What people think they want

by Jack on September 2012

People think they want all sorts of different things. And sometimes their thoughts are even right – that is, aligned with reality.

Often, however, unexamined emotional cravings and other urges get in the way of people pursuing their most important goals. These cravings emerge from unmet needs that date back to earlier in life, sometimes even as far back as childhood or infancy. For many people, trying to satisfy these emotional cravings makes them operate like automatic computer programs or scripts. Instead of acting as a rational human being, they act out a script that may have been written years before, in response to some long-forgotten, unconscious, emotional craving.

Ultimately, the origin of these cravings is less important than actually doing the work of clearing them out of the way, and moving on to the real task at hand. Many people get involved in so called “self-help”, and quickly learn the importance of setting goals. Often, they set some goals and then wonder why they don’t actually make progress toward those goals, instead getting derailed by their craving for specific emotional wants instead.

You may have heard the fable – originally attributed to Buddha – of the man who was shot by an arrow. A doctor was called to work on the man to fix him up, but the wounded man refused, saying that he needed to know who had shot him, and why, and what that other man’s motivation was, and why he wished him harm, and so forth. Ultimately, the man died – and his desire for knowledge was still unsatisfied.

Many people live their lives this way. Rather than getting to work on something that really matters to them, they analyze themselves and their emotions endlessly. In life, as in battlefield medicine, understanding is the consolation prize, and a weak prize it is.

A few years ago I learned of a simple framework that I have found useful in helping people let go of the various emotional barriers that they tend to place in their own paths [1]. Psychologists and researchers have segmented peoples’ habitual reactions to circumstances into four basic axes, representing different emotional “wants”:

  • Approval / Disapproval
  • Control / Surrender
  • Security / Danger
  • Separation / Oneness

Why does it matter that people seek these payoffs in emotional games? It matters because these games tend to be a distraction from peoples’ real goals – the things that people actually want. Instead of working toward their real goals, people often become distracted into chasing down one or more of these “wants” as side goals, in order to satisfy unconscious emotional scripts that were set in motion years before.

Approval / Disapproval

On the one hand, many people crave approval from other people, or their environment.

The negative effects of approval-seeking are well-known: taking actions that are people-pleasing rather than guided by one’s own integrity, suppressing one’s own intentions in order to “look good” for other people, changing oneself in order to conform to others’ expectations.

There can also be a tangible or emotional payoff when a person secures the approval of others – compliments and praise, feeling of connection and acceptance by others, and even physical benefits such as gifts or salary raises.

At other times, people actively seek disapproval from others. This can take the form of a person doing the opposite of what he is asked to do, teasing others, or “pushing their buttons” – taking actions that are known to be frustrating. A contemporary example of this is so-called Internet “trolling”, where a person tries to annoy or upset others in online discussions.

Control / Surrender

It is common for people to try to exercise some level of control over their environment. This was originally expressed through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – Maslow observed that more basic, body-centered needs are controlled first, followed by a desire and intention to control more abstract needs. Most people generally like to design their social and physical surroundings to be comfortable and predictable, in order to satisfy their emotional desire for control.

On the other hand, many people choose to surrender instead, and make others responsible for them and their decisions. This can happen at work, where everything is “someone else’s fault”, or in the home, for example, where a woman says “I have to ask my husband” for every tiny decision or action. Dysfunctional behaviors such as blaming and apathy emerge from surrender. At the extreme, a person may reject all personal responsibility and depend completely on family or the state in order to live.

Security / Danger

Most of the time, people seek security for their bodies and minds – safeguarding their personal health, eating carefully, working out, taking their vitamins, and not driving too fast. Obviously, this desire also extends to peoples dependent families and other loved ones, as well as to their personal property.

And of course there exists a thrill for many in rejecting security and instead seeking danger – practicing extreme sports, gambling, driving too fast, indulging in unhealthy foods, or abusing alcohol and other drugs.

Separation / Oneness

The typical psychological development of a human being leads to a person becoming aware of himself as a separate consciousness around age two. This leads in to the so-called “terrible twos” with its intense emphasis on “me” and “mine” as the growing child creates himself as an individual being. This desire for separation continues into the future, with many people seeking to separate themselves from others and assert their own uniqueness in various ways. Some people try to separate from others through competition and achievement, others withdraw into their own worlds of imagination and fantasy, and others cultivate obscure tastes and habits that distinguish them from others.

Some psychologists believe that religion originally formed out of an unconscious impulse to reconnect with the feeling of oneness experienced by an infant in the womb – even though few people consciously remember this undifferentiated state, it’s possible that as adults they unconsciously recognize experiences that are similar. In life, many people also experience feelings of loneliness and isolation, and seek to repel those feelings by joining with various groups or organizations.

These different axes are often deeply interrelated, of course. A person may be trying to satisfy more than one of these emotional wants with a single habit or action.

These impulses are not “right” or “wrong” – they are either useful, or not. In most cases, the path to a person’s goal is simpler and less bumpy when these emotional wants do not crop up, and he can simply move forward, completing the various steps and milestones en route to that goal.

In some cases, other people or organizations can use these emotional wants to manipulate people into serving them and their goals. Political movements, advertisements, and other organized engines of persuasion attempt to manipulate people by appealing to various different emotional wants on these four axes. It is a very interesting exercise to guess which of these wants are being activated in a news article, a TV ad, a political campaign, or a web page selling a particular product.

It’s valuable to be able to recognize when you are working on one of these emotional wants, instead of working on a real goal. This knowledge can remove your tendency to become sidetracked in unproductive side goals fueled by old emotional cravings and baggage. It can help you work more effectively, with better focus and attention, on those things that truly matter to you.

[1] You can find this framework presented in the Sedona Method, among other mainstream and alternative therapeutic methodologies.

The following are questions that you can use to ask yourself in order to explore your relationship with these emotional wants:

  • Is this coming from a desire for approval, control, security, or separation (or their opposites)?
  • Can you allow yourself to want your goal, more than you crave approval, control, security, or separation (or their opposites)?
  • Could you completely let go of wanting your goal?


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