What do you Want? – The Question we Often Answer Badly

I ask my clients a lot of questions!  Some of them I repeat across sessions.  The brain is actually very good at answering questions, just as soon as we get past the feeling of despair (often created in our school days) when we realise we do not immediately know the answer to it.  But there is one question which seems to leave many of us floundering: What do you want?

The Easy Answer:

It is very easy to answer this question with what it is we don’t want!  I often hear: “well I won’t be anxious anymore” or “I wouldn’t feel so tired all the time”.  As goals go they seem lovely.  The difficulty is, that now we have said (and thought) the words anxious and/or tired.  The subconscious will focus on these words and try to find evidence that these goals are coming true.  We have effectively primed the brain to look for negative feelings.  This type of thinking is typical of that part of the brain which is good at running away from things.  This part of the brain is great when we have to run away from a polar bear.  But is not good at dealing with the levels of complexity involved with moving forwards towards a positive goal that will give our life meaning and beyond the need to survive the next five minutes.

A Silly Example:

Let’s imagine for a moment that a tired and anxious tourist lands at an airport.  As well as thinking “I do not want to be tired and anxious anymore” they are also thinking “I do not want to be at the airport any more”.  In trying to stop being at the airport they ask the taxi driver to simply drive them away from the airport.  They are unlikely to get very far before the taxi driver wants to know exactly where it is they do want to go.  Driving round aimlessly trying not to be someplace and hoping to get somewhere is expensive, tiresome and possibly even unsafe.  Hardly a recipe for getting to where you want and certainly not one for making the tourist feel less tired and less anxious.  It creates uncertainty.  A directionless existence.

The tired and anxious tourist can no more get away from being tired and anxious than the taxi driver can take them to the nice hotel that’s been booked without the address.  When trying to escape being tired and anxious we need to know the detail of where we are headed to.  The more detailed the picture the better.  Which town is the Hotel in, what road is it on and what number on that road?  Now we are heading in a positive direction, the tourist knows it, the taxi driver knows what is required of them.

A Better Way:

The brain works best when we show it what we do want.  Let’s imagine we answer the same question with “I would like to feel calm and relaxed more often” or “I would have more energy”!  Now we have primed the brain to find evidence of more positive feelings and emotions. We have primed the brain to look our for evidence that says “I am feeling calm and relaxed” or maybe I do have that fractionally more energy today that tells me I can go out for that walk.  It is immediately a more hopeful outlook which can in itself move us towards better feelings.

Of course there is a little more to it than that, not least because we need more detail.  And, of course, some questions are easier to answer in the positive terms than others.  However, aiming to shift the balance towards what we do want rather than  what we don’t want is a very good start to get us heading in a more positive direction.