"Something I’ve become very aware of recently is how often I say or think “I have to” or “I need to” when, actually, I don’t. You probably do this too. Almost everyone does. I’m thinking of things like:
I have to clean the kitchen this weekend.
I need to phone my mother.
I have to try a bit of that cake.
I need to lose weight.
In almost every case, it’s just not an accurate way to describe the situation. In particular, any time you start feeling that you have to or need to do something because it’s what society (/your friends/your dad/etc) expects, then it’s time to pause for thought. The truth is, there aren’t many things which we truly need to do. And if you’re want a life which is meaningful and fulfilling to you, then it’s better to focus on what you want to do.
We Don’t Need To Do Much: There are also sorts of things which we might feel we just have to do. Perhaps everyone we know does the same. Perhaps we’ve been taught from an early age that we “should” do certain things. I’d encourage you to pause a moment and think about anything where you feel you need to do something (even if you secretly hate having to). Maybe it’s visiting particular relatives. Maybe it’s your job. Or your degree. Or ironing. Or going out for a drink on Friday nights. The truth is, we need to do very little in order to survive. We need food, water and shelter, and (arguably) some level of social contact. All around the world, people live in vastly different cultures. And even within your city, within your street, people may be living very different lives from you.
Legal Requirements: Do we need to obey the law (as in “I need to wear a seatbelt”)? In the strict sense of “need”, we don’t, but I’d guess the consequences are such that most of us want to. Plus, you may well hold values which include not breaking the law– even laws which you personally may disagree with. Which leads me on to…
Do You Want To? I think that asking ourselves what we want to do is incredibly useful– and it surprises me how easy it is to ignore or brush off this question. Maybe you feel that what you want doesn’t matter… because society (or family, friends, etc) expect a certain set of behaviours from you, and you’re obliged to stick with those. In most cases where we grudgingly feel we “need” to do something, it’s because different wants are conflicting. Perhaps:
You want to be a dutiful son/daughter and visit your parents regularly, but you also want to have your weekends to yourself.
You want to eat dessert every day but you also want to lose 50lbs.
You want to have a great time shopping but you also want to save for the future.
You want to pay the mortgage but you also want to quit your job.
It’s tough when different wants conflict. Sometimes you might need to balance short-term pleasure with long-term fulfilment (like with dieting or getting out of debt). Sometimes you need to simply accept that there is a conflict there: perhaps you find visiting Aunty Agatha every month really boring, but the value which you place on family means you want to carry on doing so out of a sense of duty.
There might not be a perfect solution. But getting honest with yourself– about what you want to do, and why you want to– is a good start to working through a problem. It can also help you accept a particular situation in your life, rather than feeling anxious or angry about it.
What’s Important to You? Whatever you do with your life, there’ll be someone who heartily disagrees with you. If you make unusual choices, in the pursuit of your own meaning and purpose, then you’ll almost certainly get some criticism. But even if you try to live a blameless life, doing all the things which you feel you “should” do, you’ll find that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again. You get to live your life. No-one else has to. So what if someone doesn’t like your pink Mohawk? It’s your hair. So what if you want to read 18th century novels or knit or play the saxophone or read web comics? It’s your time. And so what if you decide to paint all your walls bright red? It’s your house. You get the picture. Other people’s comments and disapproval can be really hard to shrug off– I find this very tough myself. But ultimately, you’ve got to decide what matters to you, and build your life around what you really want to do.
This isn’t about pursing a hedonistic lifestyle. This is about figuring out the reasons behind something. Maybe you want to go to work because you enjoy having a regular paycheck. Maybe you want to lose weight because you’d love to be able to run around with your kids. And so on. Over the next few days, pay attention to any time you find yourself saying “I need to…” or “I have to…” or “I should…” and ask yourself Do I want to?"