My new client Lisa recently came to me because she is burnt out and longing to figure out what’s next. For the past five years, she’s worked as a program director in a human service agency, where the stress is through the roof. When she started, she was super excited about the work, and she loved her clients and staff. But over time, she started feeling increasingly irritable and resentful of her clients, her staff, and even her kids and partner at home.

A big part of the problem is that for many years, Lisa rarely stopped to ask herself what she wanted. She gave all she had to her work and put everyone’s needs before her own. 

Finally, her body hit a wall and said, “No more.” Her health problems convinced her that she needed a change, so she hired me to help her get clear about what’s next in her career.

Often, when people like Lisa burn out, they make drastic changes like quitting their jobs. Sometimes, these huge changes work out great, but other times, people make decisions they later regret. Rather than pushing them to make immediate decisions, one of the first things I do with clients is to help them learn to identify what they want. Once they do this, they’re prepared to make decisions they can trust.

To learn how to start identifying what you need and want, I invite you to work with the questions I ask here: Reclaiming Desire.

There are five questions my clients frequently ask when they start exploring what they want. In case you’re like my clients and are trying to get clear about what you want in your life, I’m going to share my clients’ questions with you and my responses to them. 

If you have any additional questions, I invite you to share your questions in the comments below, and I will make sure to respond within a couple of days.

Here we go:

Question #1: What if I don’t know what I want?

Fear often disguises itself as confusion. When people say they don’t know what they want, they’re often really saying, “I’m afraid of the risks involved in finding out what I want. I don’t want to get hurt.” 

It can be scary to acknowledge your truth. When you go after what you want, there are no guarantees. You risk letting go of something decent for something that may not pan out. 

If you’ve been saying, “But I don’t know what I want!” I invite you to ask yourself:

  • Is part of me 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 what I want?

Write down what comes up. If nothing comes immediately, keep asking yourself what you know about what you want over the next several days and weeks. 

Question #2: What if my mind truly goes blank when I ask myself what I want?

Occasionally, my new clients go into a frozen state when I invite them to envision the future. It’s like they numb out. Try as they might, no images come. Almost always, these clients have experienced a trauma that blocks them from envisioning a better future.  Such traumas include the death of a loved one, being fired unexpectedly, or another experience when they felt like somebody ripped the rug out from under their feet.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk writes: “Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities— it is an essential launchpad for making our hopes come true… When people are compulsively and constantly pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotions, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility. Without imagination there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.”

When you’re struggling with unresolved trauma, contemplating any small risk can cause security alarms to go off and create a sense of overwhelm, disconnection, or numbness. Rather than imagining everything that is possible, you anticipate rejection, deprivation, or disaster. It can feel easier to avoid the pain of unmet needs than risk being let down again. If this sounds familiar, I encourage you to seek out the support of a trauma-informed therapist. 

No matter how lost you feel right now, 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 find it again.

Question #3: What if I know what I want, but I can’t imagine how I would possibly make it a reality?

At some point, you will need to figure out how you’ll make the life you long for reality. But before you do, you need to allow yourself to imagine it. If you ask “how” too early, it can shortcut your imagination and make it hard for you to get clear about what you want. I invite you to give yourself permission to dream and play a little. Once you do that, it will be easier to start moving toward your vision.

Question #4: What if I know what I want, but I don’t know if the risk is worth it?

That’s a legitimate question. It’s good to take a realistic view of the risks at hand. 

If this is you, I invite you to do two things:  

First, recognize what you long for. Then, get curious about how you might make your desire a reality. Get the outside view, ask questions, do your research. Based on the information you gather, you may decide to take steps to prepare, put a stronger safety net in place, or alter your plans. Or, you may discover that you’re ready to take action now. 

Question #5: What if I’m painfully far away from what I need and want?

Grief is an appropriate response to much of what is happening in this world. Grant anyone three wishes, and high on the list will likely be an end to greed, racism, climate change, mass extinction, the list goes on. There is so much that we long for that, as individuals, we have little power over to make happen on a grand scale— justice, equity, love on a grand scale.

As you start to pay attention to what you want, it can feel painful to notice so many needs that are hard or impossible to meet at this moment. If you are grappling with grief after the loss of a loved one, a chronic illness, poverty, heartache regarding the state of the world, or another situation in which what you want feels very far away, please know that I see you. What you’re going through is hard. Do not diminish or sugarcoat what you’re going through. Please be kind to yourself and take space to grieve. 

Imagining the world we long for creates fuel that can propel us toward taking action and creating a deeply fulfilling life. Paying attention to our needs and desires is the first step on a much longer journey to creating a life that honors them. 

Do you have any additional questions? Any following up questions? I welcome you to share them in the comments below, and I will respond. It would be great to hear from you!

Much love,

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