Longing, the source of the developmental impulse, while invisible, is at the root of all human aspiration and endeavor… Longing can be fulfilled only by meaningful contribution and spiritual connection. Touching our longing is the inevitable result of sufficient practice and ever-deepening awareness. Longing calls us forward in our lives, toward contribution, toward surrendering into a fuller relationship with what matters, toward fulfillment and connectedness.

—Doug Silsbee, Presence-Based Coaching

In her first coaching session, Maria told me that she couldn’t imagine what type of work she might possibly enjoy. After a decade as a partner at a high-paced law firm, she had burned out. As a child, she’d decided to become a lawyer because she thought it would make her father love her more. Now, she felt bored with law and drained of energy.

In all her years as a lawyer— and later as a mom— she had focused on taking care of other people’s needs to the detriment of her own. She attached her sense of self-worth to what she did, rather than who she was. So when I asked her what she wanted from her work and life, like most of my new clients, she didn’t know how to answer. Here’s what I taught Maria—

Our culture teaches that it’s selfish and wrong to have needs and desires.

When many of my clients come to me, they don’t know how to tell me what they need or want. They learned at an early age to forsake their needs and desire, and this fear keeps them from following their callings. As Audre Lorde writes in The Uses of the Erotic, “We have been raised to fear…our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.”

There are many reasons why you may have learned to fear your needs and desires. Maybe you were told that other people knew what was best for you and decided that it was safer to go along with what was expected of you. You may have been told you were going too far, jumping too high or were just “too much,” and resigned yourself to playing small rather than making waves.

If your needs or desires were shamed or rejected or ignored from an early age, you may have come to believe that you were wrong to want what you wanted. Experiencing trauma, abuse, poverty, or oppression may have convinced you that dreaming about what life could be wasn’t worth the pain or disappointment. On the other hand, maybe you see so many horrible things happening to other people that it seems selfish even to notice what you want.

As a result of all this, you may have learned to ignore what you wanted or even forgotten that you even have the ability to know. In a world that teaches us to denigrate what we want, reclaiming desire is a radical act.

Being needy and having needs are two different things.

“Being needy” has come to signify abdicating responsibility for meeting our own needs, clinging to someone else in the hopes that they’ll meet our needs, and blaming them for falling short. This confabulation leads many people to believe that it’s bad for them to have needs in the first place.

People do all sorts of things when they don’t openly acknowledge and honor their needs. They may ignore their own needs, putting others first and hoping that their own needs will pass. When they don’t, they’re likely to get resentful. They may try to manipulate situations to meet their needs, which this can lead to confused communication, frustration, and mistrust. They may leave the situation, thereby damaging relationships and missing out on opportunities for deeper intimacy and growth. Or, they might try to assert their needs, and wind up inadvertently pushing others away.

To live and work in good relationship with others, we’re much better off when we learn to honor and take responsibility for our own needs. Although on one hand, I believe that we have a collective responsibility to care for the collective needs of our whole communities, on the other hand, we each have a responsibility to accept responsibility for meeting our own needs. When we accept responsibility for ourselves, we stop wasting time blaming other people and gain agency over our own lives.

What if desire were sacred?

When I speak about desire, I’m not talking about cravings, addictions, attachments, wishing someone else would change, or the blind pursuit of happiness at the expense of others’ wellbeing. Instead, I’m talking about the voice of your callings, inner guidance, intuition, aspirations, hopes, intentions, purpose, vision, deepest commitments and longings at the depths of your being.

Many religious teachers, including Buddhism, decry the wildness and intensity of desire and conflate desire with attachment. But Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, debunks these teachings in Radical Acceptance. She writes, “The Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said that craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away… Relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.”

I believe that desire is life force energy moving through your body and that desire has the power to propel each of us forward, step by step, over enormous distances to craft lives that are in service to us and the people we love. When we dig deep to find out truest desires, the power we uncover has the potential to ripple outward and create great change in our families, communities, and the world.

When you know what you want, you can make better decisions, see a broader array of possibility, prevent or heal from burnout, avoid climbing the wrong ladder, access energy to change your life, improve your relationships, stay focused on what’s most important, and enjoy your life more. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Your ability to discern what you want and need is like a muscle.

The more you practice, the more you are able to trust yourself to identify what nourishes you. Eventually, it becomes second nature to make choices that are aligned with what your desire. To strengthen your ability to identify what you want and need, I encourage you to take a couple of minutes each day to ask yourself what you want and need.

I invite you to practice listening to desire now.

To get ready, grab a piece of paper and a pen and take a moment to get centered by feeling your feet on the floor and taking a couple of deep breaths.

Start by noticing how you feel in your body, the sensations and emotions that are present. Your desires and needs are an expression of and response to what you feel in your body.

Next, ask yourself the following questions and write down whatever comes up until no more words come. —

  • What do I want?
  • What do I need?
  • Is there anything else I might want to want, besides what I’ve been told to want? (This question comes from leadership guru, Seth Godin.)

Finally, contemplate what you might do to meet your needs and desires. Read what you wrote, and ask yourself— What’s my next step? Choose bite-sized actions that you can complete in the next week. If you can’t figure out what you could possibly do to meet your needs, that is okay. Sometimes, you really don’t know. It is good enough to make your best guess.

I’d love to hear from you!

What do you need/want, right now?

Please share in the notes section below, and I will make sure to respond!

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