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.

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