“What do you want?” I increasingly find myself asking this question of both my therapy and life coaching clients. Although simple, it can reveal many things about us—our level of adult development, our direction in life, who we are, and blocks to expand all these things.
Here are examples of reactions that people have to this question. (I have changed people’s names and other identifying information for this post.)
Lee cannot even ask himself what he wants. In the family in which he grew up, he was told “no” to things he wanted. It became not okay to want something. Somehow, Lee got negated and lost in the process as well.
Rhea at least can ask the question, “What do I want?” But she wonders if it is selfish to do so. As a child, she was told to put others before herself, and if she wanted something, she was selfish.
Joshua asks himself, “What do I want?” and finds it difficult to specify an answer. He gets confused about what he should do, looks to others about what they would do, and lets this define what he thinks he wants. Again, we see a muddle of who Joshua is in the middle of this confusion.
Mavis also has a difficult time discerning what she wants, but in a different way. She grew up in a family in which she was frequently criticized. Although she would like to know what she wants, it is too frightening to figure it out and to commit to something.
Alicia, who married and took care of her husband and children for years, got so wrapped up in living for others that she lost herself. Because she does not know herself well, she does not know what she wants. Another way this can happen is for a person to work so hard that he or she never thinks about what he or she wants.
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you find it hard to ask for what you want or think it is selfish to do so? Do you worry more about what others or society believes you should do than what you want yourself? Have you taken care of others or worked so hard that you have forgotten what you want? Or do you find it difficult even to discern what you want at all?
Let’s examine these different issues with wants.
First, having wants is normal and okay. All human beings have them. If you say “no” to wants, it does not make them go away. Rather, you push them beneath the surface. This leads to unhealthy discord between what you really want and your (erroneous) belief that you should not want anything.
Second, wanting something does not have to be at another’s expense. Thus, it is not necessarily selfish, greedy, or grasping. In fact, part of your wants may be what you want for other people. Indeed, if you have a conscience, then the more you fulfill your own wants in a healthy way, the more likely you are to turn your generosity toward others.
What if you look to others or society for what you should do rather than consult your own wants? Starting to figure out what you want and using this as a guide represents a major step in adult development, toward defining your own identity. In fact, articulating what you want can be the first step toward defining a purpose for yourself. Thus, I encourage you to let go of others’ “shoulds” and start defining your own path.
Finally, what about the people who are at a loss about what they want? This may be the most difficult problem of all. I advocate starting with the tiniest of things that you enjoy and build from there. Experiment. Life, after all, is sometimes trial and error. As you try new things, starting from even the smallest thing you enjoy, you are bound to build a trove of things you want.
A simple exercise to explore your wants is to sit down with pen and paper and repeatedly complete the sentence stem, “I want…” Don’t think too much. Just let it flow. Complete the sentence stem repeatedly for each area of your life: work, relationships, finances, health, education/personal growth, spiritual, recreational, and service. Then look it over. The results can be surprising, and moving.
This is Glenn Stevenson, with Self Sense Counseling and Coaching, until next month encouraging you to discern and go for what you want.