Many of us have a hard time answering this question. We might know what we want in the grand scheme of things—perhaps some version of health, happiness, and prosperity. But what do we want right now, in this moment? If we are experiencing tension in a relationship, contemplating this question can be very helpful. What would ease the situation for us? What do we need from the other person?
Our parents, our peers, and our culture have taught us that it is selfish to ask for what we want. Indeed, cultivating equanimity strengthens us when done as a spiritual pursuit. But if our “equanimity” is tinged with resentment or fear, then we are fooling ourselves. We would benefit ourselves and others by acknowledging the full range of our experience, and asking for what we want.
Before we make a request of another, though, we may want to take some time for reflection. For when we consider the question, “What do I want?” our first answer may be that we want to change some aspect of the past. We wish that the other person had behaved differently. We wish that she had done more, or done less. Perhaps we wish that she had not said those things, or that she had been available when we really needed her.
But changing the past is not within our power, nor is it within hers. Recognizing this, we refine our question: Given that the past has already happened and cannot be changed, what will help us now? What exactly do we want her to do? We might want her to listen to us for a while, or give us a hug, or tell us what’s on her mind. We might want her to leave us alone while we take time to think.
Sometimes we believe that what we want is obvious. But what is obvious to us might be completely obscure to another. The only way we can be sure that she knows what we want is to ask for it.
One thing that we cannot rightfully request is that she “make us feel better.” Our feelings are ours alone; no one else is responsible for them. So we ask her to do something specific, which is within her control, rather than to change our feelings, which is not.
Asking for what we want works best when it is framed as a request, rather than as a demand. There is no guarantee that she will comply, which is what makes our request courageous. We run the risk of being disappointed.
And yet, asking for what we want just might be the beginning of a new, gentler conversation. It might free us, and her, to penetrate our mutual wall of tension, frustration, or fear. The only way out is through.