Letting Go of Imaginary Needs

Find a deeper sense of joy from reconnecting to what matters

Children aren’t weighed down by pressure to impress, prepare, or perform. They simply live, keeping their needs few and their joys many. (Jacob Lund/Shutterstock)
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By Mike Donghia

Live simply, like a child.

An infant needs very little to be happy. Clothes, food, love, and a place to explore, that’s it.

They have so few needs. And yet they’re so happy. Or when they’re not happy, it’s usually because one of their few needs is not being met.

As these toddlers grow up, their needs multiply faster than the hairs on their head.

But many of these needs are made up.

We invent them to address fears, insecurities, and worries about the future.

Worst of all, these needs are insatiable. We buy more stuff, but don’t come any closer to satisfaction. We invest more of our precious time but end up further from the destination. We work harder to find happiness, but instead, we carry an enormous burden.

Sadly, most people can’t recognize imaginary needs in their own life. The sheer number and influence of these ‘needs’ make them appear so real. They weave their way into our subconscious and shape the way we see the world.

Take a close, hard look. Have any of these imaginary needs become a part of your life?

  • the need to keep busy
  • the need to please everyone
  • the need to be entertained constantly
  • the need to stay current with news and trends
  • the need to buy gifts for everyone, on every special occasion
  • the need to hoard money and possessions to feel secure
  • the need to be involved in every single activity
  • the need to be the center of attention
  • the need to be perfect or the best
  • the need to have all the answers
  • the need to control the future
  • the need to impress others
  • the need to be right

Letting go isn’t easy; it can be painful, humbling, and even scary. Our habits, both positive and negative, are comforting to us. They provide a source of predictability in a chaotic, confusing world.

But letting go is awesomely liberating. Like a child on the last day of school, you’ll be light as a feather, happy, and free to do whatever excites you. Children aren’t weighed down by pressure to impress, prepare, or perform. They simply live, keeping their needs few and their joys many.

A short but useful guide to letting go of imaginary needs:

Simplify your routines

The default for all of us is to keep adding more and more to our lives. We’re constantly searching for that one thing to fill a void we are feeling in a particular moment or season. And so our list of things that we “need” to do each day becomes longer and more complicated.

To simplify, start by creating a simple morning and evening routine. Include only what is absolutely needed or good for your soul.

Strip away the nonessential

Now, as you go throughout your day, pay attention to where your mental energy is going. Make a list of all the things that you do and think about. It might take a few days or even a week to gather a full list.

Now take that list and recreate it in two columns. Things that are truly necessary and good in one column, and things that are nonessential or distracting from what is good in another. Now try living a week with only what you wrote down in the first column.

Sit with your boredom

If you attempt this new way of living, you will inevitably find more time on your hands, time that you used to spend on distraction, worry, or some other invented need. You will inevitably feel a bit of boredom. This will feel scary and uncomfortable, but it’s a normal part of the adaptation process.

Just like when you first start exercising after a long break, your body feels awkward and uncomfortable and it’s hard to imagine doing this to yourself every day. But if you stick with it, you will eventually enjoy it again.

Sit with your emotions

On top of boredom, you will likely feel other difficult emotions. I’m telling you this so you won’t be surprised. Nothing is wrong. You shouldn’t throw in the towel, because the other side of this transformation is worth it. You’ve likely been using imaginary needs to fill voids in your life or hide from these difficult emotions or important but difficult personal work. In a sense, we are ripping off a bandage that was obstructing healing.

Allow your ‘tastes’ to adjust

Imagine you’ve been living on a high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar fast-food diet, and someone tells you to start eating more healthy and hands you a high-fiber sandwich full of veggies and avocado. That sandwich may be delicious to some, but for you, the change sounds impossible—and it probably is.

Your tastes are accustomed to a diet of foods that are unnaturally stimulating and perfectly optimized for pleasure. Even a satisfying and delicious balanced diet would taste bland at first. But believe me, there’s hope.

You can adjust and develop new tastes way faster than you can imagine. Once you’ve stripped out the junk food (in our case, imaginary needs) and given your taste buds (and brain) a chance to readjust, you’ll eventually find contentment and enjoyment in your life. In fact, you’ll likely find an even deeper sense of both.

Fill your life with what matters

Now for the fun part. With your life simplified and not overwhelmed by imaginary needs, you are able to find pleasure and enjoyment in life’s simple pleasures again. You don’t need the high stimulation that you get from distraction or worry or attention or daydreaming to get you through life. You can fill it with what is truly meaningful and important: relationships, faith, meaningful work, good food, and play.

This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home.

Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.

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