How to dream, fantasize, and aspire?
May 16, 2017 10:51 PM   Subscribe

I have started working with my therapist on formulating aspirations for the next several years of life, and I am finding this very challenging. How do you formulate positive aspirations? How do you develop a long-term view of what you want to do or be, not just what you must do or must avoid?

As I phrased it to my therapist, I am entirely unable to envision what I want my future to look like. I am good at formulating and executing on near-term, very concrete goals (e.g., saving money for a large purchase over a year), good at figuring out what to do in situations of scarcity or crisis, and good at identifying what I will term negative goals—goals that center around avoiding some dislikable outcome or hedging against a risk.

But when it comes to articulating what I might want for myself in a positive sense, I simply draw a blank. I never daydream nor fantasize, and that has been largely true since I was young. I am pragmatic to a fault but have no sense of what I want my story to be.

My life now is about as stable and unencumbered as it has ever been. I am fortunate to be in a position of relatively high socioeconomic privilege. I want to move beyond bracing myself for the next crisis and establish some idea of what I might look forward to or strive towards, like working towards a position at a particular company or having a clear sense of what I think a healthy marriage and family life would look like.

It's a dark place, not feeling able to want anything.
posted by 4rtemis to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
What would you like to be doing with your money and time that would be meaningful to you? It will take time to answer this. Explore it. Pose the question to yourself by way of the angers, loves, threats, and opportunities you face or turn against. Aspiration eventually becomes reality, and that's a negotiation of its own.
posted by parmanparman at 11:30 PM on May 16, 2017

Oh boy, this is really hard, and something I'm still in the process of trying to figure out. It doesn't help that the default life for most of my peers seems to be built around desire and aspiration - "I'm going to achieve x, do y, acquire z" etc., with all of those wants forming steps on the life escalator. Sometimes I feel less than fully human because the desire/want/hunger part of me seems to be missing (or at least seriously compromised).

The biggest unblocker so far has been figuring out which specific bits of early life trauma contributed to this. My parents were extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling, basically unable to see their own children as people because they were so rigid they could only focus on making sure everything was absolutely the way they needed it to be so that their own anxiety felt under control (spoilers: this is a terrible, damaging emotional environment to raise children in).

Both were very punitive, usually totally out of proportion to the perceived crime, and my mother particularly favoured a strategy of punishing by taking away high-value items/experiences/prior promises in response to behaviour she couldn't handle (again, usually this was much more about her/her needs/her feelings at the time than the actual severity/impact of whatever I had done).

There is nothing like knowing anything you might want could be whipped away from you in an instant by an angry, unreasonable parent to totally kill any concept of desire within a child. It feels like bit of me that wanted stuff got switched off really early as a survival mechanism - wanting stuff/experiences was a tool for someone with a lot more power than I had to hurt me with, so I just...stopped caring about stuff. Stopped caring about experiences. Let them go. Stopped mourning the loss, even. Stopped wanting in the first place.

This was also most likely a huge root cause of my lifelong depression - "my desire system feels hopelessly broken and it sucks to not want anything in life" has been a recurring theme every time I've been depressed since the age of 12 or so. Also, it was super easy for a long time to assume that not wanting anything was a pure depression symptom, like it was depression that had broken me in that way instead of my parents. It took a lot of painful digging and therapy to realise there was a deeper mechanism going on.

I am still working on what to do with this information via therapy, and it seems really hard to kick the missing desire stuff back into being - I did such a good job at shutting down that avenue of abuse that it sometimes feels like I fully excised the ability to want anything at all at the same time; I don't know how to restart that engine but I'm trying.

It might also be worth thinking about any secret wants you've been shoving down because they seem too impossible/arrogant based on your present situation. Anything that didn't get totally killed off, wants-wise, I shoved down real hard because the idea that there might be something I actually did want (and thus something someone else could use to hurt me) was extremely frightening. I am paralysingly afraid of being disappointed (probably more childhood stuff - my mother's life philosophy has always been "don't look forward to anything and then you'll never be disappointed", as though disappointment is the worst possible thing and it's better never to feel joy as insurance against it???), and wanting stuff and knowing it's possible but not likely that I'll get it, even if no one is going to actively abuse me because of it, is very frightening.

This has got to the point where I sabotage myself and make it harder to do anything - a good recent example is buying a house. I live in an area of the UK where house prices are absurd (second-worst outside London, apparently) and for ages it felt impossible that I'd be able to get a house of my own. But it actually was possible, and has been for a while, and I was just too scared to begin that conversation. Talking to a mortgage adviser about whether or not I could afford it was the biggest emotional hurdle, because the thought of being rejected by a big faceless bank as too poor or a bad bet felt like a huge value judgement - a referendum on my entire adulthood, essentially - so I put it off and put it off and then when I finally found the courage to take a look at it, it was actually fine and the rest of the process has been way less stressful.

Finally, can you think of any ways in which not wanting stuff is benefiting you? My go-to example of this for myself is consumer debt. I have a student loan and will soon have a mortgage but I don't have any other loans or credit card debt, I refuse to lease a car etc. If I want or need something, I don't get it until I can afford to buy it outright. And I want so little in terms of actual stuff, consumer goods (I have very little interest in clothes, makeup, gadgets, collectables, acquiring more physical stuff etc.), that it's very easy not to spend money I don't have. What would I spend it on?

That was kind of a long personal ramble, but to summarise:

- Can you figure out the root cause of your lack of desire? How has wanting stuff hurt you in the past, if at all? Does it make sense in any way that being able to switch this off might have kept you safe at an earlier point in your life?

- Do you have any secret desires that you're crushing down because they feel too painful/impossible/outlandish to acknowledge? And how realistic is your assessment of that possibility? Could you be sabotaging yourself from making progress on these things because of preconceptions about how possible they are?

- How is this behaviour actually helpful to you (if at all)? Are there any areas where it's useful in your life and you'd like to preserve it?
posted by terretu at 1:28 AM on May 17, 2017 [24 favorites]

I relate to having to go through the process of working out what your dreams are.
I personally think (based on my own experience) that often a lack of dreams and aspirations can be base upon being used to inaction. Getting used to not being intellectually or physically challenged specifically.

I personally would start working out what things interest you. Then work out ways to incorporate those more heavily into your life. I think it's super important that you identify which parts of your life let you stagnate and cause you to never have to be better because it's those people/places that will stop you from learning/doing anything new because it's always easier to not try harder/do more/change.

I bang on about it a lot on MeFi but I also think sports can be massively positive in so many ways. Team sports for me in particular are something that can give you the drive to push towards something hard and something with a sense of achievement. But this could be applied to any group that works together to win, it could be a creative project, activism - whatever. Equally individual goals are as satisfying - whatever it is you're into - but I would say that having a space to share that success is often important.

Try things basically. Try things you think you'd like and try things you'd never considered before. It is incredible where things will take you and what people you'll stumble across and subsequently where that takes you. Identify things you enjoy and challenge you and then follow them no matter how strange or unlikely it seems for you to achieve them. I can relate to not knowing what to reach for, but in my experience the less you try things the less you'll learn what really gives you the passion to go further. Essentially; make reasons to want to do more.
posted by TheGarden at 2:27 AM on May 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Gosh, yeah, this is hard for me too! I recently did some of the exercises from What Color Is Your Parachute to help me out with this, and it is a little cheesy but maybe it would help you too! There is a great trick in there for this, which is to take your "negative goals" and flip them into positives, then use that as your goal. But you want to frame this in terms of specifics because anything too general just sounds like a platitude that would be nice for anyone, but not specifically for you.

For instance, one of the exercises is something like "List 10 things you hated about the physical environment/material conditions of the last place you worked." And maybe it would be something like: No windows; too much micromanaging; loud noises; sterile; etc. etc. And then the next step is to articulate all those things as positive aspirations: "I want to work somewhere quiet with a window, that feels warm and cozy, where I have a lot of autonomy." Then you might move on to "10 things you hated about your coworkers," "10 things you hated about your work tasks," etc.

This is really useful because if you're like me, when I try to generate a statement about What I Want Out Of Work out of thin air, my brain's automatic reaction is to scoff and say, "Sure, that's a nice fantasy, but I am here in the real world where it is all about SECURITY and SURVIVAL and there is NO TIME FOR SUCH NONSENSE and who are you to think you deserve a cozy autonomous window seat!" But somehow, starting with a list of complaints and working backward kind of circumvents that mechanism. The logic of it just feels kind of irrefutable: If I hated these things, then I would probably enjoy these other things, and what's wrong with working toward that?

Good luck!
posted by Owl of Athena at 2:31 AM on May 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

good at identifying what I will term negative goals—goals that center around avoiding some dislikable outcome or hedging against a risk.

I can empathise with some of what you say, as I'm usually very cautious about framing my desires. The above sentence leapt out at me, because I think you may be able to use it to reframe some positive desires.

If you have goals that revolve around avoiding undesirable things - and you are in therapy - it' s possible some of these goals might actually fall into Avoidance as a psychological phenomenon. And herein lies the seed of a psychological goal: are there any behaviours, emotions, or goals you hold that are a result of anxiety/depression etc? Could you form a goal based on demonstrating more personally positive behaviours?

Additionally, it may be more useful to think about "directions", e.g "I'd like to explore my creative writing more"; rather than "Write a novel". Focusing on behavioural trends rather than specific steps can help take some pressure off, lowering the stakes so it doesn't have to be a Big Deal and success/failure becomes irrelevant. The act of doing means you are achieving your goal.

It also opens you up to opportunism, which I think can be useful as you sound perhaps a little bit like me as an overthinker. Saying yes to something that comes up unexpectedly can sometimes short circuit over-caution, and doing so means you are already succeeding regardless of outcome

It's not about becoming X, or achieving Y. It's about doing X, practicing Y. This makes it easier to commit; recognises that outcomes are subject to variability we cannot control; shifts the focus away from external measures to internal movements, and also acknowledges that changing internal states, behaviours and thinking can in fact be just as monumental as meeting external metrics - especially if you are meeting the latter in an unhealthy way.

And doing is, ultimately, what life is all about.

Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 2:49 AM on May 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think there's a narrative around ambition being about feeling a desire, but it can also be about something you intellectually choose to value and strive towards, whether or not there are emotions involved.

What do you think the biggest problems are in the world right now?
What do you think the most important issues are this decade?
What do you think are changes that need to happen in the world in your lifetime?

If you can answer those questions, you are in a position to start thinking about whether there are pieces of those goals/solving those puzzles might be achievable by you over the next decades. Or whether there are other people or organisations working towards solving those problems, dealing with those issues, or making those changes, and if there might be a place for you building relationships with those people or working with/for those organisations.

Your part might only be a tiny bit of the answer, but if you are devoting your life to contributing to things that you intellectually think are super important, you will value what you do. And then it doesn't matter too much if your emotional desires haven't caught up with that.
posted by lollusc at 2:57 AM on May 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think starting to tune in and ask yourself smaller questions is one way to go. Like not, "WHAT IS MY BIG DREAM???" "WHAT IS MY PURPOSE?" (all relevant, but also sometimes not immediately clear and hard to answer!)

start asking yourself things like"

"What do I want to today?"
"What makes me feel good?"
"What would make me happy today?"
"Who do I like being around?"
"What would taste good for dinner tonight?"
"What feels good in my body right now?"

and listening to the feelings/sensations you get from your body/mind/heart from that place. When I'm stuck or scared, I try to come back to the immediate place I'm in, instead of the big, big questions about my life, and usually things flow from there.
posted by Rocket26 at 6:43 AM on May 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I also seem to want things less than most people, and have since I was a kid. Agree with starting small - e.g. I feel tired at work: what would make me feel better right now? Pay attention to what you enjoy. And it doesn't matter if you used to like it or think you should like it. Are you actively enjoying something in the present moment? What did you get out of it? Are you afraid something bad will happen if you want something? What?

You can also draft out some prospective plans and start trying to notice how you feel about them. Like, I don't have a fully-featured version of my future, but I know I don't want to move to a house in the suburbs. Thinking about that makes me feel like my stomach is sinking and I don't want to fill in details about it. I am excited about spending time in the woods, and I find it easier to fill in details in that scenario / ask questions about what kind and where. It's also fine for the longer-term answers to change over time, if you plan a dream life and you don't actually enjoy it you can reset your course to something else that sounds good then.
posted by momus_window at 7:58 AM on May 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you a reader? This is a situation where (in my life) my attention drifts toward (auto)biographies and nonfiction accounts of peoples' lives that I find fascinating.

I should add that I'm not one who's driven by personal ambition, but I found my interests long ago. Finding biographies of people like Samuel Steward and Quentin Crisp helped me identify with pursuing my deepest personal desires without needing to pin them to career goals, social norms, and all that.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:00 AM on May 17, 2017

This can be a double-edged sword, but might help if you're drawing a blank: Are there other people that you admire? Can you identify what is it they're doing that you admire? Could you follow a similar path?

It might be a specific thing like having a certain job or doing a type of charity work; or it might be an attitude you admire - being the kind of person who stays positive in adversity, always encourages the underdog or accepts criticism gracefully. Whatever.

Noticing what you admire in others can be a way of divining what you want to be yourself. I think I arrive at a lot of my goals that way without thinking about it. However, it's not perfect - there's a real danger of becoming overly-fixed on what other people have achieved and feeling like you always fall short, and comparing yourself while overlooking the fact you might have started with fewer advantages etc. So you have to guard against that. But it might give you a useful starting point.
posted by penguin pie at 8:19 AM on May 17, 2017

Here's a pragmatic suggestion. I do this thing called Morning Pages that I got from this book (which I recommend working through as a whole for sure, if you have any buried artistic aspirations). Before you get to the point of figuring that out, though, just do Morning Pages: every day, when you wake up, handwrite three pages in a notebook about whatever comes to mind. It's not meant to be a journal (a recapping of your day) or involve any kind of guided thinking (i.e., you're not actively trying to work out what your aspirations are.) The rules are just that you have to fill the pages, and that you're not supposed to read over what you've written.

I've been doing it regularly over the past few months and what I've found its given me is a kind of stable reflection of self that continues over time. By doing it daily, I get a sense of what my concerns are, what tends to occupy my mind, whether certain aspects of my life (work, relationships) give me primarily pleasure or pain. I left a bad short-term relationship recently and I think it ended sooner than it otherwise would have (a good thing) because I was forced to notice every day that I woke up with bad feelings about it: otherwise I think I might have spent more time talking myself out of what I was feeling; there was the way that writing them down crystallized my feelings so that I could see them more clearly. It's like a mirror for your brain, and the more you do it, the more accurate your picture of yourself is.

I hope that is helpful. Good luck!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:15 AM on May 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, to be frank, I think most of this comes from self-definition. What are your likes and dislikes? What moves you, or inspires you, or gets you really calm and appreciative of the world around you? I think you have to start from somewhere tangible, and say, "Yes, this is who I am, and my traits that I self-identify with are x, y, z," in order to idealize how you want your natural strengths to potentially lead you towards greater goals. I'd recommend taking a personality test like this one so you can familiarize yourself with the modalities that ring true to you. (Me, I respond really well to self-definition, so I suppose YMMV.)

Probably not all of this will be effectually 'you,' but some things might be. I think it's a great start not to try to speak of what I think my goals ought to be, until I can see the extent that I'd see myself being applied to them. In using self-defining language about who I believe or know myself to be, I might be able to envision a better me, using goals that pull my identity together.

For example, I care about people very much (and especially their well-beings, sense of satisfaction, and fulfillment in the world,) I really like music, I love language that's applied towards describing beautiful and true things, I care about the outdoors and being outdoors, and I love connecting the dots for people so that deeper understanding can be achieved. Now, with those, I can find some vocational and personal-project ideas that involve a few of them at once, and I think that's a good a start as any.

Once you have some thoughts about what those intersections may be, finding a niche that needs that certain something you can provide is a great way to start marketing and making them effectual. My counselor and I have talked about making S.M.A.R.T. goals and I think it might be something to be looked at once you're at this stage. I'd personally be glad to be of help to you, so consider this an open invitation to PM me if you find any desire or interest around that.
posted by a good beginning at 11:31 AM on May 17, 2017

There are 2 exercises I found helpful. 1 involves thinking back on your life in 5 year intervals. Write down a description of yourself and the kinds of things you really, deeply, absolutely enjoyed when you were 0-5 years old, 6-10 years, 11-15 years, etc, etc all the way up to the present. (If you are willing it's best to share this with someone who can give you objective feedback. But it's ok if you just do it for yourself too). Can you detect any patterns? Similarities? I figured out that the things I loved doing as a kid are basically the same things that bring me joy now, and the same things I found I had to have in my job if I wasn't going to go insane. (Basically, opportunities to be creative and use my imagination and lots and lots of independence).

The second is take a sheet of paper and make for columns. Label the columns:
THINGS I WANT TO HAVE (ie: new car, vacation home, latest iphone, etc)
THINGS I WANT TO DO (learn to tapdance, skydiving, eat more sushi)
THINGS I WANT TO BE (mayor of my hometown, marathon winner, grandparent)
PLACES I WANT TO GO (Italy, Iceland, Thailand, NYC)

Remember not to limit yourself to things you think are realistically achievable, that's not the point. The point is to brainstorm an amazing life. After you have 4 columns full of awesome ideas, THEN imagine how you can make them come true. How you would need to allocate your time and money to make them happen. And which ones really DO get you excited.

Obviously, there's much more to talk about when doing these exercises and lots you can learn from them, but this is a good start I think....

hope it's helpful!
posted by pjsky at 2:33 PM on May 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

Okay, I am very similar to you except maybe not as well off, but probably more well off than I should be due to also saving money and KEEPING THINGS UNDER CONTROL!. I have been thinking about this now as well as it is definitely time to change and I just ordered this book and envy the Stanford kids that got to take the course when it really would have helped. Anyway, a good therapist like terratu's would probably help, but I'm in the process of just trying to make my life line up a bit more with my interests...little by little...anyway, keep me posted on your progress because you have put into words what I often feel...which is strange because I'm opinionated but when someone says "What do you want in 5 years" etc...I just have no idea. Dinner...that I can definitely decide. Life, not so much. Let's hope the "Design your life" book has the answers!
posted by bquarters at 4:00 PM on May 17, 2017

I have a book recommendation too - Wishcraft by Barbara Sher. It's very practical and of all the self-helpish "What do you want" books this one has been by far the best. It gets great reviews, and there's a free PDF version (or a somewhat recently updated version on Amazon). The pdf version is a little dated and has some minor typos, but you know - free!

Another on my wishlist is The 52 Lists Project.
posted by jrobin276 at 6:36 PM on May 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is such a good question. I feel like I could have asked this 3 months ago. For the last decade I feel like I have been "running away" from my fears or from things I hated, e.g., getting away from my parents, getting away from professionally productive but ultimately "sick system" type of jobs, running away from the fear of being laid off, etc.

I have just reached a place where I feel like I can stop running away, and start running towards something. What changed? I left the crazy job, joined a sane company, got some work life balance, and ditched a commute. I actually had the time/energy to think about something besides working & complaining about work.

I don't know what situation you are in, but if you've been "running away" from a long time, you should allow yourself to "rest" and not worry too much about what you should start "running towards." It took me about ~2 months before I could even begin to articulate what I wanted -- I had so much joy in just sitting still in the evenings and not having to work!!!! :)

But, sure enough, I listened to what it felt like "I" wanted each day, AND, actually did it, maybe it was a little bit of video gaming, maybe it was watching YouTube videos, maybe it was putzing around on wholesome meme on Reddit, maybe it was adopting a 3rd cat (lol). I kept and still keep a little "gratitude" journal to write down things in the moment that I really appreciate, e.g., wildflowers or lattes or life on weekday nights. And ever so slowly, listening to that inner voice and doing whatever it was the hell I wanted helped me "hear" certain wants and then, finally, I was able to start consciously putting together what *I* wanted.

The advice of taking the "reverse" of what you've been "running away" from is helpful. For instance, one of my BIG WANTS is to have enough money saved that the interest each year (from super basic investing) is enough to give me stability, so I would never have to fear getting laid off or having to take a lower paying but ultimately better for my sanity job. I was running away from the fear of lay offs and professional instability (b/c that's what I saw my parents experience), but now I'm running towards saving that money for my own stability, so I never have to be tied to a job. And well, damn, that is TOTALLY what I want, and unbeknownst to me, it's what I have actually always wanted, but couldn't quite frame properly. Before, I thought that I had to keep climbing the career ladder to improve job stability, but now I know I don't have to suffer terrible jobs for the rest of my life.

I wish you luck! And, I also wish you the patience to start listening to your "little daily wants" and actually doing what you want. I think the act of PRACTICING of doing what you want will help you figure out what your BIG wants are.
posted by ellerhodes at 9:25 PM on May 17, 2017

I have a couple of ebooks by Marelisa Fabrega that I have been meaning to use to prompt my own dreaming/life planning. One is called Guidebook of Dreams and it's literally 1,000 questions divided into several categories to get you thinking about your ideal future life. This resource alone has the potential to prompt many hours of reflection.

The other is Book of Possibilities, which is a set of exercises along similar lines.

Check those out and see what speaks to you. There's no need to answer all the questions or do all the exercises -- just see what resonates with you and invites the level of detail that is useful for you.

I am also fond of The Life Organizer: A Woman's Guide to a Mindful Year as a helpful and nurturing resource for connecting with oneself. Although the title is woman-skewed, one certainly needn't be a woman to benefit from the questions/prompts and absorb the nourishing and gently thought-provoking vibe of the book.
posted by delight at 9:41 PM on May 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

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