Need, Want, Or Should?
Pay attention… and end up leaner.
Why are you eating?
It’s a simple question that’s often difficult to answer. The next time you move to eat, pause for a moment to ask yourself:
What’s really driving this choice?
Is this action serving a need, a want, or a should?
- A need to eat satisfies biological hunger
- A want to eat satisfies a psychological craving or appetite (e.g., an emotional desire for food)
- A should eat follows an external guideline (e.g., meal times, specific macro or calorie targets, or other social expectations)
It can be difficult to separate need from want or should. Often, the physical hunger and fullness signals of needing to eat can get drowned out by “noise”.
For example, noise can be in the form of:
- What we think.
“It’s 1 PM. I guess I should eat, even though I’m not hungry. After all, it’s lunch time.”
- What we feel.
“What an awful day. I deserve a treat!”
- What’s around us.
“Mmmm, that bakery smells soooo good!”
- What other people think or want.
“Grandma will be mad at me if I don’t have some of her fruitcake!”
It’s not your fault—that “eat now!” noise can be loud and demanding.
When you can’t turn off the noise, often the best you can do is tune in to something else.
To dial down the noise, focus on tuning in to the meaningful signals.
Pause to notice and name. Try to get specific about the situation.
What messages are telling you that you need to, want to, or should eat? Are they thoughts or felt body sensations?
Studying the difference between need, want, and should
The clues to understanding what’s driving you are in the form of a felt sense of body signals: physical, emotional, and thought sensations.
What’s your experience made of right now?
- What are you feeling physically? (e.g., shaky, lightheaded, tense, etc., especially through hormonal shifts)
- What are you feeling emotionally? (e.g., happy, cranky, rushed)
- What and how are you thinking? (e.g., thinking on a continuum, with self-compassion, settled vs racing thoughts)
What are the circumstances that are creating that experience for you?
- What are you doing with your body? (e.g., your posture, movement and breath)
- What’s in your immediate environment? (e.g., visuals, sounds, smells, foods, people, or lights; are you outdoors or indoors?)
- Who’s in your environment? (e.g., how do certain people change your experience?)
- What time pressures are you feeling?
- What relationship pressures are you feeling?
- What responsibility pressures are you feeling?
First, try to observe objectively without changing or fixing anything.
These are reactions that happen primarily outside of conscious awareness. The sooner you become aware of the sensations, the more sense they’ll start to make. As you dial-in to the source of those sensations, the clearer you’ll understand deeper motivations and the differences between need, want, and should. Each has different sets of sensations.
Awareness leads to understanding, leads to changing.
A story of how it works
Below is a client story of how this method can work.
My biggest lesson has been the art of the pause, or noticing and naming. I had been following healthy habits, eating well, working out. Then I went to the movie theatre. Despite my pre-movie pep talk, I found myself in the concession line. Even as I was standing there, I kept repeating “You don’t want this, you don’t want this.”
Fast forward 20 minutes, and I’m eating the popcorn. I felt lousy, physically and mentally. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what drove the entire experience. Chalk it up to habituated response.
A few months later, I went to another movie. I had the same feelings of apprehension going into the theatre. I told myself to just enjoy the smell of the popcorn in the lobby. Let it sink in. So I did.
As I breathed the stuff in, I noticed a strange feeling in the pit of my belly. I can only describe it as the feeling of need—the need to be loved, the need to be comforted, the need to feel secure.
Hmmm… all this from the smell of popcorn?
By pausing and really noticing what was going on in my head, in my body and in my emotions I was able to see the need behind the need. I was able to sit with that weird mix of emotions and I was able to see clearly that this was a need that movie popcorn could truly never fulfill.
Write In Your Journal
Today, pay attention to all the internal and external cues you notice.