At the end of July I embarked on a 30-day experiment, the aptly-named “What Do I Want” experiment. My intention was to report back at the end of August with a neat little of summary of what I’d learned.
Initially, I thought “what do I want?” meant learning to identify my needs and desires. That sounded intimidating. I had little idea where to begin so I began obsessing over decisionmaking. It was concrete and easy to construct rules around. It was also just scratching the surface of what I needed to be doing.
Wading deeper into the experiment, it became more difficult to separate what I want from other big questions of identity. What I am. How I act. How I think. Who I want to be.
I gradually began to realize that being autistic and alexithymic is only part of what makes “what do I want?” so hard to answer. There is a secondary element at work, an old defense mechanism. Wanting something, getting my hopes up, expressing a preference, letting desire creep in–that makes me vulnerable. To deprivation, to loss, to mockery, to pain. Not wanting feels safe. Ultimately, though, all it gets me is preemptive deprivation. There’s a lot of emptiness in not wanting.
Thankfully, realizing that I’m in a fundamentally safe place means I can set aside that old armor which now does more to weigh me down than protect me.
What Did I Learn?
I went into the experiment with a goal of simplifying my life but in the process I discovered hidden layers of complexity. As I peeled them away I learned some surprising things about myself, my thought process, and the way I approach life.
I learned that . . .
I instinctively start small but I’m by nature an all-or-nothing person. My initial goal was to make everyday decisions more intuitive. By the end of the 30 days, I found myself questioning some of the fundamental ways that I approach life.
There are no universal rules to guide decision making and there are few objectively right decisions. Decision making is fraught with uncertainty. That’s okay.
“Because I want to” is valid reasoning. I don’t need further justification beyond fulfilling my wants or needs. Corollary: there are no bonus points for self-denial.
I often don’t acknowledge my wants. My default state is self-denial. If I don’t want things, I can’t be disappointed when I don’t get them.
I’m not very nice to myself. I often make decisions on how “disciplined” the outcome makes me feel. This is problematic.
When a decision feels frightening, I may not have enough information. I should ask for more details.
My default state is passive acquiescence. Saying no can be hard. Just recognizing that a decision or preference is required can be challenging. Knowing what I want requires active vigilance. I need to purposefully tune in–to inner thoughts and feelings, to what others are asking of me, to the nuances of a situation.
24/7 self-improvement doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work for me. It’s okay to step away from an opportunity for improvement if I’m not feeling up to it. Life will serve up another chance soon enough.
Doing what I want feels good. There’s a purity and simplicity to it that is rewarding.
Hard things are easier when I focus on why I want to do them. Not everything I want comes easily, but holding tight to my motivation can help get me through the roughest parts.
Convenience is unrewarding. If I want something bad enough, making an additional effort to get it can be worthwhile. Doing so, however, may require asking for help or reassurance along the way.
I don’t have to make the absolute best possible choice when it comes to minor decisions. I just have to make a choice I’ll be happy with. Often that can be accomplished in more than one way. Letting go of the alternatives once I’ve made my choice is important.
Expressing my wants makes other people more secure. I used to think that telling others what I want would be off-putting but it turns out to be good for relationships. When the people in my life know what I want, they then have a clear path toward helping me fulfill those wants. No more guesswork means everyone is more secure and happier.
Being open to spontaneity is part of good decision making. “But I always . . .” and “But I never . . .” thoughts are not.
I’ve outgrown the defense mechanisms that instinctively silence my wants. Not having wants or desires is safe. Blandness doesn’t make waves. No one can mock an unspoken thought. For many years not making my wants, desires, or opinions known was a defense mechanism, one that I should have shed a long time ago.
To sense my wants, I need to ignore all the shoulds. My inner monologue is logjammed with shoulds and have tos. Should and want rarely play well together.
Without action, a want is simply a frustrated wish. Doing what I want requires doing. This can be hard. Sometimes I need to ask for support, advice or assistance.
The 30 days that I’d planned to work on discovering what I want were up three weeks ago, but I haven’t stopped exploring. Like everything else, sensing what I want gets easier with practice. I’m slowly excavating my “want” instincts from beneath the rubble. I’m slowly learning to listen to myself–the real me, the one that is willing to be vulnerable enough to want things. I’m slowly learning to act on what I hear, moving from unspoken wanting to active doing.
I feel like I have a lifetime of catching up to do.
A/N: I’m about to head off on vacation and it feels like it couldn’t come at a better time. I’ve been having some weird new language processing issues for the past couple of weeks that make writing more challenging than I’d like. It’s not only impacting my ability to complete posts (hopefully this post isn’t actually as odd as it feels to me when I read it), but how much I’ve been commenting here and in other places. Just writing this note has taken me more than 15 minutes. At any rate, I’ll be back in a few weeks. Until then . . .
34 thoughts on “What I Want”
Great post. I think we underestimate the concept of ‘want’ (or ‘will’ as I often think of it) and its importance to our sense of self and happiness. I think it was Rudolf Steiner who suggested that we are only truly ‘alive’, and living to our fullest, when we are ‘thinking, feeling and willing’. I often check with myself that my three-legged stool isn’t broken! Reading your post made me think of the ‘will’ leg of the stool. Have a great break 🙂
Oh, thank you for this comment. I’m going to investigate ‘thinking, feeling and willing’ more because I like the sound of it. I’m not sure if I get the direction connection between will and want but I’m going to think on it some more because it feels like an interesting direction to head off in. 🙂
Hi there – I couldn’t make sense of the Steiner saying at first as I took willing in the sense of ‘are you willing to do this?’. But then I started to think of it more in the sense of ‘what is your will?’ which is more about want than agreement. For example ‘My will is to do x’ So then you can use will in the sense of desire or ‘want’. It is used in this sense biblically too – ‘Thy will be done’ reminds us what God wants for us, not what we want for ourselves etc. So that’s how when I read your post I thought of ‘willing’. I like the Steiner saying because it reminds me that just thinking and feeling isn’t enough – I need to have some motivation or desire for something too! Anyway I may be wrong on this but I’ve found it helpful. I think Nietzsche uses it in this sense too in ‘Will to power”…
i think that’s what I was getting at in my note about the importance of action. The thinking/feeling portion of wanting isn’t enough to satisfy most wants/desires, which are often concrete in nature. So yeah, I can see where the two are connected. That’s a really interesting take things.
You write well, you share with others and that helps touch and help more people. Do not stop writing we love your blog and you have help others far more than you may know. Have a great holiday.
Thank you. I love writing and would be lost if I couldn’t write anymore. I’m thinking I may need to schedule some regular communication breaks or cut back on how much I’m asking my brain to process though.
I identify with many things on your list.
“I’m by nature an all-or-nothing person”
I find this to be true about myself. I have no dimmer switch. I remember one time in high school. I was playing basketball with my brother and his friends at lunch (some were actually on the freshman team and I’ve never been very good) when one guy complained that I was taking it too seriously (not fouling people, just trying to squeeze out every last drop from my limited skills).
“I often don’t acknowledge my wants”
I like to provide for others but seem more comfortable with hand me downs or left overs.
“If I don’t want things, I can’t be disappointed when I don’t get them.”
It reminds me of when my wife is out of town and when I feel like I’m doing something wrong if I sleep in the middle of the bed.
Have a good time away.
No dimmer switch! Yes. I have often been told that I take games too seriously.
This list was hard to make but it felt good to honestly assess where I stand.
Thank you for the vacation wishes! 🙂
Once again you manage to voice things that are deeply relevant to me (and very many other people). I am going to print out your list and keep it close to remind me.
Have a great vacation/adventure and thank you so much for everything you have written up to now. You are touching lives.
Thank you. What a wonderful comment. 🙂
I hoped this post would serve as a sort of jumping off point for others to reflect on in the way that compiling it allowed me to reflect on where I am right now.
I identify with a lot of points in this list. It makes for a disturbing read, actually. Because we know a lot of these things are bad for us, like how not nice we are to ourselves, or how not wanting decreases the chance of disappointment. Reading someone else write this out is encouraging to change.
Definitely going to print this out.
Thank you! May we all learn to better listen to ourselves.
I’m glad you found it helpful. It is hard to acknowledge some of this stuff but like the shame post, putting it out in the open takes away some of its teeth. I felt lighter after posting it. 🙂
You make some very reflective points, things that I resonate with and I think need to think about (I have never considered why I don’t voice my own wants or opinions to other people, perhaps it is because of what you have said here, safer? Very good observation!) This was a very interesting post, I’m going to take this away and ponder on it 🙂
Have a good holiday!
Thank you for the good wishes! I guess this was a good post to leave up for a few weeks because it turned out quite heavy and introspective. I find myself coming back to it to think on too. 🙂
Fantastic post – thanks. Especially the points about expressing our true wants versus watered down “palatable for others” version and the want without actions. I first viewed this from an entrepreneur’s point of view but really it is applicable in all my roles in life, wife, mom, marketer and public servant. In that order
Thanks and I will continue to spread this great post… be well
The reactions to this post have been so interesting for me to read. It’s great to see that you found the observations that versatile. The experiment has turned into much more than I anticipated but it’s been we’ll worth the effort so far.
Wow. What a powerful post. What strikes me is that you are actually outgrowing some of the “traits” of your alexithymia (I had to look that up). As you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and desires, you’re honoring yourself. My favorite of your lessons – I’ve outgrown the defense mechanisms that instinctively silence my wants.
Thank you. I’m curious how far I can take this, in terms of outgrowing alexithymic traits. It’s interesting to me how doing that in small ways is leading to incredibly big changes deep under the surface. I’m also starting to see that not all of this is ASD but a big chunk of it is probably a secondary or tertiary condition related to ASD and in particular how it affected my formative years.
You know, I really wonder how much of ASD behaviours and other traits are more a result of how ASD affected the formative years, than them being a direct result of ASD. ASD is a developmental disorder, after all.
I’m starting to think quite a lot. Growing up undiagnosed leaves us with a lot of baggage.
A lot of bagage, and a lot of hurt. Especially learning to disregard your own instincts, because apparently you’re wrong about so many things.
At the same time, I do think that sometimes knowing a child is autistic and treating it with a lot of the assumptions surrounding that can also keep a child back. In some books I read a lot of ‘don’t explain this-and-this, because they won’t understand it anyway’ and such, and I think ‘yeah, well, if you never explain, they will never understand’. We have learned to be able to do so many things, not knowing we were ‘supposed’ to have difficulties with it. But that did make life very difficult. Overall I do think diagnosis is better.
It does feel like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation when it comes to childhood diagnosis. My life certainly would have been different with a diagnosis bit as you point out there’s the potential for a whole different kind of baggage. It seems like autistic kids today are raised with everything from “needs to be cured” mentalities to “awesome just the way you are” acceptance. What happens after a diagnosis makes all the difference.
I’m not sure ‘outgrowing’ is the right word. Alexithymia means that it’s difficult, it takes a longer time. So this actually fits that. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound pedantic or anything, it’s just that this reminds me of all that talk about children ‘outgrowing’ their autism. Just because after a long time you learn how to cope, or things are finally sinking in, doesn’t mean you’re growing out of it. It means that that indeed you need more time.
I actually agree with you on this. I tried to think of a better word but I’m too jetlagged. coping is good, but I think it might be more like just plain growth in this particular case. Or perhaps developing a new skill.
Hope your vacation is going well and you come back rest and relaxed.
Thank you! I’m back and I had a great time. Once I dig out from under all the work that piled up, I’ll be back to writing. 🙂
I just discovered your blog. I am so grateful! The way you purposely turn thoughts slowly into the light, so you and then your readers get to see all the different shapes, angles, shadows. I’m 41, self-diagnosed a couple of months ago. Scientist, mom of two kids. Your words resonate so much with what goes on in my mind these days. You’re so brave, building clarity and community like this. May you be well, always,
“The way you purposely turn thoughts slowly into the light, so you and then your readers get to see all the different shapes, angles, shadows.”
What a lovely description. Thank you. And congratulations on your self-diagnosis. Finally having an answer can be so so helpful.
My problem has always been a combination of everything here and catastrophising … what if I make the wrong decision? How will it affect my day, my week, my year, how does it change me as a person? What if I want two completely different things but can only choose one because of time constraints? And what if it was the wrong decision and I regret it?
Then there’s the paradox of actually making that decision: you decide one way and you end up regretting that you didn’t decide on the other one. Had you decided on the other one, you’d have regretted not deciding on *this* one!
You summed this up perfectly and what’s funny is that I’m realizing that the smaller the decision the more likely I am to have all those nagging questions. Big stuff, on the other hand, I tend to decide and not look back. So strange.
On a humorous note: in the book The Deeper Meaning of Liff* this problem is named “Deventer (n): A decision that’s very hard to make because so little depends on it, such as which way to walk around a park.” I was really amused to come across this in a book, as I have this all the time.
And yes, Fuzzpie, I totally recognize the combination with catastrophizing and always feeling you chose the wrong one.
*A book I highly recommend, by Douglas Adams. “The “Deeper Meaning of Liff” is a dictionary of words that don’t exist, but should. Plenty of words are wasted hanging on streetsigns and maps, yet we have nouns, verbs and adjectives with no official word.” I found the entire contents of it here: http://www.insidehoops.com/forum/showthread.php?t=141096
Oh, I need this book! Thank you. 🙂
Reading this blogpost was like punch in the stomac for me. I struggle with many of the issues you talked about, one of them is knowing what I want and not letting myself “want” what other people think I want.
I recalled again the difference between a whim and a will. A whim is something we want – that is external, in a way – wanting somthing that we don’t really want, or doesn’t really miror ourselves. Will is somthing that comes from whithin, asomthing deep that really matters to us, and we whould fight for it. And identifighng which is which is not easy. I used to work on that long ago, but life happaned. May be I should start over…
That’s really interesting. I had never thought about the difference between whim and will. You’re right, it doesn’t seem to be easy to identify which one is which.