Why We’re Afraid to ask for What we Want
We’ve all been brought up hearing “no.” Don’t touch that; don’t do that; no, you can’t have that. Likewise, we’ve been taught that wanting things is bad. Plato writes about the tripartite soul, which consists in three “levels”: the appetitive, the rational, and the spirited. The appetitive wants. It desires. The rational, guided by the spirited, must keep the appetitive in check. Likewise, Freud writes about the id, ego, and super-ego. The id is our most primitive self, guided by the pleasure principle; the ego (rational) and super-ego (critical) likewise keep the id in check. Standing on the shoulders of these giants, society organizes itself around the idea that rational thought should always override desire and want. Or should it? What if the two ideas, in a civilized person, could actually be compatible? What if we could reasonably and responsibly want something and state it out loud without feeling badly about it?
Let’s be clear: the rational should override the appetitive in certain instances–like wanting to punch your brother in the face when he steals your candy, or desiring a leather coat but not wanting to pay for it. There are great social and moral reasons to keep our wants and desires in check. We all know the difference between right and wrong–and when the line isn’t clear, rational thought should step in to help us decide whether or not to pursue a particular course of (questionable?) action. But here’s the thing: We have also–at least in my American culture–been socialized to suppress what we want because we think wanting is bad as a basic pricinple, and that we should first and foremost take a stance of selflessness. I postulate that when you don’t say what you want, there’s always at least one loser and usually two. Only in saying what you want can there be a win-win.
There are a number of reasons that we don’t say what we want:
We Think Someone Else Wants Something Different
You’ve been there. Maybe you didn’t tell your friend that you really wanted to go to the Italian restaurant because you know she loves Chinese. So you said you wanted Chinese food to make it easier on her.
We Think That What we Want Will Disappoint
You’ve been there. A friend of mine recently found himself in an uncomfortable position because he’d agreed to go on a golfing trip to Vegas–and then decided that given all of his recent work travel, what he really wanted was a weekend at home. He was afraid to call to cancel his trip because he knew it would disappoint his friends.
We’re Afraid That Others Will Judge us for what we Want
You’ve been there. To use myself as an example, I was recently at my family’s festival in Missouri (see my post on working the ticket booth). My family has a tiny little cabin without running water and electricity. I wanted to use some of my Hilton points to stay at a nearby hotel–but thought that my family and friends make fun of my for it and call me a princess. I was keenly aware of how I would be judged and didn’t like it.
What You Want Isn’t in Line with Your Upbringing
This is the hardest one. Examples are wanting a divorce when you’ve been brought up to believe that marriage is forever; being a career-seeking woman when you’ve been taught that women should maintain the house and raise the children; or taking a year off between high school and college when you’ve been taught that education is everything and that if you don’t go now you’ll never make it. I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life where what your heart wanted was in contrast with your upbringing, or with the values you’ve been taught to embrace.
We are the Cause of our own Unhappiness
We often don’t say–or go after–what it is that we really want because we’re afraid of how others might perceive our actions. And so we carry on in life, not really getting or going after what we want, and not really happy because we’ve constructed a reality of constraints and limitations, suppressed desires, and curbed enthusiasms. You know what I’m talking about. I once dated a guy who wanted to spend his weekends playing video games with me sitting by his side while he did it. I wanted to socialize; to be out in the world doing and creating. Thank goodness I broke that one off (and didn’t have to pursue a divorce) to start creating the life I wanted.
Basic Principles of Asking for and Pursuing What you Want
I know that the idea of asking for what you (really, truly!) want is controversial. In trying to explain this concept, I’ve come up with some basic guiding principles:
- Your wants should pertain to yourself. Wanting your child to be an Olympic swimmer isn’t the same thing as wanting to be an Olympic swimmer yourself. We should only seek to control our own destiny.
- What you want shouldn’t harm someone else–in the sense that “your rights end where another’s begin.” It is okay to disappoint someone or cause them to have to adjust or change their plans.
- The best relationships are built around the idea that both people can be happy at the same time. People who really love each other don’t want something when they know it’s at the other’s expense.
- Be a clear communicator. Say what you want as soon as you know you want it to avoid confusion and miscommunication.
- Saying what you want makes room for others to say and get what they want, too. Maybe your friend didn’t want Chinese food that night afterall–but only said it sounded great because you’d lied and said you wanted Chinese food. Oops. Didn’t mean to create that one, did you?
- You’ll get what you want–or something even better. Life is full of surprises. Surely you can think of a time that you didn’t get what you wanted and it worked out for the best. Lead with this. Be open to being surprised and getting something even better than what you thought you wanted.
- Other people want to help you get what you want; they want you to be happy. If they don’t, do you really want to be friends with them?
- We are all responsible for our own happiness (or unhappiness). No one can make you happy or unhappy but yourself. Conversely–you can’t make anyone else happy or unhappy. We can only support–but not cause–each other’s (un)happiness.
There’s nothing more frustrating than when someone won’t tell me what they want. I want them to be happy. To have what they want. If they won’t tell me what they want, I can’t help them get it. And if they don’t want what I want, that’s okay–but I need to know so that we can start working on a win-win. Everything is negotiable; and there’s always another way. When I don’t get what I want, I get something even better. I believe that, and see it play out in my life all the time.
By clearly communicating our intentions and desires with each other, we make space for each other to create a world in which each of us has our healthy wants and desires fulfilled–where we live happier, more meaningful lives. What do you think? Do you ask for what you want? Why not? Are there other reasons besides those I’ve cited above that you find yourself silent on what you want? What’s holding you back?