Friday, July 30, 2010

Trapped Between Wants

You know those situations where you say to yourself, "I really don't want to do this but..."
There are lots of them. There's the job that you don't really enjoy with the boss who micromanages you and the coworkers who seem to be completely apathetic about everything they do. There are the big family gatherings that you'd rather avoid, but go to anyway. There are the weekends spent fixing things around the house when you'd rather be at the beach.

Each of us from time to time (or even more frequently) finds herself in a situation that she'd prefer not to be in, and yet there she is. Why is that?

Conflicting Wants
The simple answer is that we're trapped between wants. You want to spend time drawing and painting, but you also want to have money for food and shelter: so you go to work. You want to be out with your friends, but you also want your mom to be happy: so you go to the family gathering. You want to feel the warmth of the sun caressing your body and the sound of the waves lulling you to sleep, but you also want the washing machine to actually clean clothes: so, you stay home and fix the washing machine.

The thing is that we tend not to see these situations as being trapped between wants in conflict. Instead, we see ourselves as being trapped by the resulting don't-want. And that's where we end up focussing our energies. I hate this job. I dread family get-togethers. It's a shame to waste such a beautiful day stuck in the basement fixing this stupid washing machine.

Since the don't-want is actually a symptom or a side effect of the conflicting wants, spending time and energy focusing on it doesn't get us anywhere. The don't-want is not itself the cause. And yet, our thoughts and energy tend to gravitate to that which we don't want in our lives. So we start patching it up with bandaid solutions, dressing the pig, polishing the turd.

To make the distasteful job more palatable, we gather at the local pub to blow off steam after work. To survive the family gatherings, we carefully guide conversations to avoid questions like, "So, when are you going to settle down and get married?" or "Why is it that your cousin Frank is doing so well financially and you..." We build work benches and buy nice sets of tools to make the fixing things go more easily. More or less, all these approaches yield results, but they never actually address the core challenge: wants in conflict.

Hating What Is
I read a lot of books vicariously through Iris. As she reads them, she shares what she's reading and we talk about it. One of the books she read recently is called Loving What Is by Byron Katie. Based on our discussions (I haven't read the book) I would distill the message to this: our happiness correlates directly to the alignment of our internal reality and our external reality.

Say what? Basically, we begin to feel unhappy when what we think should be is not what is. I should have been promoted by now! My husband should be helping me with cleaning these dishes and getting the kids to bed. I should have stayed in school. My mom should know better than to prepare all this fatty food. It's not what is that makes us unhappy; it's the disparity between what is and what should be that makes us unhappy.

To have a should-be requires us to create an alternate reality in which what is, isn't. Some of us merely flirt with these alternatives occasionally envisioning how things might have been if only... For others, the alternate reality is omnipresent, a constant reminder of how screwed up everything is.

So we're faced with two simultaneously occurring and yet independent challenges: 1) being in a situation that we don't want to be in, and 2) being unhappy about it.

Happy with What Is
Addressing the unhappiness is simple (but perhaps not easy). All you have to do is align your internal (should, would, expected) reality with your external reality (what is, what you got). In short, happiness starts with acceptance of what is.

Acceptance does mean submitting yourself to fate, resigning yourself to your lot in life, giving up on your dreams or throwing in the towel; it simply means seeing what is clearly as it is and not shoulding it into something else. This is a key to happiness.

Wanting What Isn't
Once you're happy with what is, it's time to change what is into what you want. This may seem silly: If I'm already happy with what is, why would I change it?

Here again the answer is simple: Because I want something else. The problem is that we've so conditioned ourselves to using negative motivation and reinforcement, it seems strange that we could simultaneously be completely happy in a situation and want to change it.

And yet, we do this all the time. While savoring a bite of tender grilled steak, you greedily eye the fresh sweet corn sitting next to it. While snuggling together in the early morning warmth of your bed, you're drawn to the beautiful new day that awaits you. After a great day at the office, you enthusiastically head to dinner with friends whom you haven't seen in months. You move from one situation to the next, not because of unhappiness, but because of conflicting wants: two wants that can't occur in the same space at the same time.

Unless your mind is completely void of creativity and imagination, it's impossible to go through life without experiencing a conflict in wants. The difference between feeling blessed by all the opportunity afforded you by the universe and feeling trapped with what you don't want lies in how you perceive and respond to the conflict.

The steak and corn dilemma is easy enough, you just switch back and forth between a bite of corn and a bite of steak. However, it becomes a little more challenging when you're allowed only one. In those instances your happiness/unhappiness is directly proportional to the quality of the food: either one is amplified by how delicious the food is. You can thrilled that it's a no lose situation, satisfied with whatever you get, or you can be disappointed that you have to pick, second guessing your selection the entire evening.

You can be unhappy about surrendering the warmth of your bed, or you can rejoice in the ebbing warmth of the rising sun. You can regret having to leave the office just when you were on a roll or you can celebrate ending the day on a high note. It's all about your attitude and how you perceive the conflict.

What Conflict?
Here's the catch: in order to change your attitude and perception of conflicting wants, you first have to be aware of them. To do this starts with the recognition that everything in your life that you don't want is the result of a conflict between two or more things that you do want. Focusing on and responding to what you don't want simply addresses the symptom, not the cause.

Nonetheless, with a little diligence you can sleuth out the cause by starting with smaller wants hidden within the larger don't-want; every don't-want is rich with clues in the form of some benefit (no matter how small) that you're deriving from whatever it is you don't want to be doing.

With a little persistence and attention, you can track the trail of hidden benefits to the source of conflicting wants. Once you've identified them, you can toss the bandaids and begin a reconciliation process that leads lasting and more satisfying changes.

Happy Friday!

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