“Go ahead, girl, you deserve it!” is a common nudge when you debate aloud (so you can get that nudge) whether you “should” order dessert or not. “You deserve someone worthy of you,” is oft repeated when a friend goes through a messy break up. When did we become a culture and a people of thinking we deserve so much? It’s become a confused word in our language, and a lot of us no longer remember what it means. There are big differences between deserving, wanting, and needing something.
You have to do something to deserve a reward or punishment. Usually, that something is very difficult and challenging. We don’t “deserve” something simply because we’re a so-called good person (what is a good person anyway?). Being a good person should be expected of ourselves, it should be a lifelong goal, with absolutely no thought to deserving a reward for it. We don’t deserve something because we happen to be born with the kind of genes that make a lot of people around us say we’re hot, nor do we deserve something when we play up that lottery win. Of course, sometimes people do get something for that, but that doesn’t make it deserved.
And food? Whether it’s ice cream or a tofu scramble, food is too often treated as a reward—which can lead to some terrible food-related issues including eating disorders. Yet here we are. Cake for birthdays, pies at Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, a piece of chocolate because we deserve it after that hellish workout, and food, food, food as the highlight of every social gathering and special event in our life. Why not? We’re celebrating, and we deserve it.
What We Do Deserve
I’m not saying there aren’t some achievements, rewards and punishments in life that aren’t deserved. For the positives, let’s consider competitions. If you trained much harder than everyone else for a race, prioritized your nutrition, skipped out on parties to get enough rest, cross-trained like mad and maybe spent hundreds of dollars on a specialized training plan? Hell, yes, you deserve to win. If you spent the entirety of your youth studying more than your peers, taking AP classes, nearly killing yourself with extracurricular activities so you’d be “well-rounded,” and made huge social sacrifices to keep your grades up? Of course you deserve to get into a better college or get that full-ride scholarship.
And if you committed a crime? Well, yeah—you deserve punishment for that, too. However, just because you do deserve something, good or bad, that’s no guarantee that you’ll get it. There are people who trained twice as hard as everyone else for a competition and still don’t win or even place. There are people who commit atrocious crimes and are never caught, feel guilt, or get punished. Deserves simply aren’t guarantees.
But, no. You don’t deserve that tiramisu or some fantasy-driven idea of the perfect partner. If you want the dessert, get it. If you want a great relationship, look at what you have to offer first and then work for it. Keep working for it when and if you do meet that person.
Wants and Needs and In Betweens
During one of my first sessions with an eating disorder psychiatrist, we got onto the subject of “deserving things.” It was likely something along the lines of her asking, “Do you think you don’t deserve food/love/to live/fill in the blank?” I told her it had nothing to do with deserving anything—and of course I didn’t think I “deserved” food or most other things in life.
She seemed a bit taken aback, but kept on. “What about a newborn baby?” she asked. “Do you think that baby deserves milk?”
I told her no. She looked truly shocked, which I’m imagining is rare for one of the leading eating disorder specialists in the Northwest with over 20 years of experience! But I stick to that answer. Do I think a baby needs and wants nutrition, love, air and warmth? Of course!
Still, “I don’t think a person deserves anything simply by virtue of being born,” I told her. She quickly moved on. My opinion is an unpopular one, and I know that.
To Serve Well and Zealously
So, what do we deserve? It falls somewhere between need and want. We need a lot of things to live and to thrive. Those are the basics like shelter and food. Usually, when we need, we do whatever it takes to get it. Needs have driven us to push ourselves beyond what we think we’re capable of, to commit crimes, to risk our lives. It’s human nature to survive, and our needs are the basis for survival.
We want a lot more, from a car to a better wardrobe or the ability to have what we perceive as a perfect body—however, we can want, want, want without ever taking any steps to make it happen. Wants can be dreams, or they can be a driving force to get your butt in gear and work so that your wants become a reward you deserve.
And what do we deserve? Well, that depends. What have you been working doggedly at to get? It’s interesting, the root meaning of “deserve” is “to serve well and zealously.” Service and zeal are at the heart of deserving, yet those two characteristics are rarely both evident when we tell each other and ourselves, “You deserve it!” Maybe if they were, that want would blossom into the “deserve” it can be.