One of the biggest challenges my clients face when they first come to work with me is that they don’t know what they want in the next stage of their life.

As a professional coach, I’ve seen my clients grapple with all sorts of obstacles to discovering what they want. In this article, I’ll share a bit of a troubleshooting guide to them you address these challenges and get clear about what you want.

If you really, really do not know what you want—

When I ask my new clients what they want, they often say they don’t know. Back when I was a new coach, I wouldn’t press my clients for an answer. However, I soon realized that people always know something about what they want, even if they don’t realize it yet.

Now, when clients say they don’t know what they want, I ask them— “Even though you can’t quite see the whole puzzle, I know that you have at least some of the pieces. Which pieces of the puzzle can you see right now?” Then, I stay quiet. When my clients trust that we’re not going anywhere and that I won’t judge them for wanting what they want, they start talking.

The responses they come up with vary. Sometimes, they surprise me (and themselves) with a crystal-clear picture of creating a women’s health center or becoming a high-school math teacher or going to social work school. Other times, they see many pieces of the life they want, they just don’t yet know which career will help them integrate the pieces. Recently, a client asked me, “I think I want to develop my sense of self-compassion. Does that count as a want?” I told her that self-compassion is absolutely a valid desire and that many clients first want to build up their inner foundation before they change jobs.

The point is, you don’t have to be able to see all the pieces to know what you what you do want. All you need to do is to start gathering the puzzle pieces. As you start putting them together, new pieces will reveal themselves, and you’ll get clearer and clearer.

If you can’t tell the difference between what you need and what you want—

That’s perfectly okay! I see true needs and desires as pretty much the same thing, and I ask the questions— What do you want? And, what do you need?— interchangeably. However, I’ve found that the words “desire” and “needs” can elicit different responses in different people at different times. When you ask yourself these two questions, you may get the same or different responses. For this reason, it can be helpful to ask both questions side-by-side to hear what arises in you.

If part of you wants to do something, but another part doesn’t—

Let’s say you want to start writing blog articles to share your teachings with a wider audience, but you feel a sense of anxiety each time you sit down. You may feel called to put yourself out there, but fear is holding you back. On the other hand, you may think you’re resisting, when your intuition is truly saying that now is not the time.

Desire often asks us to take actions that are scary, uncomfortable and not the least bit enjoyable.

So, how do you tell the difference between a “no” and a “yes?” First, get present in your body. Then ask yourself— “Deep down, do I truly want to do this thing? Why or why not?” Write down what arises. Often, listening to your body and being honest with yourself is enough to get clear.

If you feel overwhelmed because you have so many unmet needs—

Please know that learning to identify your needs and desires is the first step on a much longer journey. Paying attention to what you need and want will give you information to choose your next steps and move towards a life that is deeply fulfilling.

If the only things that are coming to mind are things you don’t want—

Write them all down. Writing down the things you don’t want can help you stop dwelling on them. When you feel complete, ask yourself—

  • What’s the opposite of the things you don’t want? (In other words— What do I want?)

If you feel exhausted and all you want to do is to turn away from the world—

It can be really hard to connect with desire when you’re burned out. If you are physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually exhausted, you may need to replenish your energy before you can get clear about what you want. Desire is an inner fire, and you first need to tend to the flame to feel it.

If you hear yourself saying, “I should…” repeatedly—

Know that this is most likely your sense of obligation speaking. Instead, tell yourself, “I hear that you think I should do that… But, what do I actually need? And, what do I actually want?”

If you feel pressured to figure out what you’ll do with the rest of your life—

Know that you don’t need to know what you’ll want in the future. In fact, it’s impossible to know with certainty what you’ll want a month or a year or five years from now. You’re just assembling a puzzle depicting what you want at this moment in time. Write down what comes up in response to the questions—

  • What do I know about what I want?
  • What pieces of the puzzle can I see?

If it feels scary to be honest about what you want—

Facing your truth can be scary for many reasons. Often, when people say they don’t know what they want, they’re actually saying, “I don’t want to be let down again.” You may need to let go of something that’s been important to you to create space for what you want now. Acknowledging your needs may feel impractical, childish, or vulnerable, like it exposes the most intimate parts of yourself. With this in mind, I invite you to ask yourself—

  • Is there a part of me that’s saying I can’t or shouldn’t or don’t know how to know what I want?
  • Is there an almost silent answer that comes before I say “I don’t know”?
  • What do I know about I want?

If it feels painful to admit your needs—

I’ve had clients tell me that they wish their needs would just go away. When our needs for connection and contribution aren’t met, we can feel sad and lonely. It can be vulnerable and scary to admit what we need. But, the truth is, we humans are interdependent creatures, and we need each other.

I studied for a time with Mark Silver, a Sufi business coach. He teaches that in the Sufi tradition, the point is not to quench our thirst for love and divine connection completely but rather to cultivate the perfect thirst to keep coming back to the search for love and learning. The more we respond to our needs with compassion and have the courage to speak them out loud, the more we’re able to connect with each other and care for ourselves.

If you can’t have what you long for or it’s out of your control to make it happen—

If you love with your whole heart, take risks to try something new, or consistently put yourself out there, at some point, you will experience heartache and failure. This is true no matter how hard you work to make your dreams a reality, how much you practice, how many good habits you have, or how much support you receive.

If you are grappling with grief after the death of a loved one, a chronic illness, or another situation in which you know what you long for but can’t control the outcome, please be kind to yourself. Sometimes, the only way to through your pain is offer yourself compassion. The truth is, you can only do your best. Ultimately, so much is out of our control, but if you bring your full self to each moment, at least you can sleep well at night knowing that you gave it your all.

If you still can’t quite figure out —

Keep asking. No matter how lost you feel right, I promise you that deep down, there’s a part of you who absolutely knows what you want. It may be hidden and covered up, but you can always find it again.

Please share—

What do you want and need now in your life?

Please share your thoughts, and I will make sure to respond.

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