But you DO need to know what you want.
February 13. 2022
I looked at the couple facing me on a couch in my office.
He was dumbfounded when she told him she wanted to end their marriage.
She was seething. For years she’d been telling her partner what was wrong. And she didn’t understand how he couldn’t get it.
He had no idea what she wanted. All he knew was that something was wrong — all the time.
Her way was to smolder internally, sometimes simmering for days or weeks because she wasn’t living the life she wanted to live. Then seemingly out of the blue, she would explode.
He walked on eggshells waiting for the next shoe to drop. When it did, he would explode right along with her.
When I asked her what she wanted, she responded with a frustrated snarl, “I don’t know, ROBYN! I just know I don’t want this.”
I paused, and then said, “Please consider this — If you haven’t yet figured out what you want and asked for that,how can he help, and how will you know when you get what you want?”
Anger is meant to be an alert, not a way of life.
Anger plays an important role in maintaining our mental and emotional health. It’s job is to alert us that something is out of whack — there’s something we want or need that we’re not getting. But once we’ve noticed we’re angry, acting out of it is different than experiencing and making use of it. Acting out of it tends to get us farther away from what we want because it impairs our ability to think clearly.
But if we don’t act out of it, what do we do instead?
Few of us have been taught to take the next step and translate that anger prod into figuring out what we want. So we continue in a cycle of complaining about what’s wrong, about what we don’t want.
When you’re angry — or frustrated or irritated or disgruntled — call it whatever you want — the first step is to pause and ask yourself, “What is bothering me? What do I want that I think I’m not getting?”
A trick to figuring out what you want is to first identify what you don’t want. And then turn it around to what you do want.
For example: you don’t want to be alone in your parenting. Your partner comes home and says, “What have you been doing all day?” You hear, “Why the hell is the house a mess?” You’re feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated, and ready to run. What you want is help.
But when you don’t know what you want, instead of telling your partner what you want, you blurt, “Well, thanks a lot! Nice greeting! The baby has been crying all day, I got a call from Joe’s second-grade teacher that he’s acting out, and I have a screaming headache. On the other hand, you had a long lunch with your coworkers and walked in here criticizing me. Welcome home!”
However, if you were aware of what you wanted, you might have said, “Honey, that sounded like a criticism, and I don’t think you meant it that way. I’m feeling awful — overwhelmed, disorganized, and depressed and I need your help.”
When we only know what we don’t want, we often react in one of three ways. First, we might fight (bring out the gloves). Or we flee (each of us retreats to our favorite escape room). Or we freeze (the unhappy partner shuts down and says nothing, building a deep pocket of resentment or hopelessness).
What Is it you want?
When your attention is on what’s wrong, that’s all your mind has room to see. We’re hardwired to protect ourselves from danger, so we’re extremely good at noticing what isn’t working.
However, we are not very good at identifying what it is we DO want. And there are lots of reasons for that.
- Maybe we grew up in a family that groomed us to meet others’ needs at the expense of our own. Our requests were ignored or denied, so we learned to suck it up and live with whatever we got.
- Or we are struggling financially and believe that we can’t afford what we want if it’s only for ourselves.
- Sometimes we have so much on our plate we can’t stop long enough to figure out what we want.
- Maybe we’re afraid that we still won’t be happy even if we get what we want, so why bother?
The list goes on. But I think the primary thing that keeps us from identifying what we want is that it doesn’t occur to us because we’re so used to identifying and focusing on what’s wrong.
Make a request, not a demand.
Try this next time you feel dissatisfied at your job, at home, or with your children. The moment you feel your body tightening up, bring yourself back to the present moment — pause, breathe all the way out, soften your body, and then ask yourself, “What’s going on inside me? What do I want here?”
And then wait. Instead of lashing out, look inward and trust that you know in your gut what you want.
When you know what you want, ask for it. But make it a request, not a demand.
A demand goes like this:
A demand implies that you’re in big trouble if you don’t comply.
A request leaves room for the other person to choose a response. They can say “Yes, I’m willing,” or “No, I can’t do that right now,” or “I don’t know, maybe we can come up with a different time during the week.”
However they respond to your request, you will be learning something.
If the response is a flat no more often than a yes, that might signal that it’s time to do some serious work together or get some outside help.
If it’s yes, you’ll be encouraged to get better and better at asking for what you want rather than what you don’t want.
Summing it up.
Give it a try. The next time you feel frustrated or trapped, Pause. Breathe all the way out and soften your body. Turn your attention inside. Ask yourself, “What’s going on inside me?” “What is it that I want here?”
Trust your answers. And then ask for what you want in the form of a request, not a demand.
Please share in the comments if this was helpful. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.