), but Maslow deals with human motivations – survival, socialization, and self actualization (self fulfillment).

Needs fall into the realm of psychology; it’s interesting that the issue of wants in the context of needs generally leads to a debate over economics or consumer behaviors.

For example, if handed a $100 bill, can you determine what you need (food, a coat) versus what you want (an iPod, sexy shoes)?

Similarly, in a gym full of hotties, can you distinguish between the need to continue to work out (for your health) and the desire to chat up the cute blonde who just hopped off the stair master, or the weight lifter toweling off next to you?

Wants are what we desire, not what we must have so as not to expire. So where does sex fit in? And what about romantic love?

Then you just might find you get what you need

In our witless world of internet dating, relationships that plunge off the edge of the earth, dismissive disappearances through texting and email, human beings still form attachments to others. Do we need those attachments, those feelings of belonging and love? I say yes, though I could also argue that we won’t die without them, which would indicate they are wants.

Categories aside – most of us want to be needed, and need to be wanted. That applies to sexual desire, as well as to who we are – the need or want to be seen, accepted, valued, loved. So, we arrive at the much sought after sex + love connection.  Are these the most natural (and necessary) of the wants? Certainly, the love biz (along with centuries of literary masterworks) reflects our human preoccupation with both.

Love hurts

Flash forward to contemporary life: you may find someone you love, and those three little words are not returned. Or you hear those words, and you wish you hadn’t. Your heart isn’t in the same place. Timing, chemistry, or logistics may be off. Whatever the elusive elixir of desire and commitment, it can’t be forced.

You can’t always get what you want.

Let’s face it. Love hurts, much of the time, particularly when you can’t get what you want. But perhaps it’s for the best. Friendship may take root where love wasn’t meant to be, or you realize your heart has expanded through the experience of loving, and you know yourself better as a result. Perhaps the future will offer something different that fits in a healthier way. Perhaps the future holds reconnection.

And so, after all, as the Rolling Stones remind us, you just might find… you get what you need.

When you look at yourself, what do you see?

  • Do you know your wants from your needs?
  • How has the equation changed with time?
  • What about your personal achievement goals – needs or wants?
  • Were there times when you didn’t get what you wanted, and were better off?
  • Must love hurt? Is it worth it, even if you can’t always get what you want?


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  1. says

    A direct continuation from a conversation last night. Interesting connection to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I had forgotten about this theory. It makes sense that if one is in a basic struggle to just survive and maintain a home, shelter, food for their children, it would be next to impossible to climb up to the next level towards self-actualization.

    This puts last night’s discussion into an understandable context for me.


  2. BigLittleWolf says

    Exactly. When you’re fighting for your survival (and that of your children), those needs take priority. It doesn’t mean you can’t still want, dream, feel – but you don’t have the full resources to do so in the same way as one who isn’t worried about the most fundamental needs.

  3. says

    One, I’m pretty confident that I can distinguish my wants from my needs, though it certainly wasn’t always this way. Ah, youth.

    Two, the equation changed when I pulled my head out of my ass (read: got unintentionally knocked up.)

    Three, personal achievement goals, wants, needs… Hmmm. It has taken me many, many years to even validate goals. Making them, keeping them, the need for them. It has taken me even longer to know what the hell I want to do in my life. This one is still a work in progress but I have to say that your achievement goals may be wants, but I think they are more needed than not.

    Four, Yes there were times when I didn’t get what I wanted and I think my entire existence, family and all, was better off. Long stories, though, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Five, MUST love hurt? I suppose it mustn’t. But I think more often than not it probably does. And it’s worth it. And it’s needed. So the hurt? I’m fine with it. You know, as long as I get what I want in the end.

    Deeeeep thoughts for the Super Slacker Sunday I am having. See? Keeping me on my toes over here Wolfie, keeping me ON MY TOES. OUCH.

  4. says

    I think this is such an important question and reminder: so often I hear people moaning about what they need when it’s clearly a want. Perspective seems shockingly easily lost. And, in truth, I think limits actually contribute to happiness – if we all got everything we wanted the getting would be meaningless, wouldn’t it? Life is about the limits and constraints, and finding ways to navigate them. At least that is my view.


  5. says

    My chère Wolfe,

    This will not be philosophical or esoteric, but I have an incredible urge to respond to your questions which are drawing me away from something super deadline important I’m supposed to be doing right-this-minute, but would rather do this. So…

    1.) Yes, I definitely know the difference between my wants and needs. No, I definitely didn’t always know the difference. I once thought everything I wanted was exactly what I needed.

    2.) Yes, as answered above, wants and needs have changed with time/age. I don’t really need anything and the things I want I think are completely reasonable, i.e. a plane ticket to visit my daughter; lose 10 pounds; write better; accomplish something I can’t tell you here and I’m sure other things that don’t come to mind.

    3.) I’m never satisfied with my professional achievements; on the other side of my life I am sometimes happy with what I’ve done. Actually never thought of setting personal goals, only professional. Hmmm, interesting. Do you think it’s too late? Oh, yes, the regime. . .

    4.) Must love hurt? No.

    You know, it’s exhausting the way you make us think like this.

    P.S: If I had been in your situation after my divorce and was legally bound to stay in the States; I would have done so. Paris could have waited. Remember, it will always be here for you.

  6. says

    I like this post. My wife and I always try to balance what we want and what we need (this of course includes kids). I am more inclined to be the want and my wife the need. It’s a good balance.

    I get caught up with my life… wooo is me crap. My wife does have to remind me that my life became our life, first when we got married then even more when he had our first kid.

    I will say it here… I NEED my family… the other stuff is a want… BUT I do WANT some of it badly!

  7. says

    This might sound odd, but I feel like I’m at a stage in my life when I’m having trouble articulating my wants. I know what I need, but, in the moments when I can pursue a want, I’m sometimes at a loss. I’m so accustomed to taking care of other people (mostly of the small and rotund variety) that I’m out of touch with taking care of myself.

    Not good.

    Thanks for this post. It’s made me think.

  8. says

    I love this post. As the mother to two young girls, I’ve been cooking up a lecture on Want vs. Need for quite some time. (It will never be polished because I do not know the answers myself.) But I think this is a fascinating question. And timeless. No matter our age or position in life, we want things and we also need them.
    I wrote a post about the question of wanting a while back – – and concluded that it is hard to get what we want because often we have no idea what it is that we want. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be finding a community (I recognize many of the names above) of people who are daring to ask these important questions.

    Yet again, a post with threads that are both practical and profound!

  9. says

    This was a great post to read at the end of this weekend. It can be difficult to distinguish needs vs. wants. I think we need companionship, but agree that it can take many shapes and forms.

    I’m taking a little comfort in your last statement: “Friendship may take root where love wasn’t meant to be, or you realize your heart has expanded through the experience of loving, and you know yourself better as a result. Perhaps the future will offer something different that fits in a healthier way. Perhaps the future holds reconnection.”

    I think of one particular person in my life when I read it (and I’ve read it a couple of times this evening.) I am hoping my heart has expanded – and I hope one day it is large enough to truly let someone in.

  10. says

    To be fair, we mistake needs for wants as well as the other way around.

    I’m sure that I need some time alone every day. I need to take time away from everyone – even the people I love – to be able to focus on myself. I think too many single parents (me included, in the beginning) believe that such time is a want instead of a need and continue to sacrifice until they’re ready to crawl up in a hole somewhere!

    And while I do believe that love is a need, I don’t believe that it has to come in the romantic form. The love I receive and give to my family and my friends fills my heart plenty.

  11. says

    I’ve been reading and re-reading all these wonderful responses, and visiting your blogs – those of you who have them. The thoughtfulness. The openness. The growing community. It’s remarkable.

    Oddly, the WordPress magic pulled in related posts, including my very first – – I hadn’t looked at it a long time. It was very rambling, no pictures, formatted a bit differently – and all about wants and needs. About whether or not this kind of writing would feel nourishing to me.

    For all of you – again – thank you. It is. Extraordinarily nourishing. You’ve given me that.

  12. says

    It’s funny. I normally hear of wants and needs only relating to toys and material things. You’ve tied it to relationships. People, I think, have different levels of need in their relationships. Some people go crazy without a lot of people needing them. In those cases I would say it’s not a question that relationships are a need and not a want. But, some people, only moderately need other people, and only when they don’t get any at all do you see signs of stress. In those cases the need is almost not there. Nevertheless, I agree that all people, to some degree or another, need other people. Not like toys though that we never ever need and are only accompanied by different levels of want.

  13. Foolish Woman says

    I thought it a strange coincidence to have read this so soon after another weekend of major, serious discussions with my husband.

    It’s certainly got me thinking about whether some of my needs are actually wants and if I’m being unreasonable in expecting him to meet those.

    It’s also reminded me that the retail therapy in which I’ve been indulging is a pointless and shamefully wasteful exercise and isn’t making me feel any better about myself in the long term.

    As young marrieds we didn’t have two pennies to rub together. We did without the things we couldn’t afford – which actually weren’t essential to having fun. I’d say we were better off then in almost every way. As my grandmother used to say … money doesn’t bring you happiness.

    Then she’d add … but at least you can be miserable in comfort. That’s where I’d say I am right now.

    Must love hurt? It’s always going to have the potential to cause hurt; the downside of loving someone is that you give them your heart to do with what they wish.

    Is it worth it? Oh yes.

    Definitely better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

  14. says

    Interesting philosophical question. I think if you answer from a psychological point of view, you’ll just keep going round and round. If you move to the spiritual realm, a lot of this falls away. Sure, we need to eat, sleep, etc. to keep our bodies alive. But in the end, if you can’t afford an ipod, can’t work another 80 hour week, can ask that hottie at the gym out – isn’t it enough to be present and experience the joy of being, whatever you are doing?

  15. says

    I can survive any personal deprivation and postponement of my personal needs/wants/ambitions as long as I never eat cold mashed potatoes.

    You know the scene – in A Christmas Story, the boy narrates, “My mother hasn’t had a hot meal in fifteen years.”

    As long as I don’t every have to eat cold mashed potatoes, I know I have drawn a line in the name of me as Woman before Mother and all is not lost.

  16. says

    Oh, this post is going to make my head hurt if I really try to answer it thoughtfully…
    I neeed that new plasma TV!
    I neeed a bigger home. I neeed a new car.
    I neeed that debt like a hole in the head.

    Due to the fallout of a nasty divorce several years back (they are all nasty aren’t they?) I pretty much know how to distinguish between wants and needs. I have had to feed my family of 5 (four children and me) on less than $300 a month just to get bills paid (I got socked with ALL the marital debt), keep a roof over my head and gas in the car so I could get to work.

    What I don’t need is all the stuff. I am also learning… I don’t need all the credit. What I do need beyond the very basics of food, clothing, shelter is a network of people around me who love and care for me and I in return.

    In the last three years I’ve been completely reduced to the essentials. I know that worrying about the essentials being there creates real stress and can filter and possibly even change our perspectives on love, what we want, etc. I know during my dark night of the soul I really couldn’t even think about romance, really, and when I tried it soured, because I was so unhappy and stressed about the rest of my life.

    Sometimes, we don’t always get what we need either and that’s when we can really begin to do some serious personal growth or dieting! LOL!

  17. Nicki says

    BLW – wonderful thoughts. As you know, I have been a bit preoccupied with the needs of a child (I do find it hard to call a 19 year old a child but there I did). I knew of this entry but just now am getting to reading it.

    Wants and needs are ever changing with our circumstances and our growth in life. I have come to find that many times things – whether companionship or material – that were once wants do turn into needs. I have also seen the opposite with time. Definite needs at one point in time have become wants with changing circumstances.

    My personal achievement goals are so different than there were when I was single or a married mom. I even have found they have changed as my responsibilities have changed with the growing age of my family.

    Love does tend to hurt. I do not think it needs to but I will, as I am sure some song somewhere says, gladly put up with the pain for the joy that comes with or before it. I think that the pain, at times, does open our hearts more. It allows us to experience in a new way and makes us more able to cope with what is coming.

    Sorry, rather disjointed words this morning but, boy, you made me think as I had discussed some of this post with a friend before even reading it.

  18. BigLittleWolf says

    It doesn’t sound odd at all. There are a number of years (a number) that I refer to as a “blur” – two babies close in succession, full time work, house, traveling spouse – thank goodness I took photos during those years, or I’m not sure I’d remember them. (Says the bleary-eyed mother just back from an hour of driving windy roads in the dark, to take a teen to a study session…)

    I think there are periods in our lives – for many reasons – when we’re wrapped up in so many other things, including caring for little ones, that we don’t even think to ask what we want – or need. We go “mechanical” for awhile. Is that a good thing? Not so good? I’m not sure. I think it depends on your circumstances. But at some point, you come up for air and focus on your needs and wants, both.

  19. BigLittleWolf says

    This is such a good point. When we earn things, when they aren’t so easy to attain, we appreciate them more. It’s the premise we teach our children. You’re quite right that there are always some limits and constraints (we need to figure out which limits we can or should push, and which constraints are of our own making).

    I guess, as in many circumstances, it’s a matter of degree. We seem to learn most from a combination of “wins” and “losses.” Getting what we want, and not.

  20. BigLittleWolf says

    I totally understand. But I’m working on a possible cure for the bad mood (my own? the collective bad mood?)… give me a few more minutes, then pop back. It is startling news of a rare and highly infectious… ummm… syndrome?

  21. BigLittleWolf says

    OMG. First you propose, then you make me spit out my… uh… flan. (So much more chic than what I was really eating. Just to keep the romance alive.)


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