Many people, including people who come to me for coaching, tell me they “don’t know what they want” in life. Much of the time, however, this isn’t really true. They’ve just fallen into the habit of saying they don’t know because they don’t feel safe telling people in their lives what they want. They worry that others will judge them as irresponsible, selfish or unrealistic if they admit what they actually want to do with their lives, and the prospect of being harshly judged feels scary.
I had a conversation with a friend the other day that illustrated this point nicely. She joked that she would be a terrible client for me because she’s never been able to figure out what she wants in life.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, as if she hadn’t said that last part about not knowing.
She nervously chuckled a little. “Like I said, I don’t know.”
“What would you say if you did know?”
She laughed and hesitated a bit more, but eventually came around. “Well, when I was a kid, I really loved to paint.”
As the conversation went on, I witnessed my friend’s quick, miraculous transformation from a woman who supposedly “never” knew what she wanted into someone who’d harbored an aching desire to be a painter all her life. She told me about the paintings she did when she was younger, and the regret she’d felt for a long time because her other responsibilities had taken her away from her art. As she talked about it, her nervous laughter and apologetic attitude faded away, and she became more willing to tell me how exciting painting was for her.
I didn’t do anything complicated or magical to induce this change in my friend. All I did was express genuine interest in what she truly desired, and refrain from shaming or mocking her when she revealed her wants. It doesn’t take much beyond compassionate listening, I’ve found, to create an environment where people feel safe expressing their wishes.
As easy as it sounds to listen to someone’s wishes without judging or criticizing, many of us don’t have—or don’t think we have—access to a person who will listen to us like this. Many of us grew up in situations where telling others what we needed and wanted, for whatever reason, didn’t feel safe. Many of us fear that our loved ones today would ridicule or scold us if we told them what we really desired. However it happened, at some point we lost our trust in people’s ability to hear what we want and need without attacking or abandoning us.
If we fear that no one will be receptive to our wants, it may look like the easiest thing to do is keep our wants to ourselves. If we never tell anyone what we want, we believe, no one will ever insult or get mad at us, and our lives will run smoothly. Unfortunately, our wants don’t disappear just because we don’t admit they exist. Part of us resents it when we don’t express our desires, and this resentment accumulates in our bodies and renders us prone to rage and depression. Duke Robinson aptly describes this problem in Too Nice For Your Own Good: How To Stop Making Nine Self-Sabotaging Mistakes:
In order to keep quiet, we expend a great deal of emotional power we could be using to tell others what we need. We also burden ourselves with a lot of regret as we wonder “why didn’t I ask?” In the end, we both resent those from whom we don’t get what we want and are angry at ourselves for not speaking up. This anger, suppressed and turned inward, puts us in danger of depression and serious illness.
If we have unfulfilled desires, it’s better to at least acknowledge them to someone instead of holding them in. Even if we don’t end up pursuing some of the things we wish for, simply admitting them, without explanation or apology, helps release the anger and sadness that build up around a neglected want. As we reveal our wants more and more often like this, we regain our trust that the world will accept and support us in pursuing our goals.
I’ll make a suggestion to anyone reading this who doesn’t think they know what they want in life. Find someone—whether it’s a loved one, a close friend, or a coach or therapist—whom you trust to listen to you without judgment or criticism. Have them agree to keep what you tell them in confidence. Once you’re in a safe environment, I think you’ll surprise yourself with how much you actually know about what you want, and how relieving it is to be in a place where you can finally reveal it. And who knows—maybe this will even have you feel inspired and trusting enough to go for it.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Improving Life, located at http://www.improvedlife.ca/content/seventh-edition-carnival-improving-life.)
|Steve's Quest, the animated musical comedy, is coming soon. To stay updated, sign up via the show's Facebook page or follow the creator on Twitter.|