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 . . .