How To Know What You Want

When it’s really hard to figure that out


What do you want?

“I don’t know.”

We do, of course. Somewhere, deep down inside. Somewhere, we have preferences, thoughts, wants and needs. Somewhere, we have an opinion on literally anything.

Because we are human beings, with agency and authority on our self.

The problem, however, is that sometimes we misplace this as easily as we misplace our keys.

And here’s how we backtrack and retrace our steps.

We must stop shouting at ourselves (please)

Stop demanding an answer to “what you want” — right now!

And definitely don’t let anyone else do the shouting for you.

I think about that scene from The Notebook, where Noah is berating Allie by shouting “what do you want?!” Many people thought this was hilarious and adorable and true love, but, guys, that’s not love — not for each other, and definitely not ourselves. That’s now how this works.

So when Allie cried back, “it’s not that simple!” she was speaking her truth.

Which is kind of ironic.

It’s NOT that simple

I feel very irritated and impatient when articles on “how to figure out what you want” effectively include, as step one: “figure out what you want.” (Like “list all the things you enjoy!” or “what makes you happy?!”, as though recognizing “want” is somehow easier if reframed in other ways…)

It’s not. Our issue isn’t the grammar or the specific thing in question. If we knew how to identify “wants,” we wouldn’t struggle with small things like where to eat. So of course we’re going to struggle with whether we want to marry shouting-match Noah or old-money James Marsden, let alone anything else in our lives.

This is why advice like “brainstorm ideas!” doesn’t work

It’s like dragging an anorexic to a buffet thinking that’ll solve the problem. Allie, for example, didn’t need to make a list of everyone she could marry.

It’s also why “just do it!” doesn’t work

This just makes us feel panicked and forced. We’re liable to jump blindly at the next thing or anything, and Allie might’ve run off with the milkman.

The problem isn’t context, but rather skill set. We aren’t always equipped with the answer because we aren’t always equipped with the instinct.

The reason we don’t know

We make decisions in one of two ways and, to Noah’s credit, he got them right: either what we want, or what others wants. (Sometimes we resist both and make no decision.)

If we don’t know what we want, it’s because we silenced ourselves.

Empathy and learning to “play well with others” is fine — to an extent. The issue is when it comes time to live self-actualized lives, and we can’t choose between external influences and ourselves.

That, or more commonly: we realize we’re unhappy.

We’re ignoring the signs

Anxiety is a sign we’re ignoring our own needs. So is insecurity, loneliness, helplessness, feeling inferior.

So is withdrawal. And apathy, boredom, sarcasm.

Attachment, preoccupation, codependence. The chase of “simple pleasures,” good or bad.

Any of these are subconscious sirens that we’re silencing ourselves and shutting needs down.

But absorb the language here: we are ignoring our needs. (They are not being ignored by others. And others are not making us feel our reactions.) We are failing to serve ourselves.

It’s here that the gig is up. We can no longer turn to “others” for guidance — or blame. Not on these feelings, and not the originating want or need.

All of it — the anxiety or avoidance, and the underlying problem — is first ours to resolve. And if we have any hope of ever being able to answer “what do you want,” we have to do this for ourselves first.

We’re cashing checks we can’t cover

We’re rushing to the bank demanding answers and our account is just staring back at us, like “uh, who are you?”

We ignore the signs for years and then expect our subconscious to deliver magical solutions when we want them.

We have to do the grunt work first. We have to make $2 deposits. And it’s us — not anyone else — who has to do it.

How? We must first give ourselves everything we need from others. Attention, understanding, validation, support, acceptance… love.

We think we’re doing this, but we’re not. As evidenced by the above.

We’re so out of touch we don’t even realize we’re out of touch. And if we aren’t in touch with our emotions, we have to get in touch with ourselves other ways.


I wrestled with meditation for years, trying apps, in-person guided practice, even monk-led retreats but was, at best, only reasonably good at “making an attempt,” distracting myself with directives or only finding a few fragile seconds of focus. I sat with meditation in the way we visit relatives we don’t like: out of obligation, smiling to hide our discomfort — as much from ourselves as them — each moment dragging on (and us along with it.)

But, like a switch was flipped, meditation suddenly “worked” for me the instant I did it because I wanted to do, not because I felt like I should.

But I didn’t force or demand myself to want it.

What happened was I wanted to fix the “what I want” problem. I wanted to be able to answer it, and I wanted to know why I “couldn’t.”

I asked myself “what makes you happy,” and when I had no confident answer (instead distracting myself with side questions like, “what is happiness, even?”), I then asked “how do you feel?” My only answer, always, was “fine.” So then I thought, “just for fun, pick the closest feeling — or one you sometimes feel! You can’t always be fine!” Still unsure, on a whim I Googled “feelings chart” — and not only do they exist, but they totally blew my mind.

Looking at them, I thought “these are feelings?!” I didn’t realize half these even existed, and didn’t realize things I was feeling were the feelings they said on this chart (like I was surprised at how little “fear” I felt, that what registered as “happiness” for me was actually “peace” or “power,” that most everything under “happy” I only experienced in fleeting blibs, and that sarcasm and distance are “anger.”) That’s how out of tune I was.

After that, I read that negative feelings (anything besides happy, joy, power, peace, love) means we’re “neglecting our needs.” I read that and was like “wait, what ‘needs?’ where?” and went hunting for a “needs chart.” And that’s where things got dicey, because I stared at the list and felt dumbfounded, like: “but… I have all this.”

Except clearly I didn’t.

And that is how we get lost.

I searched on and found some compassionate souls who offered:“if you can’t get in touch with your feelings, get in touch with your breath.”

Great, I thought. Meditation.

But as a last resort, I gave it a try. I wanted to resolve this.

And in this mindset — of self-interest and self-love and intrinsic want — I sat down by myself — no apps or monks — closed my eyes, and ended up meditating for over 30 minutes. In absolute comfort, awareness; both light and heavy-sweet, like a hug.

I was overcome with a feeling of care. Other things caught my attention, but I also realized that every time I gave my attention to anything besides myself, I was actually telling myself “this random thought is more important than you are.” And with this state of mind, I’d gently come back. Because every time I brought my attention back to myself, I was also saying, “you are most important right now.” Like, this is everything. I felt like I could have sat there all afternoon.

As I withdrew from the meditation, there was a quick surge of emotion. I didn’t understand what it was, and actually had to reference the “feelings wheel” to identify it. Sadness.

Now I meditate most mornings. For how long? “As long as it takes.” As long as I need to feel: I am here. Some mornings, 10 minutes. Others, I indulge and stay 45.

And after this experience, I am left wondering if meditation shouldn’t always be self-guided. Because I’m not sure we’ll ever fully sit with and see ourselves if we keep part of our attention on some omnipotent authority figure barking in our ear, no matter how “reassuring” their voice.

Go as far back as you need to go to “know”

Sometimes I didn’t know what I wanted to eat for dinner. But not only that, sometimes I didn’t even know if I was hungry — which seems insane.

Because it means that I not only didn’t know how to meet my own physiological need — but I didn’t even know whether or not I had it.

It’s hard for me to discern wants and needs sometimes. It’s hard for me to discern feelings — physical sensations? Hm, couldn’t say. Emotions and feelings? Psh, clearly beyond me.

Which is why I had to keep going all the way back until I did know something about myself with absolute certainty: breath.

“I am breathing.”

I am breathing out. And I am breathing in. I am aware of my own breath. And, the unspoken implied: yes I want to breathe.

And, beyond this, the overarching want: “I want you;” “I want to know what you want;” “I want to be here.”

This is how I finally came to meditation, and got back in touch. And it is with blind faith that I sit there, patient and faithful but mostly patient, believing: everything else will build from there.

We have to stop fighting ourselves and shutting ourselves down. When we feel we don’t “want” to do something we know we “should” do, it’s a siren in our ear. The solution isn’t to force ourselves, crying or kicking and screaming or terrified, but to pause, give attention, resolve.

If we don’t know what we want, it’s because we lost touch on much simpler questions. And the solution isn’t to force, or brainstorm, or “just take action,” or look to others. It’s also not avoiding our feelings— anxiety or sadness, withdrawal or attachment — or dumping them on other people, but rather to address our needs. And if we don’t “know” what our needs are, our job is to sit quietly with ourselves, be present and aware, and rebuild from bottom, with whatever is handed to us. Only in this way will we eventually (I trust) understand “what we want” in all things.

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