The instructor was leading the class through exercises designed to produce a set of individual goals and plans. It was Thursday morning and I was attending mandatory post-license training for new real estate agents in Birmingham.
“What do you want?” she said again. “Write it in a specific way. Do you want to be rookie of the year? Imagine yourself accepting that award. Do you want to hit a certain financial goal? Be specific.”
I started typing. I named a couple of goals. They seemed to be the sorts of things other people around me were excited about.
And then it hit me. I didn’t want the things I had just written down. I was in a group of about 20 people, most of whom seemed to want those things, so it was easy to fall into accepting their goals as obvious and right.
As I sat there staring at the words I’d typed, I knew I didn’t want the things they wanted. There was nothing wrong with what they wanted. I had even been trying to make myself want the things that were so important to them.
But I simply didn’t want what they wanted. My heart wanted different things. I deleted the words and left the space blank. What I wanted was far too complicated to try to explain to such a class.
My mind immediately went back to a conversation I had with a psychologist nearly 10 years ago. We were discussing what a particular woman wanted — someone who I loved at the time — and I confidently asserted what she wanted.
“Pay attention to what she does, not to what she says,” the psychologist said. (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.) “You’re telling me what she wants because it’s what her words have said to you. But watch her actions. Even if her actions will make her unhappy, that’s what she really wants to do.”
The psychologist was right. The woman wanted something different from what she said she wanted, because she actually did something completely different from the words she had said to me. The psychologist was also right that those actions would make the woman very unhappy.
In the decade since then, I’ve pondered this over and over again — and I’m still not sure why we do the things we do.
It’s easy for us to say we want what we believe we ought to want. That’s what I was doing Thursday morning when I started typing someone else’s goals.
The confusing thing is that we often pursue paths that are completely different than what we say we want. We claim to want love, but we do things that make it impossible to have what we want. We say we want restored relationships when they are broken, but we ignore the specific things we’re told need to happen to restore those relationships.
We say we want money and success, but we sabotage ourselves and prevent those things from happening. Why?
The psychologist told me years ago that it’s mostly not a matter of people lying about what they want. Mostly, we want the things we claim to want, but there are a dozen reasons (or more) why our actions say otherwise.
Some people fear they don’t deserve the love or success they say they want. Others desperately want change but are terrified about the price they fear they will pay if they go after what they want. They prefer to rock along — for years or decades — in the known of their current misery rather than step out into the unknown which they can’t quite see.
There’s a huge part of me that wants to believe others when they tell me what they want — especially when I wish someone would move in a particular direction — but I’ve been burned by this over and over again. It reminds me of the old line — frequently misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson — that says, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
We like to see our minds as speaking with one unitary voice. We like to believe that the “I” in ourselves — which is the executive function of consciousness — is the “real” voice of who we are. But science and experience both tell us that we are all a collection of competing interests and voices in our heads. Different parts of us want different things — and those parts frequently can’t even communicate with one another. (For a scientific look at this phenomenon, read a book called “Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite,” especially the first half of the book.)
I’m no different than you probably are. You probably think these frustrating tendencies are common to other people. You probably think you know your own mind. Your probably think you’re immune to this sort of contradictory thinking.
I like to think that about myself, too, but I’m wrong.
If you say you want something — love or success or whatever — but you don’t allow yourself to take the actions to go after what you want, you’re doomed to keep making the same mistakes until you do some serious work on yourself.
You might have to quit lying to yourself about what you want. You might have to get clear about you deserving something better than you have. You might have to change your thoughts and accept that you really can have what you want. Whatever your issue is, it’s not going to change until you start understanding why your words and actions don’t match — and then correct the “programming” that has led you to your (often self-destructive) actions.
I never did write any goals Thursday morning, but I’m not really concerned about that. I do know what I want. It’s not what the other people in that room wanted, but that’s OK. I just have to let myself know it’s acceptable to go get what I want.
What about you? Do your words match your actions? What needs to change — in order for you to have what you need?