how to get free of the trap of miswanting ( + find your life)
I used to shop at Neiman Marcus (known to some as Needless Markup). If you’ve ever wondered who the hell would pay a couple of thousand dollars for a pair of suede thigh-high Christian Louboutin boots, that younger me would have had to sheepishly raise her hand.
I shopped because I had a legitimate need to put clothes on my body, but also because I bought into all that Sex-and-the-City, retail-therapy crap.
I shopped to feel better.
One day I stood in my closet and no longer saw fabulosity — but money that could have gone to Apple stock, or building a girls’ school in Cambodia. “If you ever see me going down this path again,” I said to my assistant, “please shoot me.” She agreed.
What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that there is a difference between a want and a yearning. When we confuse the two, as we often do, we engage in something that positive psychologists call miswanting. Even when we get what we think we want (the new Gucci bag, the promotion at work, the hot guy/girl, the trip to Fiji) we’re still dissatisfied, because of a deeper yearning that remains unmet.
Wants are for specific things (a new dress, a meal at Per Se, a date with Ryan Gosling), but yearnings are deep and universal. As Dr. Wright points out in her book TRANSFORMED!, we all yearn for the same things. These are
To love and be loved
To be seen
To achieve mastery
To be affirmed
To connect with the Creator/a higher power/nature/the divine
Wants and yearnings activate different parts of the brain. When we anticipate or indulge our wants, the brain releases dopamine to give us that fun, addictive buzz. But it’s only when we meet our deeper needs – our yearnings – that the brain releases opiods, which provide the deep full feelings of soul-satisfaction that can actually sustain us.
We yearn to feed our soul.
But it’s so easy to confuse stimulation with satisfaction …and chase that dopamine high…and plunge into a spiral of wanting, wanting, wanting, without ever experiencing the fulfillment that only the opiate-generating part of the brain can give us.
When we try to fulfill our yearnings with surface wants, we fail.
So we start to miswant something else – or find ways to escape, or numb out – except none of this works either.
It’s like trying to live off cotton candy, while telling ourselves that it’s a healthy and nourishing meal.
Eventually we sicken and spiritually die.
In the end, shopping never did that much for me. After the buzz of a new purchase disappeared (within hours), I was right back where I started, except with less money in the bank and more clutter in my closet. I ended up giving away or donating a lot of the clothes. (I kept the boots.)
Once I started connecting with what I truly yearned for (and it’s an ongoing process), my compulsion to shop slowly faded. I haven’t stepped inside Neiman Marcus in years. The thought of the place gives me a bleak, knotted feeling in my chest, because I associate it (and shopping in general) with an unhappy time in my life.
We live in a consumerist culture of anxiety marketing that rips open little holes in our psyche: to keep us insecure and offbalance, to put us into states of distress so that the marketers can swoop in and pretend-rescue us with their products. Even the most fortunate of us will live high on pleasure and low on soul-satisfaction: we crash, and the cycle repeats itself, and the culture carries on. It takes effort in the face of constant temptation to tune out the clamor of wants and false promises. It takes skill – and it is a skill – to tune into your deeper self, and live day-to-day with the awareness and engagement that she requires.
I understand, now, why I can meet people who have everything – jetset lifestyles, dinners with movie stars, thrilling careers – and still get moody or depressed (and go on anti-depressants); or how the man on his fourth trophy wife and the woman going yet again to the plastic surgeon to try to be, or remain, or compete with the trophy wife are easy to mock but, in the end, simply trying to love and be loved, to be seen, to belong. Aren’t we all? We use the tools and the knowledge that this culture gives us. They don’t work. We try again.
The good news is that at any given moment you can start asking yourself the questions –
Why do I really want those $250 jeans?
Because they make me feel cool and my ass looks great in them.
Why do I care about that?
Because I want to be hip and sexy.
Why do I want to be hip and sexy?
Because I want people to notice me.
Why do I want people to notice me?
Because I want to know that I matter.
— that peel back the onion layers of wanting until you get to the yearning at the core. You know you’ve found the yearning when there are no more Whys to ask, no more layers.
Why do I want so badly to publish my novel?
Because I want to be successful.
Why do I want to be successful?
Because I want people to listen to me.
Why do I want people to listen to me?
Because I want to have something to say.
Why do I want to have something to say?
Because I want to contribute.
When you connect with that yearning, you can think of a way right then and there to fulfill it. Instead of spending money you don’t have on jeans you don’t need, you might call that friend you’ve been thinking about but haven’t talked to in months. Instead of obsessing over whether your editor is reading your manuscript, you might volunteer to feed the homeless, or go above and beyond at work (and surprise the hell out of your boss), or speak out on an issue that’s important to you by writing a letter to an editor or perhaps a blog (ahem).
This is the cool thing: as you identify your yearnings and find ways to move toward them, you become more and more of who you really are.
Because it’s not about fixing yourself, or trying to improve yourself.
It’s about discovering who you truly are in the first place. click to tweet
Carl Jung refers to a process called individuation, which is the process of claiming and reclaiming the different parts of yourself to become whole. This happens when you move away from the collective belief systems we’ve all absorbed – from our families, our various subcultures, the culture at large – and start walking a path that’s unique and true to you. To follow this path is to go beyond your cravings (which are wants-generated) and pay attention to your urges (which are yearnings-generated); to listen to the “still small voice” that knows what you need and how to slowly but steadily get there.
This is when you begin to find your destiny.
Otherwise known as living an authentic life.