Knowing What You Really Want

In earlier writings on self-compassion, I asked what I consider to be a core question, Have I loved my life enough? Another way of asking this is – Have I loved myself enough?

Either question takes you down the same path.
All of life is driven by needs. Needs energize our life, generate motivation and shape the meaning of our experiences.
Too often we’re on paths without understanding why. How did I get here? When and why did I make the choice to be here? Did I make the choice or did I just drift in this direction – perhaps through my not knowing what I really wanted?
In my coaching and consulting work, it’s common for people to struggle with understanding what it is they really want. Often the process begins with identifying what they don’t want.
Understandably, identifying the first layer of what we want often has a common theme, I want to be financially secure, I want to have a family, I want to be healthy, I want to do satisfying work. All of these universal desires represent the ways (think of these as “strategies” to get what we want) we try to satisfy our core needs.
In her blog, the Fearless Heart, Miki Kashtan, co-founder of the Bay Area Nonviolent Communication Center, writes, “The tragedy of life is that while our needs are so all-important, most of us go through life without cultivating the awareness of our needs nor the capacity to distinguish between our needs and our strategies.”
This is, as Kashtan points out, often the case in recurring conflicts. In years of supporting people to work through conflict issues, I repeatedly found that the inability to distinguish between what we want and why we want it is often at the heart of the emotional knot. I want this behavior to stop, I want this piece of land, I want this policy changed – all represent wants in search of meeting needs.
As we see in our personal and global conflicts, most conflicts stay mired in place because personal and collective needs are insufficiently recognized or even explored.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Audre Lorde

By the time we reach our early adulthood we’re besieged by what other people want (or think they want) and think we need. The status quo of any culture is often ruthless in its systematic drive to squash dissent and divergence from the norms. When individual members of a culture attempt to break free from expectations – the society through its institutional outposts (family, peer pressure, religions, government policies, media, educational and business institutions) resists and the result is usually crisis, even chaos.
We’re in a particularly chaotic period on the planet now – as the Old Order degenerates with individuals, groups, organizations – even countries struggling to create the new. It feels messy and often scary.

What looks like increasing chaos in the world is a rejection of what many call the “domination order” – systems where patriarchal mindsets have governed nearly every aspect of life on earth. From abuse of the earth’s resources to imbalances in economic distribution to lack of regard for human life – the tectonic plates of change are rattling business as usual.
These dramatic winds of external change are also impacting everyone on a personal level. In a wired, interconnected world, even the wealthiest, most isolated and most “secure” sense the shift. It’s getting harder to ignore the signs of change and not question – what does this all mean for me?
As a product of cultural demands, we’ve learned to overlook our deepest needs. There’s a revival in thinking that ideas like loving our work are self-indulgent and unwise. The grin-and-bear-it revival is a mixture of “post” recession fears and valid concerns that the all-encompassing work life of many “first-worlders” is insidiously blurring the lines between work and non-work life – not to the advantage of workers, at any level.

But recognizing and making choices to meet a need to be satisfied in our work does not mean we lose our conscious awareness of the “risks” involved. It also does not mean we have to abdicate responsibility for those who have little or no choice in the work that they do.
The solutions for meeting the world’s needs do not depend on the sacrifice of our own personal needs. This is, I believe, part of the old order of either-or mindsets based on scarcity thinking.
In his wonderful book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Knows is Possible, author Charles Eisenstein writes, “A multiplicity of basic human needs go chronically, tragically unmet in modern society. These include the need to express one’s gifts and do meaningful work, the need to love and be loved, the need to be truly seen and heard, and to see and hear other people, the need for connection to nature, the need to play, explore and have adventures, the need for emotional intimacy, the need to serve something larger than oneself and the need sometimes to do absolutely nothing and just be.”

Ask Why

Generally, we’re not taught to ask why – we’re taught to comply. Given our deeper need to belong, from earliest childhood we decide the trade-off between obedience and separation is too great. As we grow and continue to balance the brief satisfaction of real needs with the cultural “fixes” we latch on; it gets harder and harder to tell what we really want and need.
According to Eisenstein, “Because our deeper unmet needs are mostly invisible to us and because they have been unmet for so long, our physical and mental systems have adapted around them so the pain becomes subconscious, diffuse, latent.
This isn’t easy especially if we have kept our innermost needs suppressed and diverted. But it is important to remember that living on the periphery of our lives produces another kind of pain. Keep asking the questions; listen and observe the answers.

What Do I Love in Life? What Brings Me Joy? What Brings Me Peace?
What Would I Do if I Had No Fear? Limits, Real or Perceived?
What Do I Admire Most? What Deeply Reflects My Values?

It is predictable that once we begin to unearth our buried or neglected needs, we’ll sometimes cling to the known and the comfortable. Don’t retreat.
As James Hollis writes in What Matters Most,” In the face of the new and uncertain, we often return to the old place, which is why we so often stop growing. This is an example of what Jung called “the regressive restoration of the persona,” namely, the re-identification with a former position, role, ideology because it offers a predictable content, security, and script.”
Hollis reminds us not to rely on experience alone to provide the comfort and answers we will inevitably seek when we get older, “It has become clear to me that aging in itself does not bring wisdom. It often brings regression to childishness, dependency, and bitterness over lost opportunities.”
While we may not be able to satisfy every need we uncover as we would like; every attempt takes us deeper into the mystery of our lives. Trust is needed for the journey, so are big doses of self-compassion and love. You will discover what is essential for your life – and what is superfluous.
And hopefully, you will find that the realm of the possible is greater than you ever imagined.

Louise Altman,  Intentional Communication Consultants
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