Welcome to a new and improved Tips and Topics (TNT). It seemed fitting to introduce a spruced-up layout for TNT to welcome in another big change at The Change Companies (TCC) – a new CEO, Joyce Conley, Ph.D. Founder and former CEO, Don Kuhl, has now realized his goal of “retirement” from the daily demands of TCC. Read more from Joyce in her guest appearance of Mindful Midweek.
In keeping with a change in The Change Companies, SAVVY and SKILLS are a bit different this edition. They are almost like a big SOUL section combined, as the focus this month is on you and not the usual clinical and professional topics.
Senior Vice President
of The Change Companies®
What Do You Want? – The Not-so-Simple Question
When I was in medical school, they taught me to first ask the patient, “What is the presenting complaint?” Or in other words, “What do you want?” Of course, we weren’t supposed to just fire that question at the patient. We were supposed to have some bedside manner and say something like “How can I help you today?” Or, “What brought you here today?” Then we were to listen to the patient and hear what he/she had to say. But actually, a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that doctors typically will listen to a patient’s opening statement for little more than 23 seconds before changing the subject or “redirecting” the talk. That doesn’t give you much time to say what you want – if you even know what you want.
But here, you will have all the time you want for this not-so-simple question. Take your time and explore with me. At the end of the process of answering this question for yourself, however, you should be able to really zero in and say what you want in 23 seconds or less. Why is that skill important and useful? Because knowing what you want – really want – can focus your energies, unleash your creativity, decrease your stress and enrich not only your life, but also those around you. Most of the time, we think we know what we want in our relationships, work, social life and where and how we live. But in the busy-ness of life, we’re often just reacting, not choosing our reactions; just existing, not creating the life we want.
The more clear you are on what you want, the quicker you are at choosing how you live and create the peace and balance which keeps you cool, calmed and collected. Instead of figuring out 23 hours later all the little reactive stress points sapping your energy and making it a stressful day, you can intervene to cut the reactions dead in their tracks – maybe even in 23 seconds instead.
Double, Triple Meanings and More
Before we start exploring the question – “What do you want?”- some more observations suggest why this is not a simple inquiry. Think of all the different meanings this apparently straightforward query can represent.
” WHAT DO YOU WANT?” – shouted the teen to her mother, meaning, “Leave me alone.”
“What do you WANT?” – said the frustrated mother curtly in the candy store where her son repeatedly changed his mind on which candy to have – “We don’t have all day. Pick one, choose anything, but let’s go.”
“What do YOU want?” – sighed the tired teacher irritably after a long line of requests for extra time on the homework project – “I’m tired and want to go; can’t it wait?”
“What do you want?” – said the scantily clad, exotic entertainer coquettishly in the gentleman’s club, meaning, “I’m available…. for a fee.”
“What DO you want?” – she exclaimed impatiently as she confronted her commitment-phobic, six-year-long boyfriend who, once again, delayed their formal engagement announcement. What she means is: “Marry me or I’m out of here.”
So as you focus on achieving balance, you can either drive yourself crazy, or you can be in the driver’s seat of your own life. Balance starts with knowing what you want. Because there are multiple meanings to that question, let’s help you become your own shrink for a few moments. You may even save yourself those $200 visits to the psychiatrist. Take your time to explore each part of this important question.
You choose the focus of your exploration of the question.
… Do you want to know what you want in your career? Remember, if you find a job you love, you’ll never work another day in your life (or that’s what the billboard for a vocational counseling center said).
… Do you want to know what a balanced life for you means? ( Do you want to exercise more? Eat more healthily? Communicate more compassionately? Play more spontaneously? )
… Or is the focus on what you want in your love life? What kind of relationship? What kind of communication? What kind of intimacy?
It is best to focus on each part of the question before moving onto the next part – that 23-second, focused summary of what you really want awaits you at the end.
WHATDo You Want? – Brainstorming All the Possibilities and Options
Once you have chosen the focus of exploration (and you can repeat this process for different arenas of life), let your mind go into brainstorming mode and list all the possibilities – however broad and bizarre they may be. The WHAT part of the exploration phase is keeping all your options open. This gives you the broadest possible selection from which to start the focusing process.
Focus: _______________________________ (e.g., my work, my daily life, my health, my communication, my play life, my love life, or my relationships)
WHAT is my brainstorming list of all possibilities? (e.g., work less, commute less, have more autonomy; have more time to myself, less stress, more balance; exercise more, meditate more, eat better food; yell less, be more loving, have more fun):
What DO You Want? – What are the Dominant Options and Definite Options?
When you are comfortable with your exhaustive list of possibilities, the next step is to begin to pare that broad list down to a narrower choice of priorities. (Use additional pages if you need more space for your WHAT list). Which of these do you really want to focus on? Of all the options, which ones are the dominant options (DO)? Which do you feel are definite options (DO)? Which options would you definitely want on the to-do list?
It is easy to become overwhelmed by all the possibilities. The more creative, competent and energetic a person you are, the more options there are open to you. But having too many options can paralyze you as you face the dilemma of “decisions, decisions, decisions.”
So this next step of the process is important: Search yourself more deeply inside. Check your heart and soul for what DO you really, really want? Would you care much if you did get this option or wouldn’t it matter? How upset would you be if you did not do this particular choice? Is this option very important to you or someone else you care about? You could rate each possibility on a scale of 1 – 10 with 10 being most important to you. Then add all the options that scored 8 -10 on your dominant, definite, deep and decisive options list (DO). Or if you are having trouble narrowing the list down, do a pros and cons, cost/benefit list for each option. (See example below.)
Pros and Cons; Benefits and Costs
Stay Employed at this JobLeave and Start my Own Business
1. Health insurance
2. Vacation and sick pay
3. Biweekly electronic deposit to my bank
4. Like my colleagues
1. Limited advancement opportunities
2. Bored, not challenged
3. Downsizing risk
4. Don’t like my boss
5. Commute is long
1. Challenging and creative
2. Can work from home
4. No long staff meetings and hassles
1. No benefits
2. Capital investment problems
3. Can I make it?
It’s not time yet to finalize your decision. There are more discovery and exploration to go that will help get to the heart of the matter.
Re-focus on the topic of exploration you’ve selected- e.g. my work, my daily life, my health, my communication, my play life, my love life, or my relationships.
Review your WHAT list of all possibilities you developed in Step 1.
Now zero in on what DO I want to be on a short list of possibilities. Which are the Dominant, Definite, Deep and Decisive Options I really want? (Which of the options do I really care about most? How upset would I be if this option were not on the final list? Is this option a 9 or 10 in importance to me?):
What Do YOU Want? – Will the Real Decision-Maker Stand Up?
Now that you have your short list, the next step is to focus on who is actually going to decide on the final list of what you want. You may say: “Me, of course, dummy. Who else?” Well let’s see. This step will require you to dig more deeply into who the “me” decision maker really is – who you are – not who you think you should be; not who you think someone else wants you to be; or not what society or tradition told you to be.
If you are the oldest in your family, you may feel you have to be the responsible one. Or if your mother had an alcohol problem and you learned to survive by taking over for her, caring for your younger siblings, and putting aside your own needs and rescuing others, it is hard to stop being a people pleaser and a rescuer. Or if you came from a very highly achieving family who drove you hard to get straight A’s, you may have lingering resentments which color what you choose. You may have been labeled the smart or dumb one of the family, or the black sheep, or the spirited one, or the quiet one, or the stubborn one, or daddy’s right hand man, or mother’s little helper or the good little boy or girl. No one was trying to squeeze you into a labeled identity box, but it happens. And now that you are older and get to choose who you are and want to be, it’s not so easy to know who you are and what you want.
Maybe you were taller or shorter than your peers, or obese, or all skin and bones, or your breasts were way too big or way too small. And now the “you” that lives life in your head is still the beanpole giraffe or the short man syndrome, or ‘fatty’ or ‘skinny’, or ‘busty’ or ‘flatty’. The point is: you have become your anatomy, not your ability; your embarrassing body, not your essential beauty.
Society and the culture we live in play a big part in defining who we are. Ought-ism (not autism) is rampant. I “oughta” be the breadwinner because I’m a male. I “oughta” be the homemaker because I’m the female. I “oughta” not cry because I am a guy. I “oughta” not yell because I am a gal – it’s not ladylike. I “oughta” know my place because I am a minority. There are all kinds of “isms” and prejudices robbing you of who you are when you live life ; reacting to the label instead of choosing who youwant to be. To name a few- there are racism, sexism, ageism, and attractiveism (I made that up to mean the phenomenon where the attractive people get preferential treatment). There’s nothing wrong with being a breadwinner or homemaker or sharing your emotions or not. But is this what you chose to be and do? Or did you fall into “ought-ism”?
To get to what you really want depends also on knowing WHO you are and WHO is really making the decision.
List the labels you have been living that arose from your family life (e.g., Mr. or Ms. Responsible; rescuer or people pleaser; smart, dumb, black sheep, spirited, quiet, etc.)
You get to decide and choose who the decision maker will be. Will it be one or more of the labels you live? Or can you see beyond the labels and know whom YOU choose to be? You can’t divorce yourself from your history – that is part of you. But you can rise above your history and labels. You decide what combination of experiences really defines you, the decision-maker in your own life.
Where are you so far in the first 3 Steps?
Re-focus on your topic of exploration.
You have your WHAT list of all possibilities (Step 1)
You’ve narrowed to a short to-DO list of Dominant, Definite, Deep and Decisive Options (Step 2).
You now know better WHO will be making the final choice(s) in what do you want (Step 3).
What Do You WANT? – Final Answer on What is Desired Most
The final step in the process is to focus like a laser on what you really WANT. From the short list, pick the final one or two most important options you most desire.
What do you want and desire most for your work, your health, your relationships, your love life, your play life, your communication or whatever the arena of life? It may seem selfish to be so self-absorbed in what you want. Shouldn’t I be deciding what is best for the company, or the team, or my spouse or partner, or the kids or society…? There’s nothing wrong with thinking of others and making choices which take their feelings and needs into account. The problem is when your decisions are reactive, not proactive, are based on “ought” not thought, and based on taking care of others to the exclusion of you.
When you are clear that what you want is really what you want, you will be much closer to not driving yourself crazy. You’ll need just 23 seconds to check to see if you are living “in choice,” or just living and reacting. We lose our balance; get off center; increase our stress; argue and fight; sap our energy and creativity, and get unsteady, uncertain and unfocused when we have not taken the time to really choose what we want.
What is the final answer on what I WANT? On what do I most desire to focus my energy, creativity, and singleness of purpose? (Remember Steps 2&3: Which of the short list am I choosing as most important to me, not someone else? Which option speaks most to my heart, my essence, my integrity, my soul?)
Now write the one or two most important choices here.
A mundaneexample is grocery shopping. Ponder what happens if you go to the supermarket without a list of what you want. You wander the supermarket lanes trying to mentally picture what is in the refrigerator at home – trying to remember if you saw enough milk there. You are annoyed and stressed when you arrive home and realize you forgot the eggs you planned to get. All that stress and mental energy wasted because you did not know what you wanted. Five minutes making a list and you would have saved not only more time, but also your sanity.
So as the shrink who shrinks problems, not people, let me give you one more prescription (and I’m getting better at living my own prescription). In this busy world which values action more than reflection, take the time to examine the not-so-simple question. Before you rush to judgment or action, check whether you are choosing what you say or do. Observe whether you are getting what you really want, or settling for what you blindly allow. No one else will, or should be, focused on getting you what you want. That’s your job. But ironically, when you know and go for what you want, others will get what they want. You will have more freed-up energy, creativity and heart to enrich both your life and theirs.
I was watching the US Open Tennis matches on TV earlier this month. Through the wonders of the digital video recorder (DVR) and to the annoyance of advertisers, I was fast-forwarding through all the extraneous commentary and advertisements. What I really wanted to get to were the pressure points. Those are the parts of a match where each player is facing an exhilarating win or a devastating defeat. And it all depends on how they handle the pressure of a tie-breaker; or windy court conditions; or a sizzling serve of the opponent; or the player’s own mental and physical fatigue.
If one player was running away with the match, it was not so interesting – thanks DVR- so I could fast-forward until I found that part of the match where the game scores were even. Now, Resume Play on the TV remote control and the DVR. Let’s see how each person handles their emotions, footwork, tennis strokes and serves. Will he/she choke and lose their cool? Or rise to the occasion?
Tennis singles matches are such a test of the athlete’s physical, emotional and mental conditioning. There’s nowhere to turn and run. It’s not a game where you can substitute with a rested player while you take a timeout. You can’t wait for the next play to return to the game after a breather. You’re it! Perform now or lose. Cope with the wind or your fatigue or you’re out. How will you handle the pressure?
It is so instructive to watch what the champions do. Rarely, if at all, do champions get there with loud emotional outbursts, negative body language, inflammatory verbal tirades and spotty physical conditioning. The champions know exactly what they want, how to get there. They’re incredibly disciplined to grind out practice after practice; tournament after tournament, and match after match to get to the top. Even if you’re an incredible talent like Serena Williams, it is still hard to be Number 1 while playing only a few major tournaments.
One day, I hope to get off the couch and onto the court more. My excuse: I am still traveling too much for my work to find a tennis team that would put up with my crazy schedule. So for now, I’ll stick with the DVR and imagine what I would do at the pressure points. Right now, I know who would lose. But maybe, if I really want it…..
Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. Join us again in late October.
David Mee-Lee, M.D., is a leading expert in co-occurring substance use and mental disorders. His monthly “Tips and Topics,” now in its tenth year of publication, explores subjects and solutions drawn from over 30 years of experience in person-centered treatment and program development.
David is well-known for focusing on participant-centered services that uphold clinical integrity, high quality and cost-consciousness. David has long believed in empowering and engaging clients to be active participants in their own treatment. A noted expert in the field of behavioral change, David has authored numerous articles and training materials to serve a treatment-focused audience. Read more