This is going to seem like a very strange question, but how do you know what you want when you don’t know what you can have? Especially when other people are involved, trying to speculate on an “anything’s possible” basis seems like pointless daydreaming to me. I’m trying to work out whether I’m approaching this differently to other people, because their questions make no sense to me and my answers make no sense to them!
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and wanted to throw it out there for other perspectives.
My therapist (among others) occasionally runs up against a wall in my thinking: he’ll ask me what I want out of something, and I... just can’t answer him. Or I answer in a very immediate short-term sense, which is not what he’s looking for. I’m trying to work out whether this is unusual (yes I know it’s normal for me, but why is it so unexpected?), and whether I’m thinking about it differently to most folks?
I’m certainly no stranger to wanting things - I’m opinionated, I have ambitions and goals and desires and dreams and wish-lists and so on - but my wanting is tempered by reality and practicality. Anything else seems like daydreaming to me. And while I have a great imagination and am happy to daydream at appropriate times, to me wanting something means investing emotionally in it, and that’s a recipe for disappointment or just... makes no sense.
(Case in point: I never understood celebrity crushes. Yes, I can say that someone is aesthetically appealing and has a public persona that seems nice enough, but attractiveness is so much more than that to me. Besides, I don’t know who those people really are, I’m unlikely to ever meet them, so what’s the point?)
I do still invest emotionally in things I can’t have, develop crushes on people that aren’t requited, that sort of thing. But they’re... potentially attainable things? A crush on a fellow performer rather than an unknown celebrity; a regret that an apartment we inspected and loved sold above the estimated auction price and therefore out of our budget, rather than wishing I lived in a beachfront mansion. That sort of thing.
***Recent examples (feel free to skip for length)***
- My therapist asked me “If anything was possible, what would you want - for you - out of a relationship with your abusive parent?” I have no good answer to that question; that parent cut contact with me when I stated that I was not willing to put up with further abuse, and that was four years ago. I have no idea who they might be as a person after that much time, so how could I answer that question?
I know what I would require in order to consider resuming contact (a willingness to accept healthy boundaries, a good-faith effort to end to the toxic patterns, probably formal diagnosis and treatment of their mental illness), but there are far too many variables for me to invest emotionally in one specific version of what that relationship might look like. I can speculate upon generalities (parent would have to acknowledge the harm they had caused with their physical, verbal and emotional abuse, apologise for that, and accept that a relationship with me won’t be instantly healed by that apology) but again, that’s so far from what reality is in the here & now that I can’t see the shape of a relationship in which that could happen.
This seems to bemuse my therapist. It seemed like the closest I got to “successfully” answering his question was when I made the wry aside that my parent could goddamn help pay for therapy to correct the damage they’d done, because even if therapy’s helping, it’s still costing a few thousand dollars a year! His comments strongly implied that was the sort of answer he’d expected, but to me it’s at the edge of “I want ten million dollars and an end to global poverty and a Universal Panacaea and a pony (there always has to be a pony!)” territory.
- Similarly, my therapist asked me last session about what I would like moving forward with my ex-girlfriend Mia
(who sadly didn’t accept my suggesting that we take a step back from the relationship, and instead declared repeatedly that I had broken up with her, even as I told her that wasn’t what I was saying). She has not been in contact for the past 7-8 weeks except for one e-mail saying she wasn’t avoiding/ignoring me. I don’t know where I stand with her, as my contact attempts have gone unanswered; for the last month I’ve been taking her silence as a hint to leave her alone rather than push aggressively for responses.
My therapist asked me what I want there; beyond “I want to know where I stand with her and what she actually wants from me,” I have no answer. I liked
the idea of being friends with her, certainly. However, I don’t want to impose myself on someone so I don’t want her friendship if doesn’t want me to be part of her life, and I don’t know what she wants from me now because her actions cast doubt on her previously-stated position. I thought Mia & I had a plan for how we’d move forward based on our last discussion (we weren’t going to go no-contact, so there’d be the awkward seeing each other at a group social event, testing the waters, building a friendship back up from there if that seemed viable), but that plan is almost two months out of date. By now I’m unhappy about getting the silent treatment from someone who lauded her ability and willingness to be upfront about what she wants - so right now, I don’t know whether I want to pursue a close friendship. What I want out of this situation will depend a lot on where she stands and how she acknowledges the lack of contact; I can’t answer a seemingly simple question like “do you want to be friends with her” without those variables being stabilised.
I don’t think this means that my therapist is wrong for me or I need a new one. I’m making more progress than I have in years of seeking help. I’m just intrigued by this apparent impasse.)
- This pattern is present in low-pressure desires as well. If you ask me what I want for dinner, sometimes I can pinpoint a particular cuisine or a specific food, but more often I’ll reply with a set of guidelines: “I want something with vegetables, that’s not too heavy (so pasta’s probably out), spicy or oily - nothing deep-fried.” Often I’ll note a few cuisines or restaurants that fit those guidelines, but I’m still open to alternatives that I haven’t considered. I see that flexibility as a feature, personally: it means we can find a mutually satisfactory solution! However, this frustrates SomePartner sometimes (despite his knowing what “not too oily,” etc, mean by now), because he feels like I won’t tell him what I want. But I don’t
want anything specific; I haven’t fixated on the One and Only Thing That I Can Eat That Night.
***Examples end here***
I fully expect that the abuse in my past is a significant factor here. I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m a horrible person for wanting something other than what the other party wants, and for upholding my boundaries and wanting to be treated with respect. I’ve been beaten and given the silent treatment for weeks or months because I refused to do things I didn’t want to. I’ve been laughed at and humiliated for talking about my desires and hopes. These all make it difficult to stick my neck out and admit what I want, although I do it nonetheless. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if it affected the way I viewed wanting things, as well as how risky it feels to express those wants.
The way I frame things stands out as significant, too - wanting things you can’t have is “pointless,” “setting yourself up for disappointment,” “impractical,” “daydreaming.” I’m not sure where the judgemental slant in that framing comes from. But on the other hand, we’re told to be realistic about what we want, and that spending your days yearning does no-one any good.
SomePartner suggests that most people think of “what do you want” and “what can you have” as separate things; one works out what one wants first, and then then considers what is feasible as a separate process. In my opinion that just goes straight back to “recipe for disappointment” territory, but I can’t deny that there seems to be a difference in my approach. SomePartner wonders if I’m answering a different question to the one being asked, but if that’s the case I don’t know how to answer the one being asked.
So I’m throwing it out to the wider world to see what happens; I figure the answers will be fascinating either way! Am I Doin’ It Wrong, this whole “wanting” thing? Am I just weird? How do you think about what you want, if it’s not by first considering what you can have?