Why ‘not knowing what you want’ is so very normal

Somehow I feel I need to start by saying something soothing. Something like “It’s ok!”. Perhaps because over the years I have met so many people who seem to beat themselves up over not knowing what they want. They feel embarrassed, frustrated or judge themselves for not coming up with the perfect once-and-for-all answer. Or for not coming up with an answer fast enough.

What I’d really, really like to say is: Please, don’t feel embarrassed, frustrated or judgmental about yourself! There are so many reasons why you could be confused about what you want. It’s almost surprising how often you do know.

So what could be possible reasons? Let me give you a few that seem to be quite common …



1. You experience conflicting wishes inside yourself

There is no way for me to be absolutely certain, but I’ll go ahead and assume that if you are reading this, you also have a sense of self. That you – when you are awake and conscious – are aware of yourself. And that you experience thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories, dreams and hopes.

In many societies, there is this interesting notion that every individual has “a true self”. The terminology suggests there is a “self” that is consistent. Knowing what you want would then just be a matter of listening and observing very closely, of discovering this one true self.

It’s an idea that is appealing. It resonates with the personal sense of self many people have. And it radiates hope; the hope that one day you will find your true self and all will be clear and sorted.

Now don’t get me wrong. I do believe that every individual human being is unique. That everyone has a unique “self”. And I also believe that observing yourself closely will help you understand what you want. I just don’t think you should necessarily expect your “self” to be consistent.

  • Your “self” is influenced by many different things

Think about it: you have not become “you” out of nowhere and you don’t live in a vacuum now. Consider the way you were raised, the culture and time you grew up in, the DNA-blueprint you have, the things that happened to you, your personality et cetera.

All these different factors have influenced you in many different ways. They have influenced your values, your norms, your attitudes, your habits, your skills, your tastes, your preferences, your experiences. Some of these may have turned out to be consistent, some probably less so. And this means that you sometimes experience conflicting wishes that are all part of your “self” at the same time.

  • Your “self” changes over time

Although parts of you may remain quite stable over time, your “self” is not a fixed given. It changes as time passes, as you gain more experiences, as things change in your life, as your body grows older. What you want when you are 10 is usually different from what you want when you are 30 … or 55 … or 90 …

  • Parts of your “self” may be unknown

There are parts of you that you are very familiar with. But there are probably also parts of you that you are less aware of. Or that may appear vague and hard to make explicit. You might only learn about them when you are faced with circumstances you have never been in before. Or when confusion about what you want points to unknown sides of yourself.

  • Your “self” may not be what you want/have to portray

How you portray yourself is likely not always the same as how you actually feel about something or someone. You can find yourself in situations, when what you want as an individual is different from what you want based on how you would like (or even need) others to see you. Both are genuine wishes, resulting in dilemmas and paradoxes that somehow need to be resolved.

On an individual level, people differ in how much they care about what their family, neighbours, friends and colleagues think. On a community level, in some cultures the interest of the group precedes the interests or even rights of the individual. What people think of you may then be relatively more important. There might even be situations when acting on what you would want as an individual can have dangerous consequences.

  • You have lost touch with parts of your “self”

There may be all kinds of situations in which you have not been able to act on wishes that were important to you. For instance, if you have had to care for a parent, spouse or child with a debilitating illness, if you have followed certain rules of the community you lived in, or if you have been held hostage for some time. Those kinds of situations when you’ve had to put (parts of) your life on hold.

Note that you may not have made different decisions in hindsight. You probably did want to care for that family member, you may have wanted to follow the rules of your community and you probably did want to survive the hostage situation. These wishes are no less genuine than the wishes you needed to put aside. But especially when the situation has lasted for a longer period, it may have resulted in you loosing touch with some of what you wanted.


2. You find yourself daunted by the road ahead

Apart from what you are experiencing inside yourself, not knowing what you want can also be about the road ahead.

  • You just don’t know where to start

Where to begin? Perhaps there are so many paths you could follow, so many things you could try, so many new skills you could learn. So many new people you could meet and networks you could enter. But which of those will lead to where you want to be? Which won’t? On what should you spend your (usually limited) time, energy and resources?

  • You don’t know what’s possible

The road ahead can be littered with uncertainties. Sometimes not knowing what you want is about not knowing what’s possible. What opportunities are out there, what would you be able to do and what would the world around you allow you to accomplish? Can you somehow find ways to explore and summon the courage and commitment to push through, even when the going gets tough or uncertain.

  • You have to learn something completely new

What you want may require you to learn something you’ve not really done before. Learning something new can be a wonderful adventure, but not everyone learns equally easily or finds ways to cope well with the unavoidable initial mistakes and emotional ups and downs. It also requires time, energy and sometimes resources that may be a challenge to arrange for. You may find yourself unsure whether or not you would want all that.

  • Your world has changed completely

And then there are those moments when life as you know it simply ceases to exist. You find yourself in completely unknown territory, in uncharted waters. For instance, if you suddenly loose your partner, if you have a serious illness, or if war breaks out in your country.

It could be something completely unexpected and outside of your control. But it could also be something you actually wished for, like when a couple find themselves overwhelmed by the changes in their lives after the arrival of their first-born child.

When your whole world changes, you may find yourself confused about what you want in this entirely new situation. You literally have to readjust.


In conclusion …

Don’t feel bad about not knowing what you want! There are many reasons why this could be the case, and just about everyone will have moments in their lives when they just don’t know. It’s ok! You’re not alone. Don’t lose energy by feeling embarrassed, frustrated or judgmental about yourself. It’s challenging enough to now go and figure out what the next step should be.

Discovering what you want can be a matter of an instant insight. But more often it’s a process that takes some time and effort. If there is little time and you have to make a decision while you are still unsure, make one to the best of your ability. Otherwise, breathe, take it one step at the time. Try to enjoy the journey. You are on your way, just like many of us are …


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