Don't know what you want? Three main causes and what to do about them
Wanting things for ourselves gets a bad press.
It's seen as selfish, whimsical, or leading us astray. Psychology, economics and philosophy point out the difference between wants and needs. What we need in order to survive and be healthy - shelter, food, water and clothing is vital. What we want, however, is often seen as non-essential, a luxury. And many spiritual traditions advocate that wanting less makes you happier.
There is truth to that. And yet:
Wants are not a bad thing in themselves.
At its best, wanting and going after what we want is an expression of being and developing who we are. Of giving ourselves experiences that will help us grow and improve. Of living our life so it is right for us and so we enjoy it! Seen that way, wanting and going after what we want, is an act of self-love!
At its worst, however, it can become a tyrant that makes us chase after stuff that isn’t good for us, confused about what really matters, and losing sight of all the good we’ve already got. Leaving us feel lacking, greedy, dissatisfied and unhappy.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with wanting things, people, qualities or activities to improve yourself and your situation in life.
Wanting to be healthy and happy, wanting to feel purposeful, wanting to be creative, wanting better paid work when you can’t make ends meet, wanting someone to share your life with if you feel lonely, wanting meaningful work if you feel deadened in your job or wanting more fun in your life when your circumstances weigh you down.
There are many wants that are not whimsical or selfish, but wholesome. They connect us to our essential human needs of body, mind and soul.
So what are the reasons we often don't know what we want? Stay stuck where we are, even though we know we need a change? And what can we do about that?
1. Options overwhelm
Our society is a world of myriads of options. The internet has opened up access to all the information and choices we might want, and more. For; what to buy, which doctors or treatments to choose, where to go on holiday, what to do in our free time, what to eat or to cook, how to find our partner or a job and for researching topics and forming our opinion.
That's good and also challenging. Because, when trying to figure out what we want for our life, we may end up confused - like a kid in a candy store: wanting everything, yet unable to commit to anything, nor decide where to start.
If options overwhelm stops you from knowing what you want, try this:
List all your ideas and options. Then step away from them. Stop sifting through information, comparing and contrasting. Do something else, or nothing at all. Then go back to your options, and look at them briefly: Which stands out as the important one? Work with this one and let the others go.
2. Fears and guilt
We may have an inkling for what we want, but struggle to commit to it. Because of; fear of making a mistake, wanting the ‘wrong’ thing, of missing out on something better, of failing to achieve what we want or of actually achieving it - and perhaps not being able to live with it. We might be afraid of what other people might say.
Women in particular often feel guilty when taking time for themselves and pursuing their wants. We’re often the ones expected to dedicate ourselves to bringing up children, looking after elderly parents, or making home, family and community life run smoothly. When we’re faced with others’ urgent needs, we often find it hard to extricate ourselves from those expectations and carve out space for what we want.
If fears or guilt stop you from knowing what you want, try this:
Ask yourself gently: What’s so bad about knowing what you want, and going for it? What are you protecting yourself from, by not doing so? What impact does this have on you, your life and the people in it? If you could pursue anything you want joyfully, without guilt – what would that be?
3. Out of touch with yourself
The wants that are right for you are deeply connected with who you are. By that I don’t just mean on the surface – your name, where you live, what car you drive, or where you shop. I mean who you really are, with all that’s important to you. What you believe in, who and what you love and what you value. With the unique qualities, skills and talents you bring to the table and with what gives you meaning and purpose. You know – the deep stuff.
If you can get in touch with this essence of you - with what makes you really you and go with the wants that feel right for that, you’ll be able to sort the wheat from the chaff. And, really, you can’t go wrong!
If being out of touch with yourself stops you from knowing what you want, try this:
When have you felt most yourself in your life? What made that so? If nothing else mattered, what would you say that you’re really about? What makes you tick? What do you care about deeply? What’s important to you in life? What does someone like you want? Jot down your reflections in your notebook.
Now: Which of the wants you've been considering feel right for you?