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Needs, Wants, Desires and Ambitions

Needs, wants, desires and ambitions

Therapists need to know what a client needs, wants, desires and has ambitions to achieve. So what are the differences between these words? To a great extent it is a personal opinion. For example one person may say they NEED to be sexually desirable, whereas another may say they simply WANT to be (and for others it may not be relevant at all).

Perhaps needs and wants can be seen on a continuum; with a need being a more pressing requirement than a want. There are certain things that simply are needed in life, eg food, water, air, shelter, and others that are clearly wants, eg a Ferrari rather than a Ford. A desire may be seen as a more intense want, and is often not something that is seen as being as achievable as a want. The word desire is also often used to describe something that we think we shouldn’t have.

Both want and desire can be in contrast to need e.g. an obese person wants or desires a hamburger and chips but does not need them – indeed needs not to have them. Nevertheless, etymologically, ‘want’ is closer to ‘need’.

To want for food is simply to need it in a sense in which to desire it is not. ”What do we want – work! When do we want it – now!”: this means want and need. And when Jane Austen wrote of a rich man in want of a wife she meant that he needed one whether he realised it or not.

‘Desire’ can be more aspirational and longer term – eg. Harry Kane might say: “I want England to win the World Cup but I desire to be a successful footballer.”

An ambition is usually some way in the future, and may or may not be perceived as achievable. It is also the only one of these words that is usually about the self. We can want, need or desire things predominantly involving others, but ambitions are usually owned. The exception is that one can be ambitious for one’s children or partner, but it doesn’t really work for anyone less close. Using football again, anyone can say they want England to win (unless they are Scottish in which case I believe that statement would result in banishment), but unless a person is involved in the outcome, they cannot say that it is their ambition.

Let’s look at some examples of statements that clients may say:

·       I need a bar of chocolate at 3pm every day. This may be perceived as a need, based on a habit, but rationally it is illogical. It cannot be a need, but it may also not be a want. The client may want to stop this need.

·       I need to make an extra £5000 a year to meet my bill now that the new baby is here. The correct statement here would be that he needs a way to break even (or better). Making an extra £5000 is just one way to meet the real need.

·       I want to work fewer hours; I am close to burn-out. Perhaps this client is really saying I need to find a way to avoid burn-out

·       I want to get this promotion. The crucial element here is how much does she want this? Is it a vague want or more of a real desire? What about it does she want?

·       I have always desired beautiful women. This example of the use of the word desire may (or may not) suggest something that has the shouldn’t attached, or perhaps something that is problematic.

·       It is my ambition to build a see-through dam. This was an ambition stated by a student of Civil Engineering. He had no idea how this could be achieved (and his coach couldn’t help him on that one!), so it was very much in the future, and little more than a dream.

·       My ambition is to get my handicap down to single figures this year. This use is more akin to a want or desire, and was in this case clearly achievable (he was then on 12). However the use of the word shows a determination that the use of the word want may not have

It is worth noting that tone is very important when determining the exact meaning of what you client says in this context. The tone will show where on a continuum of passion, commitment and determination they are: but sometimes this can be used as a form of subtle deception, so beware!

Abraham Maslow developed a Hierarchy of Needs. His idea was that the lower levels of the pyramid needed to be fulfilled before a person would be concerned with the higher levels. However, we see this as a useful guide only. People vary on what is important, and, for example there will be people who strive for creativity before they concern themselves with mastery.


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