What do you want?
In so many forms, in so many sizes, it seems like this is the question that gets thrown at me more often than any other. In meetings and professional networking sessions. At writing workshops and spiritual retreats. In friendships and in the bedroom. It’s everywhere. And it’s also the question, at least at the moment, that’s most likely to completely overwhelm me. Anything from mild deflection to a full internal system meltdown is likely to occur in the presence of this basic and, in many cases, loving inquiry.
That’s been a frustrating place to be, in part because I feel like I should be able to answer it and in part because in order to get anything to happen in my life, I need to be able to answer it. And yet the harder I bash my head against it, the more opaque the walls around my own desires seem to become. Reflection inward becomes a practice of staring into the void. At best such experiences are meditative but largely unhelpful. At worst they are terrifying, disempowering, and feed right back into the frustration that caused all the head bashing in the first place. Clearly something’s not working here.
So why is this question so hard to answer?
Certainly some of those answers are going to be intensely personal. But perhaps some of them are universal enough to discuss here. I’m clearly no expert at this, but below are my best guesses at what makes the question What do you want? so hard to answer for some of us.
1) Because women, in general, have less practice honestly answering that question.
I’ll start with a disclaimer here: I’m hardly in a position to speak for all women, nor am I trying to. But as an observation, I think many, perhaps the majority, of women in my life have a deeply ingrained role as care-taker. There’s a lot of positive things to be said for that, but it doesn’t usually coincide with great self-care or even self-awareness, much less a well-practiced self-advocacy. Frankly, there’s also a lot of social pressure pushing against a shift there too. Women who know the answer to What do I want? in the workplace still get the bitch rep. Women who know the answer to that question at home run the risk of “wearing the pants” judgements that disempower their partners or worse. While I’m sure guys struggle with the question too, I think the consequences of answering this question can fall a bit more heavily on women.
2) Because so many people want to tell you what your answer to that question is.
Here’s a situation I’m sure we’ve all been in: you’re struggling to know what you want in a situation. You invite a friend out for drinks or dinner and share your story with them. They listen, ask great questions, and then take a deep breath. We both know what’s coming next. If the friend I’m talking to is even remotely self-aware they’ll put a disclaimer out front about how they aren’t really advising me before they dive in and tell me exactly what they think I should do. Sometimes it reflects all my thoughts back to me in a way that’s really helpful and clarifying. Just as often it reflects that person’s experiences, prejudices, and fears more than anything I’m thinking or feeling, saddling me with the additional problem of disentangling from their expectations as I try to find my way into an answer I was already struggling toward.
3) Because it’s easy to get side swiped by the fear of what’s on the other side of an honest answer.
I don’t know about you, but the second I start seriously engaging with the question of What do I want?, BOOM! There’s the fear of repercussions and negative consequences, hot on its heals. Having a truly open-hearted brainstorming session is right out at that point–there’s too much fear lurking around the edges for me to fully consider anything. (This gets amplified up by both #1 and #2 for obvious reasons.) And it’s horrifically hard to negotiate that warning voice out of the room for a moment—because fear doesn’t want to negotiate. It wants to save me from the tiger that’s threatening my well being, whether by fight or flight. The tiger in this case being the consequences and implications of honestly answering the question in front of me.
4) Because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of decisions we have to make.
So here’s where I say something that has actual data to back it up. It’s called decision fatigue and it exists. Basically, the more things in our life that require thoughtful consideration, the more fried the part of our brains that makes decisions becomes. And once it’s fried, people start to give in to the path of least resistance–it’s actually a strategy in marketing. Barrage someone with enough features and options for their new car and there’s a good chance they’ll just start saying “Yes. Sure. Whatever.” just in order to not have to make decisions anymore. Hit them with enough types of Kleenex and instead of buying one box, they’re buy one of each just so they can stop staring at the shelf blankly. I’m not sure where my threshold for these types of considerations lies, but I know when I’ve hit it. Suddenly even deciding what I want to eat or which pants to wear becomes too much, never mind the bigger What do you want?‘s looming in the background.
5) Because the thing on the other side of that question is action.
I often think, once I’ve named what I want, Whew! Glad that’s done! and then I’m like Oh wait… Deciding, for example, that one wants to run a half marathon or complete a century ride or finish an olympic length triathlon is pretty obviously only the beginning. With the higher stakes questions, I think we all sense this and pull back a little. Naming it, putting it out there, requires that we do something with it, even if we decide that what we’re going to do is actively ignore it. The question itself flags that there’s hard work ahead and, especially if the decision felt like work, that can be daunting.
6) Because we feel like the answer to the question must apply for all time.
As soon as I start to think about action steps, I can hear Admiral Ackbar in the back of my head. What if I start acting on what I want and discover it’s not what I want at all? What if my decision actually shuts another door that can’t be reopened? Maybe that kind of commitment-o-phobic behavior is just my baggage, but I suspect there are more folks out there who feel me. I’ve talked about it in terms of derailment potential for exercise, but it’s a lot broader than that. Whether we’re shelling out the cash for a pair of skis or contemplating becoming a member of a religion or saying yes to a proposal of marriage, there’s a sort of gut-level freak out about the future implications of naming what we want. A freak out that’s often to a degree far beyond the actual, reasonable implications.