The Trouble with Wanting

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Wants and appetites; compulsions and impulses; desires and addictions.

We want what we want when we want it. Want want want want. Say the word enough times and it starts to sound as fuzzy as a want just might be. Do we ask what it is that we really want, what the wanting comes from, why it’s so urgent? Wanting might be fine, but it’s the habit of wanting that bites. Is all this wanting, in this incredibly rich first-world world of ours, something that we pay a price indulging?

Maybe wanting comes from appetites that are just a part of our nature. During our mind-brain evolution, when the urgency of survival was lived moment to moment, hanging out in the food chain, a want was highly related to a need. Ask Survivor Man if he wants for a new car or granite counter tops when he hasn’t had water for a few days. The need for survival is charged with urgency and emotional power and it focuses all of our senses and mental abilities. More dreamy and delightful things are left until we’re safe and sound. But even then, coming out of the same brain, a want can be charged with a similar emotional power and urgency.

If we have a want and all we see is the want, then we can get swallowed up by it, like a zombie obedient to the want. Troubles might follow when wants are not chaperoned by a frame of reference. A frame of reference helps us to see something in relation to something else. One helpful frame of reference comes from simply knowing that we have a want. “I really want these shoes” may be all it takes to slap down the credit card. But if I can step back, aware of my want, I might see that this is just a want and that I might have enough shoes already and that I really could do better with my money.

Unwary wanting may lead us in to romantic affairs, terrible debt, seconds of dessert, gambling and other addictions, you name it! I hear about affairs starting when unmet emotional needs abound. Rather than making a big mess of things, wouldn’t it be wiser and healthier to step back and face and address the emotional hurt – slowly, patiently and persistently – first? If you notice some attraction or want, ask more deeply, “Why is this coming up for me now?”

That frame of reference is always available if we stop and look at what we’re up to. It’s always available because no matter where you go, there you are. It’s hard to do but it gets easier with practice.

If we can carry forward the intention to watch our wanting, we’ll pay more attention. Our better judgment is more likely to catch a want if we practice paying attention and being mindful. We can then catch the wanting and know what it’s more deeply about. Maybe I’m shopping because I’m just feeling down or ripped off about something. Maybe I want that thing or that person because I’m not feeling good about myself, or because I want to celebrate something else. Wouldn’t it be wiser and healthier to take just a light moment to acknowledge this other feeling, and see where that takes you?

In our life the true ‘durable goods’ might be the deeper knowing about what motivates and moves us, not the new leather belt or bowl of ice cream. We might savour some wants and appetites, enjoying the want being fulfilled. But most wants are a yellow flag that says, “Look out, here you come!”