Demanding: Turning wants into needs

You have your preferences - I have mine. We would all like the world to be a certain way. If we just left it at that, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, though, we often go beyond wanting. We turn desires into needs. Preferences become musts, and guidelines become unbending rules. This process of turning wants into need is called demanding.

What Is Demanding?

Demanding is a way of thinking - with two variations: ‘moralising’ and ‘musturbation’:

  • Moralising refers to the way humans turn guidelines (which may be perfectly reasonable and helpful) into absolute requirements. When we say that something ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to be a certain way, it implies that there is a ‘Law of the Universe’ which humans should never fail to observe. Moralising often leads to people-rating: when we or others do not behave as we ‘ought to’, this means we are bad, immoral or evil people.

  • Musturbation is taking a want or desire and turning it into an absolute need or must. We think that because we want to be liked, therefore we must be liked; or because we want to avoid pain, therefore we must avoid it at all costs. Catastrophising usually goes along with musts - we believe that it would be awful or intolerable if our ‘needs’ were not met.

Demands are exaggerated preferences

Rules and wants are an everyday fact of life. They can be helpful or unhelpful. A particular ‘rule for living’ may be relevant to our current circumstances - or it may be out of date. A want can be achievable, or impossible. Whether or not our rules and wants are appropriate, though, they are unlikely to do us any harm if we hold them as preferences.

The problem is, we often inflate our preferences into needs. Because we want the world to be a certain way, it should be so. If we desire something, then we must have it. This is the heart of demanding - the exaggeration of a preference into a necessity.

What demanding costs

In real life, things often are different to how we would like them to be. By turning our wants into demands, we set ourselves up to be frustrated by reality. In fact, demanding is the underlying cause of many human problems.

Take anxiety. We often catastrophise about what will happen if a need is not met or a rule is broken. We get anxious by demanding rigid standards - especially when we think we might feel guilty or put ourselves down if we do not match up. Performance demands can make us so uptight, our achievement level drops. Men become sexually impotent, perfectionists set themselves up for failure.

Demanding can lead to obsessive or compulsive behaviours - reading a boring book right through, finishing a meal when already full, over-checking the locks at night to ensure security, washing one’s hands all the time to avoid infection, vacuuming the house twice a day, and the like. People often keep on with things that are not in their interests because they think they have no choice.

Demanding is the main cause of hostile anger. We get angry when our ‘needs’ are not met, or when people do not behave as we think they ‘should’. We can direct this anger onto ourselves, too, and become depressed.

Because shoulds conflict with wants, we can find it hard to make decisions, ask others for what we want or act on our own wishes. We might do things we dislike out of a sense of duty, but still feel frustrated or resentful.

If we think that we need love, sex, attention, consideration and affection, our demands can turn people off. We can also get resentful or jealous when others do not behave as they ‘ought to’, or when they treat us ‘unfairly’.

Why do human beings demand?

Given that demanding is so unhelpful, why do we do it? To begin with, we are taught to. From our earliest days we are surrounded by shoulds and should nots. Most people communicate with others in these terms.

Demanding may serve subconscious purposes. It can be a convenient way to justify our wants. John, for instance, found it easier to tell himself and others that he ‘needed’ sex - rather than just admit he wanted it. This also enabled him to put pressure on his wife: ‘I need it so you should give it to me.’ It’s tempting to deny responsibility for our own wants and demand that others give to us because they ‘should’ or it’s their ‘duty’.

Demanding is a way to avoid thinking. Instead of working out for ourselves why we might want things to be a certain way, it’s simpler to fall back on: ‘It should be that way.’ We can also use this to push our values on to other people without having to justify them. You cannot argue with a law of the universe.

Demanding may arise from fear. As we saw in the previous chapter, human beings desire physical and emotional comfort. This is fine if we just prefer it. Unfortunately, though, we often tell ourselves that discomfort is awful and intolerable; so, to avoid it, certain things must or must not happen. In effect, we are afraid of our own feelings.

Many people believe that demanding helps motivate them. They use self-talk like: ‘I should get up earlier in the morning’; ‘I must get that project finished tonight’; or ‘I have to make a good job,’ thinking that this will help them get moving. The trouble is, it often has the opposite effect. It’s as though one part of you says ‘I should do this,’ but another part says: ‘I will not be bossed around!’ As a result, you resist your own should. Trying to motivate other people with demands often has the same effect - it turns them off.

From demands to preferences

You do not need the pain that demanding creates. There is a solution. The first step is to understand what are needs and what are not.

While there are many things we might want, there are, in reality, few things that are absolute necessities. We need air, food, clothing and shelter. We do not ‘need’ success, love, approval, or friends - no matter how much we may want them. Our lives will be better if we have these things, but we can survive without.

You do not have to give up your values

To get rid of your demands does not mean giving up what is important to you. Hold onto your ideas and values - but hold them as preferences.

Stop moralising about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Take a more practical approach. Focus on the results of rules, behaviours, or decisions. Ask yourself questions like the following:

  • Is this behaviour/rule helpful or unhelpful - and in what ways?
  • Will it advance or hinder me in achieving my goals?
  • Does it create emotions I can handle? Or does it leave me distressed and immobilised?
  • Does it promote my own and other’s aims and survival? Or does it lead me to act in harmful ways?
  • Does this belief help me keep in touch with the real world? Or does it contain misinterpretations, catastrophising, demands, or self/other-ratings?
  • Is it flexible - does it allow for exceptions when appropriate?

We are not suggesting an attitude of anarchy or ‘I don't care.’ Guidelines are important. To check out those you took on as a child, and review them as circumstances change, is to show respect for the importance of guiding principles in your life.

Also, a flexible, preferring philosophy is not a self-centred one. It is in your own long-term interests to consider the goals, wants, and concerns of other people (in other words, their preferences) along with your own.

A helpful value is one you have chosen to adopt. It serves some useful purposes. It helps you and others achieve what is important to you both. Above all, it’s a preference rather than a must.


Holding preferences instead of demands means accepting yourself, others, and the world around you.

People often misunderstand the idea of acceptance. They think that to accept something means one has to agree with it and give up trying to change it.

But that is not what it means at all. To accept something is to recognise two things: (a) that it exists, and (b) that there is no universal law which says it should not exist. You may not like it. You might want to do something to change it (and perhaps plan to). But you avoid demanding that it not be as it is.

This is important for several reasons. First, if you tell yourself that something should not be the way it is, you are really saying that reality should not exist! Have you ever heard, for instance, people say: ‘You cannot do that’ about something which someone has already done?

Second, it’s helpful to say that you do not like something and would prefer to change it. This can motivate you to take action. But demanding a reality not exist is more likely to create disabling feelings such as despair or hostile anger.

Finally, if you avoid hurting yourself over current realities, you will be better equipped to start changing them.

Getting Demands Back To Preferences

Get those ‘musts’ back into perspective. Here are some examples of demands turned into preferences:



I need to feel good and avoid physical or emotional pain at all times.

I’d prefer to feel good and avoid pain, but demanding this will guarantee that I get uptight!

Everything I do must be to a high standard.

High standards are desirable - but not always essential. Making them into musts will only get me anxious (and, probably, inhibit my performance).

Difficulties and handicaps should not exist.

Difficulties and handicaps do exist. Demanding will not make them go away. Better to change them, if possible - otherwise learn to live with them.

I must have love and approval from everyone who is significant to me.

Love and approval are good to have. But they are not essential to my survival. As I will not always get them, better I learn to depend less on them.

If you want something badly enough, then it’s a need.

The ‘need’ exists in my head. If I believe it, though, I will upset myself when my ‘need’ is not met.

Other people must always behave in a correct and right fashion for life to be bearable.

In real life, people do not always behave correctly. There is no reason they should - though many reasons I’d prefer them to.

My circumstances must always be right for me to be happy.

My circumstances are not always going to suit me. Better to change what I can, otherwise accept what I cannot.

Other helpful resources

Links within this programme: Accepting reality