Not knowing what we want seems to be a common experience and to cause discomfort. Why is the question “What do you want?” so difficult to answer when it’s focused on you and your life?

It’s an alarmingly spacious inquiry, full of invitation and possibility, a what if? whilst simultaneously requiring definition and self-knowledge.

There’s a strong polarity in this seemingly simple query. It’s a challenging question. It puts you on the spot. It’s asking you for clarity. And the kind of clarity that comes from the heart. It asks you to dig deep and to name simply. 

The question assumes: we should know. And also: we should want.

We tend to be better at answering the question “what don’t you want?” (this). 

We may have a sense of wanting something (else) but we don’t necessarily know what that is. But we know it’s different to this because this doesn’t feel right. 

We may also struggle to define exactly what isn’t right about the this. Then we get caught up in the ‘not rightness’ of this, whilst not knowing what ‘rightness’ is. 

There we have a cognitive loop, going back and forth into a mental twist without any firm ground, pulling us about. 

Knowing what we don’t want to do and so not doing that is an underrated clarity. Refusing what doesn’t feel right for us is an empowered choice. We know we are going against ourselves. Knowing why something doesn’t feel right and listening to our instinct, tells us a lot about what we want. 

Not knowing is different to feeling stuck.

Sometimes I ask the question: What do you want to have happen? after someone has described what they are with in their life. The stuckness of their situation is reflected in that they are often also stuck with the answer; they don’t know what they want to happen, to be different. 

They can’t see past the situation to the desired outcome because they feel stuck. There’s also a sense that if they could see the desired outcome they wouldn’t feel stuck in the situation. I have often been told by clients I want clarity. In other words I want to know what I want. 

Stuckness is a state of confusion and powerlessness around oscillating and polarising thought processes. It’s also in the body, a heaviness, a deadness, a blockage, a constriction maybe. It needs attention rather than a solution. We feel an aliveness, an opening when we connect with the simplicity of what it feels like to take time into knowing. 

There can be many reasons why we don’t know what we want. There could be parts of us that can shut down, create a block, out of fear, out of beliefs. We could be in a place where we feel confused, lost and overwhelmed and so have lost connection with ourselves. 

It’s this connection with ourselves that we need, before knowing what we want. 

Even when there are clear options, how do we decide what we want? We are being asked what we care about, what’s important, our values. We are being asked who we are, simultaneously now and also (and here’s where it gets tricky) in the future, which we can’t know yet.

Many people aren’t used to feeling into what they really want. Feel into the space where you have been given permission to ask for, say, what you really want. How do you feel about being asked that question? It may feel like: Pressure. Confusion. Blankness. Noise. Risk. Vulnerability. Exposure. 

If you ask people what do you want in life, what do you want for yourself, I imagine many  might answer I just want to be happy. If you then ask and what does happiness look like, they might struggle to define that. I have been told I want more time to myself, to know who I am, to be free to be myself. To feel loved, acknowledged, to belong, contribute, connect, learn, to be productive and to grow. These are human needs around us feeling good about ourselves and our life.

Are you actually wanting for anything in you life? To me, the question speaks to what we need. It’s a question about nurture. What are you missing? What isn’t getting addressed? If you felt differently in yourself would you be less concerned with finding out what you want?

We grow up constantly being asked what do you want to do, that dreaded question that percolates and pressurises our youth. The reason it is so directed at the young is that there’s an implication that we must know what we want so we can put ourself on track to go and get it. As if, when don’t know, we simply don’t have any interests and won’t progress.

I sense that the question what do you want can be received as an adult version of this social and internalised pressure. Want is being linked to motivation and so to ambition and action. Part of the broader implication that we can’t have a fulfilling, meaningful life without knowing our purpose.

We may think that if only we knew what we want, maybe we’d just do it. Where there is a greater clarity; connection, flow and ease, what we do next, follows; arrives even.

Or we may think when we know what we want we will galvanise effort and energy and become committed and convicted to a chosen path, focused on attainment.

Many people that I’ve worked with find the space through coaching to explore who they are, in order to consider what could be different. They don’t arrive simply for support to get what they know they want. If they do, I get curious and ask what would that give you? In other words; what’s important about that, what’s underneath it?

Myself, I don’t think I’ve ever really know what I specifically want in the big picture (maybe a man reading poetry to me by an open fire? Oops, sorry that’s fantasy). But I do know how I want to feel and be. I’m sure my life could look different if I was driven by knowing what I want in the future.

It depends, she says without irony, on the life you want for yourself.