I was in my twenties and had rented a beach house with a friend for the holiday weekend. When we arose Saturday morning, I had a list a page long of things to do in the area, things we should do to make full use of our time in a great location on a long summer weekend.
First on the agenda was to rent bikes and see the area on wheels. When I pitched it to my friend, she responded with a simple “No, I don’t want to do that.” And so I asked her why not, since it sounded like such a cool thing to do. She then said “I don’t want to, I don’t like bike riding.” She didn’t add a thousand other apologies or justifications for her not-wanting. She just said it, simply and directly. It was obvious it wasn’t a big deal for her, but for me, it was a revolutionary exchange, and one I never forgot.
How is it so simple for you? I remember thinking. And furthermore, how does what you want have anything to do with anything? Why are you talking about your own experience as if it matters? And fundamentally, how are you allowed to make choices based on what you want?
I don’t think I’d ever actually asked myself if I wanted to go bike riding, it was just something I did because I should, because it made me an interesting, engaged, and attractive person who was fully living my vacation. Had I learned to ask myself what I wanted, the answer might well have been “no” for many of the things I did. But it wasn’t a question that would have occurred to me, or even one that seemed relevant.
The idea that any woman could plan based on just her experience and what she actually wanted felt fascinating and shocking, utterly unknown, but at the same time deeply interesting and enticing. It woke up a curiosity in me that never went fully back to sleep, and with it, a deep longing to learn this for myself.
It wasn’t until I reached my forties that I started asking myself what I want or don’t want—and considering what experiences actually feel like—for me. It wasn’t until even later in life that I built the courage to express my wants and don’t wants out loud, and to honor and make decisions based on my truth, even when they were out of synch with someone else’s wants or the role I played in someone else’s life.
For many young girls, a time comes, usually in our tweens, when we make a kind of deal with the devil. It feels like we have to choose (even if we are not aware of it) between being who we really are and being liked; being real feels too dangerous as it comes with the risk of being rejected. To be included and part of the “herd,” not left behind to die, is tantamount to survival. In modern times, and more specifically, middle school, survival means emotional safety. For a tween, the need for inclusion is far stronger on a survival level than the need for authenticity. Who we are is determined by our approval ratings rather than from the inside out. And so, we have to decide (or so it feels) between knowing and saying what we really want, standing in our own truth…and…what we really need, which is to be wanted and part of the herd.
To be in relationship with other people is more important than to be in relationship with ourselves. And so it goes from there, into our twenties, thirties, forties, and for some, the rest of our lives. We continue operating on that same premise, that to be real, to live with the knowing that what we feel and want matters, is to risk (and probably sacrifice) our likability and safety, and with it, our happiness. Therefore, the best way to take care of ourselves is to abandon ourselves and become what’s wanted—to want whatever will net us the best results in terms of approval and likability.
When it comes to what we want and don’t want, and are allowed to want and not want, conditioning is an important factor to consider—what we learn from our families and larger culture. Both boys and girls are conditioned to behave in certain ways, want certain things, this we know. But young girls are saddled with a particularly challenging expectation and demand when it comes to who to be and what they’re allowed to want. Girls are taught to be selfless, which is another way of saying to not be. They’re taught that they should want for others but not want for themselves. Girls learn that taking care of other people’s wants and needs is what they should want. And that the better they are it, the more love, respect, and approval they receive.
When women express what they actually want, and consider their own wants and experience as equally important as other people’s wants and experiences, the response received is often, “Why are you making this all about you?” As if to put themselves in the mix or consider themselves at all is somehow unreasonable, and something for which they should feel guilty. “Selfless” or “selfish” are the options offered for females: give it all away, make it all about everyone else, abandon yourself, or risk being branded (internally and externally) with the dreaded label “selfish.”
In part 2 of this series, I will address the ways in which our complicated and conflicted relationship with wanting plays out in our relationships with other people.