Dissecting the Urge

What makes us want?

This is the philosophical question that is rumbling around in my head this morning.

It is in no small part inspired by the zebra dress experiment from a few weeks ago. Also, from having just done a clothing exchange with a friend, in which I gave her a few things that I knew I wasn’t going to wear again and she gave me a few things that she knew she would never wear again.

How was it, sitting in the midst of her discarded items, that I was able to paw through them and then know what I wanted and what I didn’t? How did she know, when she looked at my little stash of clothes that I loved but knew I wouldn’t wear again, what it was that she would like to have come live with her?

Les goûts et les couleurs

In French there is an expression that says “Les goûts et les couleurs, ça ne se discute pas.” I learned this expression from my mother-in-law, whose conflict avoidance skills are genuinely top-notch. The woman missed her calling as a diplomat.

I digress. The expression literally means Taste and color are not to be discussed.”

I know, right? I’m fine with not talking about taste. But color? I have a friend, Géraldine, a graphic designer, with whom I have had very long, involved conversations about the specific name for a nuance of one particular shade of blue-green.

My friend Genevieve and I message each other to celebrate the Pantone color(s) of the year.

I still have hard copies of articles about specific color trends from magazines I haven’t read in twenty years. When I need to calm down, I go on Pinterest and search for color palettes and look for one that meets my mood, then disappear into it.

For me, if a person can talk color at my level, this person has knowledge and experience I am interested in. And moreover, I want this person to be my friend. Forever. So the idea that taste and color are not to be discussed was one that shocked nineteen year old me.

However, my mother-in-law, I learned later, was not really saying that we shouldn’t talk about color. Her expression, which she used when I first met her twenty-four years ago and had an extremely literal understanding of French, is one that is used when two people disagree on whether or not something is good (usually food).

It wasn’t until much much later that I realized that the word goût, that is, “taste” in that sentence did not actually mean taste, as in food. But as in taste. In general. Our proclivity to like one thing more more than another.

So apparently, the expression means, “to each his own.” (Because, why do simple when you can do complicated, right?)

To each his own…but why!!?

I still can’t let this alone. I really can’t. It would be nice to just let everyone like what they like. But I can’t do that. Not today, not with this strange little philosophical question rooting around in the depths of my brain.

A while back, I wrote a treatise on Maslow and his extraordinarily boring hierarchy of needs. Without doing any actual research about why we want (because I am in a theory-making mood), I am going to start by hanging my hat on this very boring idea: each human has fundamental needs that are, for many of us, and particularly if you are reading this article, most of you and me, met without much difficulty.

The problem is that because our physical, body-level needs are met, most everything else, including our wants and desires and urges happen in our head, or in that far more difficult-to-define place, our heart.

Wanting is an urge

In my struggles and sundry attempts to overcome binge eating, I have come across the idea of the “reptile brain” and the “higher brain.” The urge to binge eat (which, incidentally, is not unrelated to my buddy Maslow) comes from the reptile brain, that primitive pleasure center of the brain that says “I want” and, quite often, “I want now.”

Even when our needs are met, we can find ourselves tossed about by our wants. Our wants become urges, and our urges are what get us into trouble. I mean, I have plenty of clothes. Plenty of clothes. Yet I still wanted that zebra dress. I have plenty to eat a mealtimes, yet I still can binge like a hyena who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.

So what makes us want? It is that reptile brain, the urge center of our brain.


There is no easy solution to overcome the urge for having more than we need, or for eating more than we need.

This life we live, with the abundance of stuff, the temptation of convenience and unavoidable and near-constant exposition to marketing seems absolutely geared towards tickling our reptile brain, keeping it constantly at the alert for its next fix.

Our reptile brain doesn’t actually care about designer water or a purple silk blouse. It just likes to stay relevant. It wants to stay alive by expressing its opinion on things that literally don’t matter because all our needs are met..

Self-discipline is the only solution and self-discipline absolutely stinks (says the woman who has sworn to buy no clothes this year, in an admission I will make at least this once, if not one hundred more times by the time this year is over.)

Staying away from stores is one option to not tickle the reptile brain. Not looking at social media, where those stupid cockroachlike algorithms know me like the back of their hand, would be another. Wearing blinders to not see billboards. Never touching another newspaper or magazine for as long as I live.

But even these strict measures will never be enough.

Self-discipline is incredibly difficult to maintain without accountability. Accountability is difficult to maintain without community.

So…what is the solution for combatting our “reptile brain” urges? I am going to suggest that the solution lies in our ability to find an individual person or create a tribe of people who can support us as we wrestle with our urges.

Being part of a like-minded community is key. Having one dedicated accountability partner is key. Unfortunately, both of these solutions require something that nothing in our modern life has prepared us to develop: Humility.

Humility to accept that we cannot combat our weakness on our own. Humility to admit we need help.

In the end, while in French “Color and taste are not to be discussed,” may I humbly suggest that for those of us who struggle with our urges, perhaps they not only should be discussed, they must be discussed.

Finding your tribe

Although I hate Facebook, I will admit that there are a lot of good things there. Notably, there is probably a group out there to provide encouragement for you in just about area you struggle in. You need to test the waters first before you get involved: watch the kind of questions and more importantly, the kind of answers people give. If you need encouragement, you need encouragement, not constructive criticism.

These anonymous-ish Facebook groups are great for that, and if you are patient and determined enough, you can find some support.

There are other ways, too. It so happened that, as I sought a way to stop binge-eating, I found a group of ladies who struggled with host of food issues. I found their authenticity and honest helpful as I tried to get a leg up on my own problems.

The thing is, these are sort of anonymous. So, while they are helpful, they are not going to have the same impact as one person with whom you share accountability. Accountability one-on-one is scary. But it is the most sure-firest way to make progress.

Think about those areas where you struggle to control your urges. Sometimes, sharing our struggles with one other person can open the door to a whole new dimension of friendship.

So…what makes us want?

I don’t have a perfectly satisfactory answer to that question. Les goûts et les couleurs…somethings resonate more deeply within us than others.

But I do know that not everything we want is good for us, and very often those things that we want that aren’t good for us don’t even pass through our conscious, present, thoughtful brain…they pass directly to our impulse brain. The self-control necessary to dismiss those impulses sometimes requires outside help.

Being willing to examine our wanting and seek out help in the areas where our wanting is harmful to us is a first step to developing maturity in areas that have kept us captive to our impulses.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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