“Ok, but what do you want?”
I was sitting in my therapist’s office several years ago, having just described in detail a tense situation relating to a pre-wedding, meet-the-inlaws dinner. Opinions about the dinner were getting heated, and I felt caught between my family of origin and my soon-to-be-husband. As I explained the positions of each of the involved parties, my therapist observed that at no point had I stated what I wanted. How did I want the dinner to go? What would make enjoyable for me?
I had no idea.
To be honest, the question seemed beside the point. As someone for whom conflict could be incredibly scary, even painful, all I could imagine wanting was a resolution that involved the least amount of strife. So I unconsciously took on the role of monkey-in-the-middle, attempting to broker a compromise.
This approach seemed perfectly normal and natural to me, right up until the moment when my therapist posed her question. How had I let myself become so separated from my own desires? It would be one thing if I had consciously put my needs aside, choosing to “let this one go” because others had stronger preferences. But I didn’t even know what I wanted out of the situation. My fear that my desires might conflict with someone else’s took those desires out of the equation entirely. .
Conflict avoidance is one reason we might lose touch with our desires, but there are others too. For example:
- Judgment: If you’ve been shamed or ridiculed for the clothes you like to wear or the music you listen to, you might try to override your natural preferences to avoid painful judgments.
- Growing up in poverty or difficult circumstances: People who grow up with barely enough resources to survive may have learned to suppress their wants so as not to make their caregivers feel bad about their inability to give them these things. For example, a child may avoid voicing a desire for a new bike because they don’t want their parent to feel badly for not being able to provide it, or try to work more to afford it.
- Shame: In a society filled with taboos around sexuality, acknowledging certain desires, especially for women and LGTBQ individuals, can create tension with patriarchal value systems. While men’s desire is considered normal and healthy, women’s desire is often seen as shameful. (And can even be dangerous. Consider the “she was asking for it” line of defense still used in countless discussions of sexual assault.) And while representation of different kinds of relationships has increased in popular culture, expressions of desire outside of the cis-het norm still run the risk of being labeled “weird” or “abnormal.”
- Conflict with our value systems: If we believe in having a strong work ethic, we’re likely to ignore a desire to lie around on the sofa doing nothing because it makes us feel lazy. If we value gratitude, we may repress our desires because they make us feel ungrateful. If we believe that materialism is bad, then a desire for material things would threaten our self-concept, and we might try to repress it.
What these reasons have in common is that they all begin as coping strategies: ways of dealing with a tension between ourselves and the people, culture, or circumstances around us. Over time, we get so used to ignoring our desires that we stop hearing them, and it’s easy for us to lose touch with them entirely.
This may not seem like much of an issue. After all, desires can make life complicated — wouldn’t we all be better off if we just felt them a little less acutely? Being less desirous would make it easier to stay within our budgets, choose a restaurant for dinner with friends, and get over that annoying ex that we know we shouldn’t still be thinking about.
Why desire matters
The problem with this is that joy and desire are fundamentally linked. Desire is the first spark that motivates us to do the things that bring us joy. While drives, like hunger, thirst, and sleepiness, ensure that we take care of our essential physical needs, desires are what create awareness of things we can do to facilitate our pleasure, growth, and thriving. We feel a desire to connect, so we reach out to a friend. We feel a desire to create something, so we get out the paints and start exploring. We feel the desire to experience something new, so we plan a trip.
Without desire, joy becomes something we find only by accident. We have difficulty making decisions, because we don’t know what we really want, and so we let others choose. Life starts to feel like it’s just happening to us. For example, you might realize that your home doesn’t really reflect your taste, but you can’t quite figure out what style you actually do like. An email comes in about a new project, and you have no idea whether to say yes or no. When you need to choose something, whether it’s a new job or a sofa or an ice cream flavor, you feel indecisive and uncertain.
When we repress desires, it’s hard to know when we’re satisfied. How many cookies are enough? How many glasses of wine do we really want to drink? Not knowing what we want makes it hard to know when we’ve had enough. Buying, eating, and drinking end up feeling like mindless compulsions. We do them out of habit or boredom rather than real desire, and often end up overconsuming while under-enjoying. Not knowing what we want can also make us more vulnerable to fads and trends. We rely more heavily on influencers and advertisers to tell us, and end up with closets full of things we felt compelled to buy, but don’t really like.
Holding back your desires might feel like a gift to others, because you’re letting them have their way more often. But in fact, it deprives others of the pleasure of being able to give you joy. If your partner says, “What do you want for your birthday?” and you always say, “Oh nothing,” it might seem like you’re being good-natured and unfussy. But how much easier and enjoyable for your partner if you were able to say, “You know, I’d really just love a small dinner with good friends,” or “I don’t need anything big, but if you want to get me something, there are few books that have been on my wishlist.” A good relationship involves deep understanding, and a good partner wants to understand your wants.
But it’s impossible to clue them in if you don’t know yourself. For my part, I’d gotten so good at “going with the flow” that I’d lost touch with my inner confidence in my own desires. And so I began a process of reconnecting with them.
What follows are five techniques I’ve learned that have helped me figure out what I want. Some are intuitive and some are more analytical, including one that uses a handy spreadsheet template you can download for free.
This might sound obvious, but one of the most helpful things in reconnecting with my own desires was simply to ask the question: “What do I want?” At first, it was usually my therapist doing the prompting, and I floundered when trying to answer. But after awhile, I noticed that if I got quiet and listened, the desire would snap into focus. I did know what I wanted, I was just out of practice at hearing it.
Over time, I’ve gotten better at noticing my tendency to retreat when others are expressing strong desires, and giving myself a little space to ask the question of that little voice inside. If “What do I want?” feels hard to access, you can also try, “What would feel good here?”
It’s not to say that you always have to fight to get your way. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll ask the question and find that my desire isn’t actually that strong, and I can say “I’m really fine either way.” It’s deeply satisfying to say this and truly mean it.
Examine your orientation
Years ago, my aunt, a therapist and all-around wise woman, shared a piece of advice around decision-making. “If you make a decision from a place of fear,” she said, “there’s a chance you’ll end up regretting it. But if you make a decision from a place of love, you almost never will.”
I’ve followed this advice for years, but only recently realized that there’s a simpler way of looking at it: toward or away. It’s almost physical — and in fact, when I make decisions, I try to feel physically in my body whether the root impulse is approach or avoidance. Am I making a decision to get closer to something that feels good, or am I simply trying to get away from a situation I don’t like? It’s not to say that we don’t sometimes need to extricate ourselves from a bad job or a bad relationship, but if we find we’re constantly moving away from things we don’t like (taking a new job just because we’re feeling frustrated in our current one, finding new friends because the old ones are difficult) and never moving toward things we do, we may have a problem with identifying the desire that’s pulling us forward. In those moments, it can help to pause and ask, “What am I moving towards?”
Did this ever happen to you as a kid: It’s Christmas morning and you just finished opening your presents, but the one thing you were secretly hoping for just wasn’t under the tree. You feel completely disappointed, but you know that if you said anything you’d upset your parents — you might even make them angry.
Disappointment is a natural part of life, but many of us have been conditioned to view it as shameful. When kids don’t get the presents they want, they’re supposed to hide their disappointment under a show of enthusiasm. As adults, we are often expected to shake off disappointment so we don’t make others uncomfortable. If we get passed over for a promotion, we pretend we didn’t want it that much anyway. If we get dumped, we talk trash about the person we were dating rather than admit we wanted it to work out.
But hiding disappointment sends an unconscious message that our desires aren’t valid. If we can’t be disappointed when we don’t get something, then the desire must not have been real or important. To reclaim desire, we have to get more comfortable with disappointment.
This doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone how sad you are. But even if it’s just to yourself, practice saying, “I really wanted that to work out. It’s hard that it didn’t.” The more comfortable you can be with not getting what you want, the less scary it will be to articulate your desires in the first place.
Play “This or That”
Sometimes desires can be overwhelmed by choices. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz writes: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
When making a decision with abundant options, such as what city to move to or what color to paint the living room or what movie to watch on Netflix, it can be really hard to feel out what you want. In these situations, I like to play “This or That.”
Start by taking two options out of the endless pool, and pit them against each other. Which one feels closer to what you want? Then take the winner, and pit that against another option. Keep doing this until you feel some sort of clarity.
For example, take the dining room example. Purple or blue? If your immediate reaction is, “Ugh, not purple,” then great! You’ve now ruled out one option. Let’s go again. Blue or red? Maybe you think, well, not maroon red, but it could be a faded red. And not navy blue, but maybe a light blue. Ok, you may not know red or blue, but you’ve noticed that you seem to resonating with lighter, rather than darker colors.
The object here isn’t necessarily to make a final decision, but simply to cut through the overwhelm so you can practice tuning into your desires. Repetition is key here, so try this technique even with simple things like, “What should I wear today?” or “What should I eat for dessert?” The more practice you get with low stakes, trivial decisions, the easier it will be to find clarity on the bigger ones.
Take a weighted average
For complex decisions, such as which apartment to rent or which job to take, I use weighted averages as a tool. Albert and I started doing this once when we were deciding where to move, and we’ve used it every time we’ve had a big decision to make. Essentially, the method involves identifying the factors that are important in your choice, weighting those factors by their importance to your decision, and then rating your options based on those factors. Because there’s a little bit of math involved in this process, I’ve created a template that allows you to make your own weighted averages. You can download that by entering your info below.
For example, in the case of where to move, let’s say you’re comparing a big house near town with a beautifully landscaped yard that needs a full gut renovation vs. a much smaller house with little land in turnkey condition that’s closer to hiking trails. How do you compare these very different options?
Step 1: Start with your factors. If this were us, we might list proximity to nature, whether the house needs renovation, how big it is, the price, and the quality of the yard. Your factors might be completely different, which is what makes this exercise helpful — it forces you to examine what is important to you in the decision. It’s also extremely helpful when making a joint decision to talk through what’s important to you together and understand how the decision will impact each of you.
Step 2: Assign a percentage to each factor. Let’s say proximity to nature is really important to us. We might make that 35%. But size doesn’t matter so much, so we make that 5%. The important thing is that it all adds up to 100%.
Step 3: Rate your options. Now you look at your options, and rate them on each factor from 1-5. For House A, above, We’d give that a 5 on “size of house” and on “quality of yard” but a 2 on “proximity to nature” and a 1 on “house condition.” House 2 would get a 2 on “house size” and “quality of yard,” a 5 on “house condition,” and a 4 on “proximity to nature.”
Just looking at these numbers, it’s impossible to compare. But the spreadsheet integrates your priorities and your ratings to give a score for each house based on what you care about. A high score means that a house has a lot of the attributes that you value highly. A low score means that its benefits don’t line up with the things that matter to you.
Often this exercise will serve as an analytic check on your natural intuition. It will give you clear reasons why you prefer one option over the other. It also forces you to be honest. If the answer doesn’t line up with what you’d hoped, are you really being honest about how important the style of the house is to you? Try playing with the weights for the different factors to see if it feels like a better fit.
Close the learning loop
When scientists look at desire, they see it as connected in a feedback loop with enjoyment and learning. We want something, so we pursue it. That’s motivation. Then our brains assess whether the experience felt good, and that gets encoded in memory. If we liked the experience, then we learn to move toward that kind of experience if the opportunity arises again. If we didn’t like it, we learn to try to avoid those situations in the future.
Taking the time to reflect on how your decisions turn out can help you connect more closely with your desires. If you followed a yearning, how did it turn out? Did the weird ice cream flavor bring you joy, or would you have preferred your usual? Did the wallpaper you felt mysteriously drawn to feel as good on the wall as it did in the store? Closing the learning loop helps us identify our true desires, separating from the influences of parents, friends, and popular culture.
This learning can also start to shape our identity. We become fans of a musician or a sports team. We become foodies or rock climbers or model train collectors or plant lovers. What begins with desire evolves into a part of the story of who we are.
And that’s the thing about desire. While it often feels like a frustrating tug, breaking our contentment and leaving us with a void to fill, it’s through intimacy with those desires that we make peace with them. Acknowledging our longings, even if we never satisfy them, helps us become more whole.