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The Benefit of Knowing What You Don't Want

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The Benefit of Knowing What You Don't Want

Laura Brown

Starting at Square One: Emotions and Your Inner Compass

You know that you want something in your life to be different, even if the specific thing you want to change isn’t quite clear.

 emotional compass

You may be experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction, or even an all-consuming sense of despair. It feels like there’s something (or a lot of things) left unsatisfied, and it may be overwhelming to think about.

Maybe you are fed up with prolonged feelings of sadness, exhausted by experiences with anxiety throughout your day, or straight-up done with always feeling angry with yourself, the world, or everyone else.

Being the smart person you are, you’ve probably also found ways to distract from your despair. These tactics help you avoid your feelings of distress for a period of time. The downside is that the distraction doesn’t last forever, and you are faced with a deep longing for something more permanent to change.

As unlikely as it may sound, this is an important and necessary place for you to be, as your feelings are giving you the loud and clear message that you need something better.  And if you were unable to feel that, you wouldn’t be able to take the important steps to make that happen.

Looking at Your Actions in Response to Your Despair

Our feelings go hand-in-hand with particular kinds of actions. When you’re happy and excited about life, you’re probably not spending your days hiding under the covers and wishing things were different.

 binge drinking

As responsive beings, we don’t just have feelings about the things we experience, we also have feelings about our responses to those things. When we say “I’m tired of feeling this way”, we usually also implicitly mean that we’re tired of behaving in ways that correspond with how we’re feeling.

For example, you may be sick of binge eating, drinking to excess, or using drugs to escape your reality. You could be fed up with procrastinating on the things you think you should be doing. Or perhaps you just don’t have the energy to argue with your partner any longer. Though they may be concerning, these kinds of behaviours offer a stepping off point toward something that feels better.

How Knowing What You Don’t Want Can Help

Whether it’s feelings, behaviours, or a combination of both that you feel ready to address, you know you want to see a real change. And yet, you’re confused with where to start.

 feeling stuck and constrained

You might feel frustrated because you’re focusing your attention on what you don’t want. Maybe someone in your life has told you that that kind of focus can undermine your ability to bring your goals to life, and so you begin to worry that you’re going to be stuck in this place of despair forever.

Contrary to that perspective, exploring and realizing what you don’t want is a worthy endeavour because it shines a light on what you value in your life. Once you have a better sense of that, what you do want can become clearer.

A Personal Example

For example, in my teens and early 20's, I experienced a profound amount of sadness and worry. It felt consuming, and like something was seriously wrong with me. To the outside world, this might have looked like depression and anxiety.

 feeling alone

Internally, I longed for things to be different, but I wasn't able to fully know what exactly I was dissatisfied with until I began taking a deeper look at my feelings and what they were telling me about the context of my life.

When I began paying attention to what I was feeling and why, I came to realize that I wasn’t sad for no reason. For instance, I noticed that I didn’t feel so sad when I was spending time with people that I cared for, and that sadness was predominantly present when I was alone. I started to consider whether my sadness was really a response to loneliness and disconnection. I also began to notice that my worries were louder and bigger when I became aware of my loneliness, and that I feared I would become even more isolated.

 feeling uncertain

When I explored this worry further, I realized that it was not only about disconnection – I was also concerned about my purpose in life. I was 24 and scared that I was not on the right path to having a satisfying and meaningful career. I had lofty dreams, but felt clueless and overwhelmed about the steps I needed to take to achieve them. I believed that I was under a time crunch to figure out my whole life.

When I looked at the context of my life, I recognized that I had just ended a long-term relationship, finished my undergraduate degree, and moved back to Victoria from Vancouver. It made sense to me that I would be feeling lonely and concerned about the future because I had moved away from my primary social networks, and was in limbo about my career and purpose in life.

At this point, it had become clear to me what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to feel so lonely or to be disconnected from my community. I also didn’t want to be in limbo about my career and purpose in life.

This information was useful to me because it served as a starting point to gaining clarity on what it was I wanted to change, and what I might want instead.

Helping You Identify What You Don’t Want

Conversations can be incredibly helpful when it comes to making progress on important issues – that’s part of what makes counselling so effective! But if you don’t have someone to have those conversations with, it can feel really stagnating.

As an alternative to talking things through with another person, reflection questions can also do the trick.  I offer these questions to help you on your journey toward clearly identifying what you don’t want:

  • What happens when you stop to consider all of the things you no longer want in your life?
    • What emotions come up? And what do you do when you feel this way? (For example, “I feel scared, and when I feel scared I eat when I’m not hungry”)
  • How do others respond to you when you share your dissatisfaction or despair?
    • What do they say and how do you interpret their responses?
    • Is there space to talk about this and be given the support you desire in return?
  • If the busyness of daily life is interfering with clarity, is there space to take an hour of time to dedicate to experiencing some peace and tranquility?
    • Some helpful ways to experience peace are to:
      • get out into nature
      • listen to a guided visualization/meditation
      • listen to relaxing music
      • take a bath with relaxing music

Next Steps Forward

This post offers some practical ways of exploring and identifying what you don’t want as a way of creating important changes.  Stay tuned for the next post, as I address ways of identifying what you do want and where can be helpful to go from there.

Do you have your own ways of identifying what you don’t want?

Have you found it helpful to be able to do so?  If so, feel free to share about how!