How do you know what you want?
November 30, 2012 3:47 PM   Subscribe

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.

(Please note: 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?
posted by Someone Else's Story to Human Relations (35 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I'm watching this with interest. My gut reaction is that you're totally normal, and what your therapist is asking is a bit bizarre, but then I think maybe it's just that you're like me and I have trouble imagining any other way to look at things. I also have never had any celebrity crushes!

I feel exactly the way you describe, and it seems obvious to me. But, I have a long pattern of settling for much less than I could probably have gotten because it seemed realistic and because I wasn't willing to take any risk that didn't seem a sure bet. I was also not willing to do something that might be good in the long run over something obviously ok in the short term.

The main example of this pattern is my career, and I'm only just pushing myself out of this at 32. For example, even though I could probably have just managed it by eating toast for weeks on end, I would not do any internships in college, I temped through all my time off because I felt like I needed the money. I also would not consider any career paths I heard were difficult to get into, even though I have a good degree from a really top college (that I sort of went to by accident because I didn't want to apply because I heard it was hard to get into). Now I'm training to be a lawyer, consistently in the top three in my class, and wondering whether I might have options beyond working at a local main street type general firm.

Written down this looks like regular old fear of failure, and perhaps it is, but it doesn't feel like it, it feels like making rational decisions based on likely outcomes. My mind was blown when I learned my wife doesn't feel the same way - she assumes that if something has a 10% pass rate she'll be in that 10%, but that feels like playing the lottery to me.

On the positive side, I am very good at strategic planning, and at predicting how people will behave. I used to plan campaigns and was often frustrated that others would only consider the rosiest outcomes. I was quite glad to see this article (pessimistic law students more successful).

I was not abused as a kid, but I come from a working class family, with a mother who grew up very poor, sometimes in children's homes, and who I think felt lucky to have gotten some stability and saw any wish for more as somehow disrespectful to how little others have. I've always put it down to that.
posted by crabintheocean at 4:23 PM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I must admit that I didn't read your whole question, but for what it's worth, you don't seem weird at all. However, you do seem to have a very, very intense way of thinking that's overly analytic which gets in the way of you doing, thinking, feeling, and desiring certain things. Like crabintheocean, I think this might be because of a fear of failure. Perhaps you also fear things working out in your favour if they've been pretty shitty for quite some time, so in order to protect yourself from pain and letting yourself down you choose to focus on what you think is practical instead.
posted by livinglearning at 4:40 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wanting things is hard, and in my opinion, one of the hardest things ever, since getting what you want comes only after you know exactly what you want. Letting yourself fully, truly want something is really, very scary.

What do you feel when someone asks you what you want to eat? If you say, "Indian", then do you waver because you think, "well, maybe that's not exactly what I want -- maybe it's thai, or maybe something entirely different"? Is it an uncertainty of one's own desires -- that ones desires are expressed as vague intensities, or percentages, etc?

For me, two things changed this a lot.

1) Sometimes wanting required me to transform these vague intensities into exaggerated clear values. For example, if I only sort of wanted indian food, but wanted thai food a little bit more -- I would try to turn that into: "I WANT THAI FOOD", and test that desire. This isn't about exaggeration, but rather that I think the barrier to not being able to want things stems from a self-doubt, a wariness, a desire to be truly correct. If you can temporarly lessen these factors and just go and say what you want, even if you half-believe in it, that itself is a kind of want.

OR in other words: don't worry if you feel like you're faking, when you say 'I want thai food'. Wanting isn't about being absolutely correct; it's about deciding that you want something on an emotional level. You can't answer personal desires with probabilities or calculations. Like crabintheocean above, I'm a pretty rational/careful thinker, and I've learned to override those feelings sometimes when necessary.

2) Wanting things makes you want more things, in that desire is like a muscle, and needs to be flexed to get stronger. So if you fake it and let yourself say, "I WANT THAI FOOD, I ACTUALLY DO", then the next time the question comes around you'll be a little bit better at knowing yourself and answering. Of course, I'm presenting a trivial example of choosing food, but I actually do think that the food is a pretty good example. Over the past three years, I've found that expressing my desires have made me full of more wants and desires (in a good, healthy way), and the clarity of wanting has made me overall a better, happier person.
posted by suedehead at 4:45 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll address only part of your question with a suggestion. Rather than ask yourself these open-ended questions which yeah, are sort of daydream-y and difficult to get a handle on, ask yourself: "If I get this thing I want, what will it give me?" Then ask yourself: "If I get *that*, then what will it give me?" Keep asking until you get to the root of where your desire is coming from. I've found this immensely helpful in the past, and really like it as a contemplation tool. On preview: I agree that your way of thinking is analytical, and this may appeal to the way your brain works.

A trivial example would be "Oh man I would love to have that big silk scarf. If I had that, I'd look so spiffy. If I looked spiffy, I'd feel confident. If I felt confident, could probably be a bit more secure and grounded when I'm dealing with other people. If I felt secure and grounded while dealing with other people, I'd be a nicer person to be around. If I knew that I were a nicer person to be around, I'd like myself a little bit better. If I liked myself a little bit better, well jeez, everything in life would be a easier to deal with because hey, I'm friendly with myself."
posted by Specklet at 4:47 PM on November 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

I would think less about what is normal and more about why they are asking you these questions. Is it possible that your therapist and friend are looking for you to take more of an active as opposed to passive roll in your life?

It's great that you're looking to negotiate dinner since you are open to possibilities you haven't even thought of and you want everybody to be happy. That is generally a fine way to approach things, but sometimes what makes me happy is not having to make a choice. Even though you're defining options, you're still forcing them to always make the choice. What if you approached that question as if they weren't even going to be eating with you? If you were going out to eat on your own, there would be nothing to negotiate with anybody, so where would you go then? If they say ewe I don't feel like that then you can offer limits for negotiation. Ideally, you don't have to pick every time and they don't have to pick every time.

Even if a relationship with an abusive parent who cut off contact is hard to imagine or unreasonable, chances are it's impacting your life in some way. Maybe the therapist just wants you to be thinking about the ideal so that you can form a plan for your life that helps you come to terms with the loss of the relationship.
posted by willnot at 4:50 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's different from how I think in that I don't feel, as you seem to, that daydream-type speculation might require emotional investment. Or perhaps it's that you don't want to acknowledge that the potential for investment exists?

The celebrity crush thing: For me, what's fun about it is precisely that it's never going to happen. I can moon over some person who I don't know and will never know - but this crushing doesn't take up so much emotional space that it keeps me from being present in my actual life...except for times when I've been very depressed. Then, it's an escape.

The parent thing: in your shoes, I probably would have said something like "I want them to acknowledge that they fucked me up. I want them to recognize what they did wrong. And I want them to treat me kindly and with respect going forward." Me, I'd be able to say that - I have said things like that in therapy - even knowing that it's not likely to ever happen. But saying what I want, out loud, even if that thing is not really possible in this universe, has been good for me in a lot of ways.

Hope this is helpful.
posted by rtha at 4:51 PM on November 30, 2012

Best answer: spending your days yearning does no-one any good.

That's actually the bit that stands out to me as weird (not having celebrity crushes or being vague about restaurant preferences does not.) There are things that I want that are not going to be easy to get. There's a good chance I won't get them. But I'm not lying in bed thinking about them all day, I know I want them so I do some research and make some plans and take some action. And, shockingly, this has resulted in me getting a whole bunch of things that, if I went back and told my fourteen-year-old self I'd get, would have resulted in me being utterly insufferable for my entire adolescence. I mean, I worked in the video game industry (for Lord British! My childhood hero!) I moved in with, traveled with, shared a bed with a musician that I was madly obsessed with (note: getting what you want is not always as much fun as you'd think,) hell, I got to visit the Tor Books offices and take anything I wanted off of their shelves. I've written a couple of novels, and fully intend to get one published. I own a condo, and fully intend to one day own a house. These aren't easy things, and I am aware that I might not actually succeed, but if I don't decide to try, I certainly will not succeed.

It doesn't really sound like you're catastrophizing, exactly - that would be more "I won't try because what if I fail my hair will fall out and my house will burn down and I will end my days living under a bridge eating rats." But it does sound like you have a very conservative approach towards effort - that if you try something and it fails, then the whole thing was wasted and you're worse off than when you started. Does that resonate at all? Because if it does, it would be totally possible to start to analyze the value of trying - the education and ancillary benefits of intermediate steps towards a goal - rather than getting hung up on the distance to the end result.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:53 PM on November 30, 2012 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Well, let's start with the obvious: you're over-thinking it.

And I point that out not because you don't need to think/write so much--this is AskMe, that's fine, and don't we all--but because over-thinking it is a key facet of the problem.

What you've described are people using language to work with you and help you solve problems, and it sounds like you're not playing the game, because you're caught up in challenging suppositions that are actually somewhat irrelevant to their problem-solving goals.

The dinner question seems fairly clear. I suspect if in that situation you asked yourself "What does my partner want?" you'd find they want something much more practical than an epistemology of your wants. By that I mean your partner has not asked for a careful study of your preferences to set constraints on hypotheses and eventually work out a definitively accurate, satisfying solution. Rather, they've deferred to you to solve a common problem, probably because they're aware you sometimes have quite a list of restrictions. And you've punted back to them with nothing but reminders that it's hard to solve this problem with you. And what you ought to have aimed for is a practical answer that may not reflect your inner thoughts or your ideal outcome, but just a semi-randomized, sufficiently satisfying selection among the possibilities that you're more aware of than your partner is.

The parent relationship question is similar. By posing a counterfactual question, I think your therapist is hoping to eliminate common considerations and get to the point of finding out what lack you feel that a parent could in theory supply. Probably, they don't know and may not even care if your actual parent could supply that thing. And they may well not care if you can imagine that parent supplying that thing. What it seems to me that they want to know is whether you feel a lack in your life at present that has something to do with the parent and if so whether that lack can be addressed realistically with or without the parent actually being in the picture.

In both cases, I'd agree the other person has phrased their questions with the same recklessness as pretty much everyone, every day, and you're right that their phrasing presupposes the existence of a specific mental object in your mind that in fact does not exist and may be difficult to summon up.

However, the reason this carefree phrasing is typically overlooked is because most people don't think too much about the very normal unreality of that mental object, and they just play the game of coming up with something sufficient to address the purpose at hand.

I do think you could be described as having a limited range of fantasies, but I don't see that as either very uncommon or as a blocker to answering these questions with something practical.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:54 PM on November 30, 2012 [13 favorites]

Coming from a somewhat similar place, here are a couple notes:

I realized that not knowing what I wanted put me in a very passive position. The onus to drive the situation into resolution was entirely on the other party. Sure, it seemed I was being flexible and reasonable, but no, I was effectively playing dead and making the other party figure out what to do about the body. This could also be construed as doormat behavior.

When you don't know what you want, you'll settle for anything that seems better than status quo, but not what is truly satisfying. Yeah, you do run the risk of not getting what you want. What was helpful to me (but very hard) was to become comfortable with not getting what I wanted - at least not immediately. Sometimes it took a lot more effort and work than seemed "fair" (ha ha). The initial disappointment was rather painful. It hurts - a lot - to want something and not get it. My fear of that hurt was significant. Turns out, if you keep striving past the failure you can get to a really good place, but it may not be exactly what you had in mind.

Say what you want from your parent is a genuine apology, so you can get to a place of forgiveness and peace. But even if you did the work on your end, your parent may fail to deliver. Your parent could do something hurtful when you are vulnerable. And that would be very hard to process. But the lesson would not be about the actions of your parent and their acceptance/rejection of you, for good or ill, but the work that you did on yourself, freeing yourself of this stalemate of a situation.

Allowing yourself to want is the difference in seeing your power to be proactive instead of waiting for others to determine what is possible for you.
posted by griselda at 5:25 PM on November 30, 2012 [23 favorites]

- 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 am not a therapist, I am not your therapist. But I have a feeling that with this question, your therapist is trying to trigger you into expressing an emotional response to how you have been treated by your parent. Here's what I mean.

It sounds like your therapist thinks that you've been using this overthinking your own desires as a sort of protection - subconsciously you wanted a specific kind of relationship from your parent, but you also weren't getting it, so rather than feeling sad or angry about not getting it you justified the status quo like crazy, to the point that you can't even identify what you originally wanted from them. And that kind of overthinking and justifying "well, if they really want X I should want X, but if they want Y I should say I also want Y" is carrying over into everything else.

And that's some deep shit emotional stuff in there; mourning for that relationship that never was. You never got the chance to get angry about "I wanted X, Y, and Z from my parent and I never got it and THAT SUCKS DINGO KIDNEYS". And it sounds like maybe your therapist is trying to help you get to the point where you CAN feel those "I never got what I wanted from this parent and that sucks" feelings, so you can process them and move on. That can help you also have the courage to want other things, once you have experience of knowing that you can want something, and the world won't end if you don't get it.

Mind you, if what you really want from your abusive parent is "fuck that asshole, I don't ever want to see them again no matter what," then that's also more of a clear expression of emotion than what you're doing, and that's also valid.

It does sound, though, like you've been using this means of trying to figure out what other people want so you can want the same thing as a protective thing, though, and it sounds like your therapist is trying to puncture that a bit. (And I'm only as verbose about that because I kind of struggle with the same thing too, and this is sounding a little familiar.)

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:34 PM on November 30, 2012 [12 favorites]

"Is it possible that your therapist and friend are looking for you to take more of an active as opposed to passive roll in your life? "

This is what struck me, too. You actually DO express a lot of wants: You want your parents to acknowledge their abuse, you want the ex-girlfriend to be straightforward with you. But you insist you can't express actually desires, only contingencies based on others' actions or desires. Other people take action; you react. Sometimes that's a way to avoid being responsible when things go wrong -- if you're only reacting to what others do, you didn't actually DECIDE on the bad course of action and so can't blame yourself.

Or maybe you're saying, "I want to know what other people want so I can fit myself to their desires." Which also isn't very healthy.

This is something that drives me totally fucking crazy:
"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."

NEITHER HAS YOUR PARTNER. I make a decision about dinner 7 nights a week. Sometimes I really don't care. I have used up all my ideas for the week. I don't want to have to think of something or pick something. I tell my husband to pick dinner and he says, "I don't care, whatever you want." And I say, "I want you to pick something." And he says, "I don't know, I'm not fixated on anything in particular, whatever you want." And I'm like, "I WANT NOT TO BE THE ONE TO PICK." And he says, "I truly don't have an opinion, whatever you want." And I say, "I DON'T HAVE AN OPINION EITHER PLEASE JUST PICK."

Making decisions is tiring. Your partner doesn't care what to have for dinner either, but you're always making him pick. Just throw a dart at a dartboard and pick something at random, give him a break. Maybe it will help you make a decision about food now and then if you realize you're doing him a favor and sharing the burden. When neither of you cares, one of you still has to pick. Try not to make it be him ALL the time.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:09 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Re: dinner - this is a learned skill, in my experience. I used to have that (infuriating) exchange all the time, because honestly I will eat anything that holds still long enough and I don't tend to care much, but it really isn't fair to make the other person make all the decisions. So: the 5-3-1 method. He asks "What do you want for dinner?" You propose five options. He vetos three of them. You pick between the remaining two. Trade off who starts, adjust numbers as appropriate (3-2-1 works fine between two people who know each other's preferences) and you are very likely to get an acceptable solution in a minimum of time.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:18 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Okay, I read what you wrote. I think what your therapist is getting at is you need to begin giving yourself permission to want things-and even permission to have opinions. This was a skill I lacked totally when I was young and had to develop later on. I did not go through the abuse you did but my upbringing was...."interesting."

The big lie I believed, and still struggle with a bit to this day was-"if I want it then I can't have it." It might not be that blatant for you but I do see traces of it in what you write. Of course some of what you say-i.e. food preferences-is totatally normal but occasionally you might want to be able to simply state-hey, I want Thai food. Or, I want a steak. Or, I want seafood.

That's a good skill to have.

And it is okay to imagine an optimal arrangement for these other scenarios-why not say you wish you could have a mutually respectful and loving relationship with that abusive parent? It doesn't matter whether or not they have changed-we aren't necessarily talking about what is possible, we are talking about what is optimal. And theoretically optimal is possible. And if it isn't possible, then you know what it is you are mourning the lack of. And that is important.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:29 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

In therapy I had to work Hard on figuring out what I wanted. Before that I was always the amenable one, frustrating friends just as Eyebrows MacGee mentions. The only times I'd notice what I wanted was when someone else would choose something and I'd get resentful, and then I'd realize that maybe I Hadn't wanted their choice, but I'd said it was ok, so I was to Blame for my unhappiness. Yeah, not a healthy pattern.

There are a lot of reasons for doing this. My main reason was that if I never wanted anything, I wouldn't have to admit having failed to get it and wouldn't have to suffer not getting it. If I didn't want love or money, it was A-OK not to get them, right?

Except for how we all need at least a little love and money. And if we admit that we want them, we can work toward getting them and sharing them and living life a little more healthily.
posted by ldthomps at 6:39 PM on November 30, 2012

What I want is what I would like in the best case scenario. So for your first example, I assume that'd be that you'd want to establish healthy contact that obeys your boundaries (based on that being your first response). For your second example, your therapist wants you to go beyond "I want to know what she wants" and into "I want to be friends" or "I want to date" or "I don't care". Your dinner example is the closest thing and pretty much what I do, though often with back and forth to narrow down options to a single thing.

A want isn't necessarily completely possible immediately. It's a desire that you acknowledge and that often leads to you striving for something of that sort.

It sounds like you've avoided admitting you want things for fear of being denied those things and have coped with this by saying that you see wanting as something childish or unnecessary. It's also possible that you're avoiding making a decision on where to focus your energy.
posted by buteo at 7:05 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The thing that comes to mind for me is that I have read and seen firsthand that people with serious (deadly and/or incurable) illness often are unable to just verbally state "I want to be well". If you can get them to say something like that, it ends up being a really hugely emotional thing. They cry, they talk about how upset they are that it simply isn't possible, etc. And it is often some kind of personal break through.

So I am thinking that is the kind of thing your therapist is aiming for. And the reality is that a lot of things people assume are unattainable are actually possible, at least for some people.

I used to talk to someone with a big personal issue who would try to imagine what their life would have been like if someone else had raised them. But they still imagined growing up with their big personal issue, just a nicer parent. And someone said to me "Why don't they just imagine growing up without their big problem?"

So I think a lot of people do what you do, in terms of trying to "be realistic". But sometimes, "being realistic" is self-fulfilling prophesy which places artificial limits on you. Being able to say "I want X" even though X seems completely "unrealistic" is sometimes emotionally freeing.

Having said that, I sometimes just told my therapist that I could not relate to some exercise he was suggesting. He simply dropped a couple of things when I said that.

But here are a few things I want if I could have Anything, since you asked:

True Love.
A financial windfall so I don't have to spend eons digging myself out of my financial mess the long, hard, slow way.
To change the way CF is treated on planet earth.

Here is what I am actually shooting for:

I would rather be alone than miserable, so for now I remain alone and continue to work on sorting out what might work, someday.
I am still working on the long, slow, painful financial solution.
I am still trying to figure out how to get people to just talk to me. Again, rather slow and painful. Oh well.

But I know that I am not artificially limiting myself. I know that I am not refusing to be open to larger possibilities. And I know that is important because I know I have already come farther than what I and other people thought was "realistic". "Realism" is often a code word for personal negativity. And I think that is what your therapist is trying to get at.

posted by Michele in California at 7:09 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you're normal too. But I wonder if your therapist is trying to get you to spend more time envisioning and articulating Step 1 and is amused at how quickly you go past it to Step 2 and 3.

Step 1: In a dream world, I would ... (feel supported and loved by my mother, be in a relationship like xyx, etc.)
Step 2: Test its feasibility and think about possible challenges
Step 3: Identify a path for refining your goal into something attainable, in part via explorations of where the other parties are at

What is there to be gained by spending time at step 1? Well, you have done more to identify exactly what you want, so you are more likely to get something that works well for you.

Example: "I want something with vegetables, that’s not too heavy (so pasta’s probably out), spicy or oily - nothing deep-fried."

Where you could take it: "... so if I really think about it, what I most want is a spinach-salmon salad at George's Cafe."

What this would gain you:
- if your friends don't care, you will likely go to George's Cafe
- if you have to negotiate or persuade, you can better do that: "George's is near the bookstore you need to visit." "You want pancakes? George's has a whole breakfast menu, actually." "You want teriyaki? Hmm, well, Japanese Restaurant actually has a smoked salmon and veggies plate, so I'd enjoy that."

Example: [not getting crushes on celebrities]

Where you could take it: "If I could date a movie star? It would be Julia Roberts. She's so feisty and independent in most of her roles."

What this would gain you: the knowledge that you would enjoy dating someone feisty and independent.

Example: “I want to know where I stand with her and what she actually wants from me...I liked the idea of being friends with her, certainly. However, I don’t want to impose myself on someone... and I don’t know what she wants from me now because her actions cast doubt on her previously-stated position."

Where you could take it: "So basically, I want her to WANT to be friends with me and to know I can rely on her as a friend."

What this would gain you: the ability to better protect yourself in seeking what you want. "You say I can come 'if I really want to?' Nah I'll pass." "Hmm, you know, I'm never going to be able to really rely on her after all of this, so maybe I should stop trying."

In short, the more clearly you know what you want, the more active you can be in quickly getting that outcome or the next best approximation.
posted by salvia at 8:03 PM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think what this is about is control and hope. My wife is kind of the same way. She doesn't see the point of entering contests or buying lottery tickets because "We won't win." Which is true most of the time, but much to her infuriation, sometimes I enter a contest or drawing and I do win despite the odds (not the lottery yet, sadly).

There's three things at work here. One, I'm guessing as someone who was abused, you subconsciously crave security. Hoping and daydreaming is, essentially, change. And that's what you fear. Because you've got everything stable right now, relatively speaking, but change, jesus, that's terrifying. You don't even want to think about it because Change means losing this little niche of security you've carved for yourself, you know? It's standing on the edge of a great black abyss and peering into it. So it's about control. Not letting your mind wander means you don't think about the yawning abyss of Change and what monsters may lurk down there.

The second thing is, it's a defense mechanism. See, the fun of entering a drawing or buying a lottery ticket or fantasizing about a celebrity for that matter isn't the prospect of actually doing it. It's imagining what it's like. It's making jokes about sending that email to your boss telling him what you really think of him. It's imagining someone as gorgeous or cool as your celebrity crush being totally into you. But here's the thing. Hope, for you, just leads to disappointment. Your parent never stops abusing you and becomes a loving person. The police never show up to stop the beating. The teacher never notices the mark and whisks you away to foster care. Whatever. The cavalry never comes over the hill to save you. Hope just leads to disappointment and despair. So you avoid it. You shut it down before it starts to stir. Better stay practical and achievable rather than something that'd be a stretch. Because that way lies darkness.

Final thing. The lottery or drawing? I know the odds, stats are kind of my thing. Odds are I will never, ever win. However, I can absolutely guarantee never winning by never entering. The same goes for life. Maybe you won't date that hot celebrity or circumnavigate the world in a balloon, but I can guarantee you won't accomplish it if you don't try. Striving and failing and ignoring your inner Dad from Footloose is where you learn things that lead you to your eventual success. And that is, really, I think the root of the problem. You're afraid to put yourself out there and fail because the consequences for a child of abuse have to seem absolutely horrifying. But they're not, not when you're away from it.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:24 PM on November 30, 2012 [10 favorites]

I see black and white thinking as the problem here. You are afraid to want something because it means choosing one thing that you want (in your mind). That's a false dichotomy. Just because someone asks me what I want for dinner and I say "risotto", does that mean that it follows that there is nothing else I want for dinner aside from risotto? Is risotto now the One and Only Dinner? No! My partner's free to say "hmm, I'm not feeling risotto tonight, what about chicken tikka masala?" And I can honestly be just as happy with that option - "great! sounds delicious." Did I consider every single possible dinner and decide that no other dinner is acceptable? Not at all. Am I going to be disappointed for the rest of the night because I didn't have risotto? Heck no. I'll have risotto tomorrow night!

Now, it's a little trickier in the case of what you want from a person, like your abusive parent or an ex girlfriend. Just because you want your parent to get treated for mental illness or to maintain communication with your ex, that doesn't mean it's ever going to happen. But I also think you're holding yourself under an illusion if you think you can force yourself not to want something just by not thinking about it or not vocalizing it. I can see the temptation in telling yourself "I'm fine with however things turn out with my parents! Because I'm never going to get what I want from them anyway, if I don't want anything more from them, they'll never be able to let me down again." Yeah, that's not really true. They have let you down, and they may continue to let you down whether you choose to recognize that by defining it to yourself or not. You choose not to think about it to maintain the illusion of control. (this is my impression from what you say).

Don't forget, one can have conditional wants. And you're also allowed to change your mind. This is how you can get your black-and-white, logical mind to make a statement when there are unknown variables. "What I want right now is XYZ - if that doesn't seem to be working out, I'll reconsider." or "If so-and-so were to change in XYZ ways, I would want to have them back in my life. If they don't - I'm not interested."
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:28 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, the answers so far have been as fascinating as I expected. Thank you.

There's such a breadth of comments that this will be long - I do tend to be long-winded as a result of the cognitive effects of my illness, unfortunately. Anyway, here goes:

It's intriguing looking at how various people have responded to one or two of the examples I gave, rather than the question I asked, though. I suspect I need more practice framing questions for this space.

I'm amused by the angle the majority seem to have taken on the dinner example. I decide what we have for dinner nearly all the time when we're cooking, so I know quite well that making decisions can be tiring, especially when dealing with someone who says "Oh, I don't have any preferences" and then proceeds to turn down every idea I suggest!

This is not what I'm doing, however. I said quite clearly that if I had a specific preference I'd answer with that, and if I'm really hankering for something then I've told SomePartner about that long before we get to the "what do we eat tonight" discussion. Without the specificity of "I want a hunk of protein! We're having steak!" or "Soup from the Chinese place," though, I express my general preferences as I described - by that point I've considered and weighted my preferences, and nothing specific has topped the list. If SomePartner has preferences (general or specific), then I can proceed to suggest places that will satisfy us both; if he has no preferences, I will pick something that satisfies me - remember, I've usually suggested a few options in stating my own preferences. I'm not forcing the other person to make the decision, I'm hoping to arrive at a decision together.

(And then, if anything, I'm the one who gets to propose options while he turns them down, all the while saying he doesn't really have a preference - just things that he knows don't appeal once they're suggested! Oh, the irony.)

I don't believe I'm afraid of failure, or of taking the harder road, and I'm certainly not a passive pawn in my life. I turned down a place in Medicine at university despite lifelong pressure, and my parent's wrath, in order to pursue my passion; I reach for what I want and work to get it, rather than giving up when things turn out to require effort (as a "gifted kid," I had to learn that lesson after coasting through school, but I learned it). I work, health permitting, in the image-centric performance arts; I am not afraid to audition despite very much not having the conventional "look." I dive into new things I want to learn; I relish a challenge and love the chance to mess around and learn something new, usually by fucking up a lot. Well, except for in interpersonal relationships, where fucking up a lot often leads to hurting people.

And that really seems to be the crux of this?

This centers around interpersonal examples because they seem to be where this crops up most often - where I'm dealing with a living, thinking, feeling other part of the equation that I can't control. I I'm finding an interesting contrast here between the "you can't control other people's reactions" responses to previous questions, and notion of fixating on a specific idea of what a relationship will look like without considering the other person's input. I'm not trying to fit myself into other people's desires, I'm wanting to have enough information to make my own decisions about the next step. In the case of Mia, how she responds and explains the last two months is currently the biggest factor affecting what place I'll want to give her in my life going forward; without that information, I don't know. I don't want to either write her off based on her silence or invest emotionally in a close relationship with someone who's happy to treat me poorly.

As for my therapist's questions, we'd already gone through the how-it-makes-me-feel part. With some aspects of my upbringing I have mourned and cried and ranted and moved on (I've had years to do this, after all), with others the pain is still raw and I'm openly sharing it, tears and shouting and all. I actually said almost word for word what rtha wrote above in the leadup to the relationship-with-parent question, but that was apparently too abstract for the purpose, so it led into the "what would that relationship look like - we can't change the past, but thinking about going forward, what would that relationship be like?" question, and thence to the question I quoted in my post being given to me as homework.

I am very interested in something that both rtha and restless_nomad brought up: I see a difference between wanting something (ie. actively investing emotionally in it) and daydreaming (idly speculating/imagining without any emotional investment beyond "yeah, that'd be nice. Also, a pony!"). To want something IS to invest emotionally in it. Without the emotional investment, it's just daydreaming - a pleasant way to pass the time, but not something you actually want. Do you view things differently? Is there a terminology issue here?

Interestingly, Michele in California's example of "I want to be well" is one of the abstract/unattainable things I can state without hesitation. It wouldn't magically make everything perfect, but damn right I want to be well!
posted by Someone Else's Story at 8:33 PM on November 30, 2012

Best answer: Hey, that's a super-helpful followup, thanks.

To want something IS to invest emotionally in it. Without the emotional investment, it's just daydreaming - a pleasant way to pass the time, but not something you actually want.

I think maybe you and I are using the term differently. I am perfectly happy to conflate "wanting" with "having a goal" - because if it's not actually a goal, then yeah, it's a daydream. But goals are not necessarily emotional at all - hell, sometimes I want a soda. I make a plan to get a soda, I execute the plan, it's usually successful, and hey, I have a soda. If I don't succeed - don't laugh, shopping is hard - it's not really an emotional moment. (Unless I'm PMSing. Then, all bets are off.)

That's a small-scale example, but a lot of my larger goals are similar - I may make investments of time, energy, money, what have you, but there's no particular guarantee that I'll be emotionally invested. That sounds exhausting.

I'm finding an interesting contrast here between the "you can't control other people's reactions" responses to previous questions, and notion of fixating on a specific idea of what a relationship will look like without considering the other person's input.

Personally, I think I'd answer the question about the ex-girlfriend exactly the same way you did. Certainly I could game out scenarios in my head (I am very, very good at this) and if someone were to press me on it I could pretty easily say "Well, if she contacts me again and wants to be friends, I'd be happy to see her socially every so often, and if she doesn't get back to me then I'll move on with my life, and those are both acceptable outcomes" but "I want her to return my damned email and let me know what's up" would in fact be the scenario I was emotionally invested in. Uncertainty is infuriating.

Frankly I think your therapist sounds annoying. If it's working for you, so be it, but I don't think you're actually broken or anything. It sounds more like he's trying to get you to jump past the points you are emotionally invested in, which might or might not be an interesting thought exercise, but doesn't seem to be doing anything useful for you. (And would totally not do anything useful for me, either.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:57 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your reply reminds me of my first thought upon reading your question, whichn was about when I was in therapy and my therapist would ask me stuff about my marriage and I would reply with "But it isn't that simple. He has yadda yadda backstory and..." My therapist would blame my rut on that type of reply, but I ultimately concluded that I had a better grasp of certain things than my therapist.

Perhaps you simply understand something about the complexity of human relationships that your therapist doesn't or that you aren't communivating or something? I have come to feel that what I was trying to tell my therapist was correct: That you cannot get good results in interpersonal situations without understanding a lot of complex things. It doesn't really help to simplify them. Understanding things deeper ultimately got me out of my quagmire. But oversimplifying consistently made things worse.
posted by Michele in California at 8:59 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: treehorn + bunny, I didn't see your comment before posting that novel above.

Part of the problem is that I'm having - and expressing - conditional wants (and short-term ones, with long-term wants being contingent on further information), but they're apparently not adequate answers to the questions, at least according to those asking them. That's what's confusing me here!

There are parts of this where I feel like I'm speaking a different language - your comments about "forcing yourself not to want something" and "illusions of control" led to one of those moments. I'm coming at things from a position similar to mindfulness - start with what is, rather than getting caught up in what could have been. Plan for the future, learn from the past, but act on what is true in the here and now. You can't change or control other people, only yourself. That sort of thing.

In the case of my abusive parent I acknowledge both the good and bad things they did, and the influence those have had on my life and my self. I wish my upbringing had been different in some key ways, but it wasn't. I would like my parent to get to a place where they can get the help they need and we could build a relationship in line with the parameters I outlined in my post. But they're not there, so I have drawn my boundaries and maintained them, and I continue to work on correcting the harm my parent's actions caused on my own.

If/when things change at their end, I'll reassess my position and their place in my life. It would be interesting to see what a healthy relationship with them was like, and it'd be nice to have the sort of friendly, mostly-healthy interactions with them that I have with my other parent (that relationship isn't perfect, but it doesn't have to be). But until I know the formerly-abusive parent's influence will be a constructive one, I don't want them in my life causing further harm. And until I know who they've become, I don't know what that hypothetical improved relationship would look like.

Is that forcing myself not to want something, choosing not to think about it to maintain that illusion of control, in your book? I'm genuinely curious here, so I'd love your thoughts.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 8:59 PM on November 30, 2012

What I want to know right now is - how do you FEEL about your parent?

You've told us very rational-sounding things about what you THINK about your parent. But what do you FEEL about how things shook down about your parent?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:22 PM on November 30, 2012

Hm, the impression I get is that these concerns emerge from something like the opposite of mindfulness. When we look inward to analyze our own thoughts, we're not open and present to the world. More specifically, when we play out scenarios in our minds or reify the vague feelings, impulses, and strategies with which we make our way in the world and treat them as if they were actual things--ideas, wants, dreams, etc.--then we're not just letting them guide us anymore, because we're busy reflecting on them, trying them out in our minds, testing their limits, etc.

Maybe that's your point, and you don't want to do that kind of thing when people ask you for it. Or perhaps you want to be better at it, setting aside your mindfulness to give them answers that are solid yet also more inclusive of possibilities you find it hard to consider. Either way, you seem to think people want you to step outside the moment and come up with a solid answer about something that isn't here for you. Possibly you're asking that of yourself.

The thing is, I think a lot of people in situations like you mentioned are just making up their answers about stuff on the fly without rendering them too carefully as scenarios or ideas to test in advance. And I suspect your interlocutors aren't asking you for more than that. Maybe I'm misled by the context here, where you necessarily have to articulate what you're thinking about with some reflective distance, but it really sounds like you're not just letting yourself merge with the moment to say something spontaneous about your wants, whether they're things you can actually have or not. Mindfulness means attending to that present spontaneity and delighting in it, not stepping back into yourself to inspect an idea before expressing it. And I think your partner and therapist especially would be OK with you being mindful of the present moment that way by allowing yourself to just say whatever: get an answer out there and allow them to help you sort out why you said it or whether it's realistic.

That said, it's often fine and useful to be super-analytic and super-realistic. I'm thinking of studies that suggest brainstorming about possible solutions to a problem with no critical editing is not really more effective than trying to come up with realistic plans first. Letting yourself express wants randomly isn't always the best plan either.

But when I think of mindfulness, I think of 'letting things happen,' remaining 'open to the mystery,' making 'peace every step,' etc. Not 'wanting to have enough information to make my own decisions about the next step'--that's the other way.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:28 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let me try to answer you another way. To 'want' something is a visceral, guttural, and oftentimes uncontrollable thing. It doesn't mean you have to act on it, just that the want is there.

I may want something sweet and savory and light and satisfying for dinner. This thing may exist. It may not. It may be possible. It may not. If it is possible, it may not be worth the effort. So my end decision may be something sweet but none of the others. And that might be good enough.

You have to let go of the limitations of what is possible and dream big to figure out what you want. And from there, figure out which parts are important and which parts are just icing from the cake.

IANA therapist...

You are still angry at your parents.
  • You want your parents to have "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".
  • You want them "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".
  • You want your "upbringing [to have] been different in some key ways."
  • You want your parent "to get to a place where they can get the help they need and [you] could build a relationship in line with the parameters [you] outlined in my post."
These are the things you said yourself, except you put a "but" clause after every single one. The thing is, you can want things, even if they don't seem or are not possible. You want them. That's fine.

For example, for a long time, I wanted my relationship with my mother to be like the ones I read about in books and magazines. It wasn't. I still wanted it.

Eventually, I learned which parts were just advertising. I learned which parts I could get from other people (family, friends, partner). And I learned which parts I could get from my mother. I learned what I wanted from myself (to feel that I am a responsible person by sticking with family). These are things I learned and am better for them, because I thought about what I wanted and why and how I can get them from other places.

Sometimes, it's important to want things because you will realize that two wants (e.g. drawing boundaries and being unconditionally supportive) are at odds, and you can only have one. And every time you choose, you feel you've been let down a bit by the world. But at least you know it's because YOU made the choice, not some unhappy accident of the universe.

But if you're not willing to want anything, then you will not feel fulfilled. Ultimately, you might not get these wants fulfilled by your parent, but maybe your future in-laws will adopt you. Or your mentor at work is super parental. Or whatever. But you have to know what you want--even if you think it's not possible.
posted by ethidda at 11:05 PM on November 30, 2012

I like a lot of what EmpressCallipygos has said here - most recently, how do you FEEL about the things that happened?

It's very tempting to say, it doesn't matter how I feel, that won't change the past, and now I have to move forward. And I could make an argument that that's sometimes the healthy way to do it! Certainly you can't spend forever thinking about how bad so-and-so made you feel, how much better it would have been if you had normal parents, etc; eventually you have to look up and do what you can with the situation you've got.

But I think your therapist may be going for that sort of "breakthrough" where you have the emotional reaction, not just the practical next-steps-required one. You may not agree it's worthwhile, and maybe the therapist just wants this because it's flashier, but you say your therapy with this therapist has been working out well so far so maybe you go ahead and try it.

So here's what I'd say is happening: You're hearing your therapist ask, what do you want from (this person). And you're - perhaps immediately and sub-consciously - rejecting everything that involves them suddenly getting a massive personality transplant. But it may help you get to the same place as your therapist if you answer the question "If you could change who this person is, what would you want from them then?"
posted by Lady Li at 11:28 PM on November 30, 2012

Response by poster: I'm concerned about threadsitting, but this post seems to be veering off the rails.

This question is not about how I feel about my parents or anyone else, which is why I haven't gone into that. When my therapist, my partner or anyone else in my life wants to know how I feel about something or someone, they ask precisely that, and the conversation builds from there.

I'm not sure where that tangent came from and I see no need to go into that in this post, thank you. How one feels and what one wants are related but distinct questions.

Also, I have quite clearly stated more than once that I'm capable of both wanting things and expressing those wants. Let me do so now, in fact: this post is about the question of wanting things in a particular context,* and I would like to see it stay on that topic. There have been some great answers so far, and I would really prefer any future ones not to be sidetracked.

* - The "personality transplant" idea was explicitly rejected by my therapist when I asked if that's what he was asking. As I said above, he asked what I wanted for me; how the other person would have to change was not what he was interested in.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 11:32 PM on November 30, 2012

I'm not really clear on what you're asking. You say you have no problem asserting a choice when you have a preference. It's possible you simply don't have strong, activated preferences for all things all the time. Nothing wrong with that. And it seems this doesn't appear to trouble you in the moment (when you're ordering dinner), and it's only when prompted that you think to worry about it. A person has preferences (and drive, or adequate emotional investment to pursue them) with regards to a given activity/thing or doesn't*.

If your occasional lack of preference/drive is blocking you in some way, i.e., presenting a conflict with some vision of yourself, that's something to address, but you say you're quite happy pursuing the goals you have.

Similarly with the ex. That just seems reasonable to me, I'm not sure what options you have other than accommodating her wishes and modifying your expectations. (That are desirable or legal, anyway.)

Are you actually conflicted about anything here, other than the interaction in the therapist's office? Are you worried he doesn't approve of your goals? Maybe that's the issue.

*of course, drive/investment can grow, if you feed it, and are in the right environment. If you want to bother (which you don't. Do you?). But it's hard for me to think about this outside of a specific activity. I don't think a person can just flip a switch and be generally 'driven'.
posted by nelljie at 12:34 AM on December 1, 2012

Sorry to write again, just a few more thoughts.

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.

If you often use language like this, then I guess I don't blame your therapist for picking up on it, and it might be you're more conflicted than you're aware or want to say.

It sounds like some of this, though, might be a communication problem - maybe you and your therapist like different kinds of metaphors (I once dropped a therapist for using the phrase 'shattered, like broken glass', in relation to my 'heart'.) Or, he's a different kind of thinker. Your restaurant example's interesting - you mention attending to textures. Is it possible you're more naturally attuned to texture (and detail, undercurrent, subtext), rather than declaration?

Also, if your therapist's using silence a lot (a tactic I personally hate, but appreciate is sometimes helpful), that can certainly ramp up stress around generating an 'appropriate' response, even if you're not being defensive, and just happen not to be feeling that particular theme on that day.

In any case, I'd just bring this up at your next session. I know there are different approaches, but few of the ones most used these days require that the therapist conceal the ends and means of therapy (surely you should play a part in defining that?).
posted by nelljie at 1:38 AM on December 1, 2012

I agree with the post above that the daydreamy wishing for something is not something that I personally can control - it just happens. And I indulge it because it's enjoyable. Imagining myself living in a beach house with celebrity crush? Aww, wouldn't that be lovely? It's a nice thing to do with your brain.

The other thing that strikes me is how black and white your take is on what is/isn't possible. I guess that makes sense when you're talking about other people's behaviour, which you really can't control.

But when it comes to your own life, there's every reason to let your imagination roam, because you never know what you could do unless you try imagining beyond the realms of what seems possible today.

There have been quite a few times in my life when I've daydreamed something seemingly outlandish, then decided to work towards making it (or a more realistic version of it) come true. I've had lots of adventures as a result: I (a suburban English girl) Greyhounded round the US on my own at the age of 19 because I had a Greyhound flyer and thought it looked cool (I even followed the pretty random route that was roughly sketched out on the flyer I had); I moved to some tiny islands on the other side of the world for 3 years because one of my friends had gone there and I thought "Well, if she's done it, I could do it too, how can I make it happen?"; I spent a great fortnight working as a fixer for a well-known BBC correspondent in said islands because one day I had a rush of blood to the head and emailed a generic address at the BBC when I knew they'd be coming to visit. I had ABSOLUTELY no expectation of a response, but to my utter astonishment they replied, and told me to name my price.

In other words - sometimes daydreaming DOES work. Sometimes you can get exactly what you dreamed of; other times it at least expands your sense of the possible; other times it's just an enjoyable mental exercise.

It's a really interesting question. I hope you learn to daydream - its lovely, and occasionally life-changing.
posted by penguin pie at 1:57 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think there is possibly a terminological issue here. The philosopher Immanuel Kant made the distinction between wishing for something and willing to have it. Two people might both want to be rich, but only the one who is prepared to undertake the means to that end (working hard in a high-income profession, committing to a savings/investment plan, attracting a rich partner, etc.) actually wills it; for the other it is merely a wish.

It sounds if, when your therapist asks you what you want, you hear that as "what are you willing to try to achieve in this area?" And you rightly observe that, with respect to interpersonal relationships, this depends somewhat on factors outside of your control, as other people have their own autonomy which needs to be respected. But what I think the therapist is asking is "what do you wish for in this area?"

"I wish my parent really loved me as I am", "I wish my parent would die horribly in a fire", and "I wish I never had to think about my parent again" are examples of three completely legitimate wishes that describe three very different therapeutic situations. Now none of those are ends that you necessarily can or would bring about through your own willing, and some of them might be quite uncomfortable to own. But it would be helpful to your therapist (and to you!) to understand which of them, if any, is closest to your situation. Having access to your authentic wishes (even if in some cases you are never going will them), can have a positive impact on those things you do will.
posted by muhonnin at 4:34 AM on December 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

This question is not about how I feel about my parents or anyone else, which is why I haven't gone into that. When my therapist, my partner or anyone else in my life wants to know how I feel about something or someone, they ask precisely that, and the conversation builds from there. I'm not sure where that tangent came from and I see no need to go into that in this post, thank you. How one feels and what one wants are related but distinct questions.

If you're truly able to express how you feel about things, then why can't you just say what you wish had happened without weighing it down with "but it wouldn't do any good to think about that becuase it's not going to happen so I don't get what the point is anyway"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:38 AM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, MeFites! This has proven to be a wonderfully interesting and useful set of commentary.

This post has helped me clarify that I see desires on a spectrum of emotional weight and significance. As a first attempt at pulling it out of my head, it runs approximately:
- daydreaming (idle fancies, with obligatory million dollars and pony) ->
- wishing ("I wish that things were different" with only mild degrees of emotional investment, as per muhonnin's summary of Kant. ) ->
- wanting (significant emotional investment in a desire) ->
- willing (actively making plans/taking steps to make it happen, again as per muhonnin's comment)
(I think there's a fifth point in there, but I can't quite articulate it yet.)

That in turn makes me think I probably have been answering a different question to the one being asked - though not quite in the way that SomePartner suggested. I'll be taking that insight to my therapist as well - assuming I don't just send him the link to this post.

If that had been the only benefit of this post, it would still be incredibly helpful - thank you all.

Of course, it has also made it clear that there are indeed different ways of thinking about the subject - no real surprise, I guess! It's given me food for thought on how to understand some of the different ways people talk about wanting as a concept, and how to effectively express my own position to those with differing approaches.

EmpressCallipygos: If you're truly able to express how you feel about things, then why can't you just say what you wish had happened without weighing it down with "but it wouldn't do any good to think about that becuase it's not going to happen so I don't get what the point is anyway"?
I can - certainly to an extent, anyway. In my opinion, this post wasn't the place for that; I was trying to provide brief (for me, anyway!) summaries of the example scenarios while focussing on the broader question.

However, I see a difference between the degree of emotional investment involved in wishing things were different while acknowledging that one can't change the past, and that in actively wanting something - as I outlined at the top of this comment.. Semantics, perhaps, but for me at least, there's an investment of energy and emotion in picking one possibility for how something (such as the parental relationship) might look, and there are any number of other (better?) things on which to spend my energy - emotional and otherwise - on a day-to-day basis.

I've mentioned my disabling illness in other posts here; I've done a lot of reading on the subject of coping with chronic illness (as well as the effect of abuse, trauma and other life-scarring events), and one of the things constantly emphasised is the ability to accept without resignation the things you can't change. It is not denial or dismissal, as such - and not because "it wouldn't do any good to think about that" - but an acknowledgement that these things are beyond one's control and an intention of focussing on being present and making the most of what is, rather than putting so much emotion and energy into regret over things and people that can't be changed by me that they dominate my life. (I'm doing the work in therapy to deal with those things and heal their pain, but I don't know the "it would've been nice if..." sentiment ever goes away?) Perhaps I am expressing it poorly, but that's what I'm aiming to describe in those statements that are "weighed down with 'but's."

I'm marking this resolved at this point and don't expect much more traffic here, but I definitely have more thinking - and feeling! - to do on this topic. If anyone knows of good books or resources that deal with the psychology of wanting/desire (in a a general sense rather than a sexual/relationship one - I've found plenty that deal with the latter sort!), I'd love to hear about them?
posted by Someone Else's Story at 3:13 PM on December 1, 2012

> If you're truly able to express how you feel about things, then why can't you just say what you wish had happened without weighing it down with "but it wouldn't do any good to think about that becuase it's not going to happen so I don't get what the point is anyway"?

I can - certainly to an extent, anyway.

But you started this question by saying that you couldn't.

In my opinion, this post wasn't the place for that; I was trying to provide brief (for me, anyway!) summaries of the example scenarios while focussing on the broader question.

But if you say you can do it, then I don't know what the broader question is. What I mean is:

1. You start out saying that your therapists asks you what you'd want from your parent, but you say you can't answer because your parent isn't going to give that so what's the point.

2. Then when I say that it sounds like your therapist is trying to trigger you to express what you feel about the situation, you say that this isn't about what you feel, it's what you want.

3. Then when I ask whether you can't just say what you wish your parent had done, you say that you CAN say that.

....I still think that you have a habit of rationalizing and overthinking and rules-lawyering everything as a means of self-protection, and invite you to consider that, as you've just talked yourself around in a circle back to where something you first said you COULDN'T do, now all of a sudden you CAN do it and you were talking about something else all along anyway. No matter what, I wish you luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:31 AM on December 2, 2012

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