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What Makes Us Human — Core Desires (Part 2)

Updated: Sep 15

Need a quick primer on our core desires? Check out Part 1 here.

As we dig into Part 2, we'll start looking at some typical behaviors that result from our core desires. If you want to jump in and learn about a specific desire, click the links to learn more about understanding, belonging, or feeling.


While I hope that this information offers some useful insight and relief, I'd encourage you to notice if your mind jumps to any problem-solving ideas like, "Finally! Now I can fix any challenge that comes up!"


Ultimately, these yearnings and desires don't capture the full range, nuance, or extent of our emotions and experiences. And by categorizing them, we may miss out on opportunities to see how in one situation, multiple desires may be present together or in conflict with one another. Rather than viewing them separately, I'd encourage you to look to them as a starting point for reflecting on your thoughts and emotions.


I've personally found it helpful to view the desires as signals pointing me in a given direction, like a cairn or road sign. While it may be my first time in this exact moment, there's often a familiar desire within an experience that I can use to find my way.


As a cautionary note, if you try using these desires to fix your feelings and pin down happiness, you probably won't have much luck. As appealing as it might sound, I hope the disclaimer saves you some time.


One last thing before we get started. I find it remarkable that we have the capacity as people to understand, feel, belong, orient ourselves, derive meaning, and take action. To have these experiences can be incredibly fulfilling or quite painful. And whether we're fulfilled by them or in pain as a result of them is really about context — our environment, our internal thoughts and feelings, our outer actions, and the thoughts and actions of the people around us.


It's tempting to try and simplify by thinking "if I identify the desire, I'll know exactly what to do next regardless of my circumstances," and we have to remember that one change in environment, ourselves, or the people around us, can change a whole lot about the situation.


With those considerations in mind, let's get to it.


Understanding (Coherence)

Understanding is about our wanting to make sense of the ongoing stream of ideas that cross our minds, and to solve the little and big challenges in our lives that just don't seem to make sense. Because confusion is uncomfortable and uncertainty can be scary, it's no surprise why we work so hard to understand.


When pursued flexibly, understanding can help us gain clarity and set reasonable expectations for how things fit together and work. It can also help us solve complicated problems and find elegant solutions to otherwise difficult challenges.


If we're not careful, though, we can overuse our problem-solving skills to try and create a sense of order where it doesn't exist, or to try and maintain control in situations where we have no influence over the outcome.

Where we get stuck

While it can certainly show up elsewhere, the desire for understanding often leads us into circuitous debates with our minds as we try to problem-solve our own confusing thoughts and emotions. Here's an example of a stream of thoughts turned internal debate that I had with myself last week:


"I think this new project is going to be a real success. I feel so motivated! Hold on, that's a bad idea. Don't you remember how many ideas you've had that start this way? You never follow through and make them happen. Wait, that's not fair. Look at how much progress I've made at work and on house projects. Okay, sure, but how many times have you dropped the ball when people were counting on you? Ugh. This is so unhelpful. I should just get started rather than debating this. How can you get started when you can't even figure out what you feel, dummy?"


I'll leave it there, but I'm sure you can imagine how the dialogue might continue. I started looking for a single answer to a complicated question: how am I supposed to feel about this new project? All of a sudden, I was caught up in my thoughts and saw two opposing arguments for how I should approach the project — "with inspiration and confidence" on one side, and "with reservations; quit before you let yourself down" on the other. Before I knew it, I was in an internal debate searching for an answer rather than making progress on the project.


Can you think of your own version of this internal conversation? Maybe it's about whether you're a good partner, friend, or parent. Or perhaps it's about your work, your body, some past event, or preventing some future concern.


It's tempting to think that the real problem to fix here is all the negative, self-doubting ideas that show up. Or, from a more self-protective lens, to make sure that I don't do anything that might cause disappointment later.


In reality, though, trying to fix or get rid of the distracting thoughts is the trap. When we seek to disprove or outargue our thoughts, we take an active and engaged role in that endless internal debate, which takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy. The constant back-and-forth pulls us away from what's right in front of us, and from doing what really matters to us.


Having said that, it's not that we'll ever stop being pulled into these internal discussions. Our minds, informed by our learning history, life experiences, and past pains wants to protect us from the discomfort of not knowing exactly what to do or how it all fits together. And it knows just the thoughts to choose to suck us back in. While we're bound to get pulled in every now and then, we can practice and become better over time at stepping back, leaving the debate, and focusing on what's important to us.


(Quick note for those of us who really like to be hard on ourselves: while there's truly no benefit to shaming or blaming ourselves for being pulled back into the debate, that's exactly what many of us tend to do. Feeling ashamed or guilty about getting stuck in our thoughts is one of the most seductive ways to draw our attention inward and continue the unproductive loop.)

What we can do instead

If you were nodding your head through the last section and acknowledging that this happens to you, stop reading and watch this quick video about becoming a chessboard. It's a helpful analogy that you can bring to mind when you notice that you're all caught up with the thoughts in your head. Rather than taking an active role by moving the black and white pieces (our competing thoughts) around the board, you can sit back and watch the game unfold, and more importantly, choose to focus on the thoughts that really matter in order to move forward productively.


If the chessboard metaphor doesn't resonate, another option is to do a quick activity that proves to you that your thoughts don't dictate your actions. Start by identifying a simple activity that you're capable of doing right where you are (e.g. pick up a pen, walk around the room, wiggle your fingers, or take a sip of water). Before you do the action, say to yourself for at least 30 seconds, "I can't _____ (insert the activity in the blank)." Repeat that phrase several times, trying your best to really believe that thought, and then do the activity.


Though simple, small practices like this help us retrain how we relate to our desire for understanding. We have tons of thoughts that don't string together logically, and it's absolutely possible to think something that simply isn't true.


Here's another exercise to consider. If a particular phrase is caught in your mind (e.g. "I'm so stupid"), you can try repeating this phrase quickly to yourself for at least 30 seconds; research shows that you'll often find that after that time, the way you relate to the phrase shifts and it may lose some of its intensity; alternatively, you might find that the words lose some of their meaning and starts to sound different to you.


One final option is to simply introduce a few words before a particularly sticky thought. First you might think or say, "I'm so angry." From there, add in, "I'm having the thought that I'm so angry." Lastly, include, "I notice I'm having the thought that I'm so angry."


All of these short exercises are quick ways to practice stepping back from the dialogue in our minds in order to get some distance from the thoughts and emotions that are showing up. If this is an area where you tend to get stuck, try a few exercises out as an experiment. Or take a moment to write down your stream of thoughts on a piece of paper to see what comes up. From there, you can identify and underline what you really care about among those thoughts, and choose to respond with those that most align with your values.


Whatever you do, I'd encourage you to pick just one activity to start. Make it small enough to complete in less than a minute to minimize the effort required.

In the example about my new project, I was able to step out of that internal conversation, recognize that what I wanted most was to just get started, and from there I started reaching out and scheduling calls. Because I couldn't be sure how to feel in that moment, I decided to focus on what I could control (my actions). I decided that once I gather more information and make a bit more progress, I'll check back in to assess whether I keep moving forward with the project.


Belonging


This yearning likely needs little context or introduction. As social animals, we rely on living in coordinated groups to survive. In nearly every group setting, we can witness people seeking acceptance and approval from others or appreciating that they already have it. It feels incredible to be included and connected with others. Fundamentally, belonging increases our chances of survival and finding a mate, and it's also a key source of experiencing love and care.

Without it, many of us experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Throughout the pandemic, it's likely that we've all had to confront difficult emotions and tackle really hard questions about how to best manage our desire for belonging while preserving the safety of others.


Through our collection of social experiences from childhood to adulthood, we build and curate a sense of self based on our actions and the feedback we get from others (family, friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers) about those behaviors. Generally speaking, our actions are either affirmed, punished, acknowledged, or ignored.


We interpret these reactions, internalize them, and use them as data points, often unconsciously, to inform our actions. Our minds then keep tabs on specific, belonging-related items: What behaviors make me unique, special, and different? What helps me fit in? What should I do more often and what should I avoid? We'll weigh these decisions against out individual wants and other desires, and learn to navigate our social lives through ever-changing circumstances.


Where we get stuck

Where many of us tend to get stuck in terms of belonging is when we start to believe that we can only act in certain, limited ways in order to gain acceptance from the group; we're often influenced to choose these actions that feel unique or core to our personality because they've been reinforced by others, implying to our minds that they're critical to our belonging.


For me, this might look like forcing myself to be "calm," "friendly," "authentic," or "outdoorsy," even when the circumstances don't call for it. While I generally feel good about being appreciated for those qualities, my life would feel suffocatingly small if I were limited only to the behaviors that displayed those traits.


We can also struggle with belonging when we feel confined or limited to the labels that we identify with, particularly those that make us feel unique or different. This happens with associations that we tend to view as negative (e.g. lazy, disorganized, hard to work with, not good enough), and it can also happen with those we consider positive. Think of the many professional athletes who've suffered career-ending injuries or entered early retirement and struggle to embrace or seem to have lost the fullness of their lives beyond their sport. What we're most celebrated for can become incredibly isolating when we start to convince ourselves that our belonging is contingent on what we do, or on the labels we use to define ourselves (e.g. successful, professional, parent, manager, executive etc.).


If you connect this limited view of ourselves with the desire for coherence, you can see how you might get caught up in an exhausting debate with yourself trying to answer questions of worthiness: "Who am I without my ____ (sport, job, children)?" or "am I even deserving of love if I'm ____ (wrong, unskilled, a failure) "


What we can do instead

As someone who struggles with belonging, I've found it particularly helpful to try on perspectives that aren't my own. For example, I'm notoriously good at offering kindness and compassion to others but struggle to lend it to myself.


Here's one practice you might try out: think of a mentor, loved one, or trusted friend who you know will be both honest and kind with you (if thinking from someone else's perspective is difficult, you might consider the perspective of your highest or best self, or a younger or older version of you). Once you've identified a persona that you're comfortable taking on, bring them to mind, and imagine that you are now that persona, responding as they would. Though it may seem a bit odd and it's definitely optional, it can help to stand up and move somewhere else in the room, and face the spot where you just were to physically take on a different perspective.


From the perspective of the new persona, answer these questions: "Would you ever want (your name) to hide parts of themself from the world? What would you hope that (your name) learns from what they are currently experiencing? Do you believe that (your name) is only worthy and valuable because of the labels that they're associating with?


If this feels cheesy or contrived to you, you might consider actually asking these questions to a friend or loved one. And if you want to see a familiar example of this on TV and happen to be a Ted Lasso fan, there's a beautiful exchange between Roy Kent and his niece, Phoebe, in Season 1, Episode 9 (start at the 20-minute mark) that exemplifies this exact skill.


To be clear, the purpose of the activity is not about making yourself feel better or to convince your mind that your current perspective is wrong or inaccurate. It's just one meaningful way to remind yourself that you're more than your thoughts and the labels that you apply to yourself.


If you find it hard to take on the perspective of another person, you can instead try to bring your full attention to what's going right here and now. As I write these words, I'm currently sitting in a doctor's office with a mask on, not feeling particularly calm and certainly not outdoorsy. Realistically, I'm having a tremendously routine day.


And yet, by taking a moment to notice my thoughts, or pay attention to my surroundings (what I can hear, see, and touch), I can recognize that I'm more than my thoughts and associations, more than my fingers typing these words, and more than my mind suggesting that I have to be a certain way in order to belong or be complete.


In fact, in this waiting room I can step back and notice my experiences, acknowledging that I'm capable of containing all of them — my past challenges, my current sitting in this chair, my present worries and future concerns, and the random thoughts I have about family, or Food Network (currently on the waiting room TV), or the awkwardness of networking. I can experience all of this with an awareness that there's truly nothing else that I need to do in order to be a full and complete person right here and now.


My being here and noticing is actually supporting my sense of belonging, as I recognize that while the labels we assign ourselves and the content of our thoughts may vary widely, we're all currently sharing in these same patterns of thinking, experiencing, noticing, and doing.

Feeling


The last desire we'll tackle in this post is feeling. Despite what we've been conditioned to believe, humans want and yearn to experience all of our feelings.


If you're feeling skeptical about this, imagine for a second that you were to attend a funeral, and rather than walking around remembering and grieving, everyone instead had a smile glued to their face. Really consider for a moment how that would feel. As another example, imagine that you started jumping for joy in direct response to your biggest heartbreak.


I'm sure you can come up with other examples on your own; the point that remains is that we are meant to feel all of our experiences, not just the pleasant ones.


Where we get stuck

Assuming that we should feel happy all the time is, in my opinion, one of the most short-sighted and harmful ideas that we've adopted. And yet, it's one of the most potent cultural ideas that we all have to navigate.


From a young age, many of us were encouraged to control our feelings. My personal sense is that "controlling feelings" is really just a polite way of suggesting that we suppress them. Instead, we might consider spending less time trying control what we feel and more time consciously deciding how we want to respond to them.


If a feeling is small enough, distracting ourselves from it might work without too much consequence. Largely, though, any prolonged form of emotional avoidance or distraction will provide short-term relief and long-term pain. If this becomes a habit


The most common types of avoidance are fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Practically speaking, this looks like pushing away our difficult feelings through distraction or escape (television, mindless scrolling), numbing them with substances, or feeling stuck or paralyzed, unwilling to take action. Our creative and complex efforts to avoid our feelings are really something to behold, and while I'm impressed by the innovations we come up with to dodge our challenges, the costs and consequences are substantial.


That said, I want to be careful not to paint emotional avoidance as something inherently bad. It's important to remember that we often avoid difficulty to feel relief; in other moments, self-protective action keeps us safe. The context of our current situation really matters.


What we can do instead

Because many of us are quick to react, we often need to slow ourselves down, identify what we're feeling, make space to feel those feelings, and then identify what really matters to us in that moment. Once we've done this, we can determine whether our current actions are working for us.


If you tend to be a problem-solver or are quick to jump to solutions, you'll likely need to practice slowing down and making space for your feelings. For example, I often find myself immediately jumping to answer the question "what do I really care about that's making me feel this way?" While I've become quite skilled at figuring that out quickly, if I don't actually sit with my discomfort and explore it, my answer really just becomes another tactic to avoid my emotions.


Instead, we can take a moment to pause and bring to mind a feeling or thought that's been hard to accept. I try to start with something small so that I can stick with it. Once I've brought it to mind, I'll do my best to let the emotion show up, just as it is. This can be quite difficult if our default reaction is to push it away or try to control it.


Consider taking a minute or two to notice the experience. Try to embrace the emotion as you would a new puppy, a crying baby, or an evening sunset. These are all just examples, of course, but they share the same approach: learning to hold your difficult experiences with curiosity and self-compassion.


When we sit with our emotions and allow them to show up as they are, we can often widen our focus and see what we really matters to us within the difficulty. If we didn't care about something in our pain, it wouldn't hurt in the first place. By looking with curiosity and kindness on our difficulty, we can often identify what we value.