Discipline is knowing what you want

I learned yesterday that knowing what you want is more than just wanting what you know to be true.

If you want something, truly want it, it doesn’t matter what stories you tell yourself about that want. Say you want something that you’re convinced isn’t ok–like a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Say you want something that you’re convinced is simply your lot in life–like want your boss to stop forcing you to do the work you dislike. There are many things that I want–but those desires are outside what I consider to be “good behavior.”

But I still want it. Then there are four things that will happen:

  1. I deny what I want
  2. I act out what I want
  3. I project what I want onto others
  4. I acknowledge what I want

Denying what I want is my default. I look at it and say “nope, this thing ain’t ok. Therefore I must not want it!” and I move on. That doesn’t feel very good, because even if my prefrontal cortex thinks something, my emotions aren’t actually convinced.

Sometimes I act out what I want, and when I look back on my actions and I’m surprised. How could I have been so impulsive? Who was in charge when I did that? In a silly way, this is what happens with nachos when I’m trying to eat healthy–it’s like the plate suddenly appears in my hand, even though I’ve made solemn vows of healthy living.

Sometimes I project my desires onto others and judge them for it. I think “Look at that fool, spending his money on a brand new car when he could be saving so much money!” when really I would like nothing more than to be driving around in a brand-new Tesla Model 3.

And much more rarely, I acknowledge what I want. I say “Yes, I want that.” and allow myself to be the type of flawed human being that wants something that isn’t ok. And with that acknowledgment comes the strength to compare that desire to the other desires in my life. You can’t weigh one thing against another if you deny that one of them exists!

So often my desires are not only distasteful, or wrong in some way, but they conflict with other things that I want simultaneously. I want to have met my obligations at work; I also want to spend quality time with my family, and I want to leave both work and family behind and go snowboarding with my buddies. Those three desires are real. Those three desires are in direct conflict. Those three desires must be managed and acknowledged. I can’t look at snowboarding and say “Nah, that would be foolish, and I’m not a foolish person, so I must not even want that.” I have to instead say “Hey, I do want that.” Then, perhaps, I can weigh the conflicts against each other and possibly make sense of them. Perhaps I can work out time on a weekend to go snowboarding, and perhaps I can find time after the kids go to bed to get caught up on work. Or perhaps by acknowledging that I want it, I can be given the strength to say “I want it, but I can’t have that now.”

This gets so much more complicated the deeper and more complex your life becomes. How can you tease out what you want when you fall in love? How do you know what you want when somebody you love is sick? How do you know really acknowledge something when you feel it’s wrong? I don’t know of any reliable way of knowing what I want except by talking it out with people I trust and respect and exploring my own feelings. But denial, projecting and acting things out uncontrollably has hurt, and I know I don’t want that. Truly, I want to acknowledge my desires.

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