The Shame and Confusion of Wanting

“Small children have no compunctions about saying, even shrieking, what they want. At a critical point, though — third grade, fourth grade, fifth — the shame of wanting sets in.”

Ellen Tien’s essay, Just Say What You Want, makes a number of interesting points, not the least of which is that we are ashamed of wanting, and particularly of being seen as ‘wanty.’ We (men and women, but women more so) are afraid that if we “want too much, … try too hard, … commit to a desire,” then people will label us “needy, bitchy, clingy, whiny. In other words, wanty.”

I recognise myself here, in particular:

“Do we even allow ourselves to know what we want?

“‘Where should we go for dinner?’ I ask my husband.

“‘Wherever you want,’ he says.

“I suggest a nice barbecue place around the corner. No, he says, he doesn’t feel like barbecue. Chinese? No, he had Chinese food for lunch. Italian? No, too heavy. Thai? Too much like Chinese. Where, then, I repeat, does he want to go for dinner?

“‘I dunno. Wherever you want.’

I often feel like the husband here and speak his lines. It feels in these interchanges like I don’t know what I want, I only know what I don’t want, and I’m not real clear on that. Sometimes it feels like nothing that’s available is what I really want, so I just have to say yes to something. What I really want, or so I think, is a restaurant 1,300 miles away and I’m trying to approximate it — or the feeling I get when I’m there — with what’s within a 10-mile radius, so it’s both true that there is no one particular place where I strongly want to go and also true that there are lots of places where I don’t want to go.

Maybe I don’t really want to go out to eat at all; somehow when I crave doing something new, or when what I really want is familiarity, a feeling of comfort, or a burst of energy, a feeling of pampering, or whatever, eating out sometimes seems like the way to find it. After all, I’m not finding it at home for the moment, so I’m hoping I can find it elsewhere. But at the same time, I know that the ‘elsewheres’ don’t really offer it, either. Reminds me of the Springsteen line, “Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself.” And sometimes, even when the restlessness is within, a change of venue can help, can offer a change in perspective.

Not sure how shame plays into this, except that wanting, by definition, stems from a sense of lack in oneself, and to admit that we lack — by stating a desire, by trying hard to achieve something, etc., — is to signal to others that we are deficient in some way. It’s not always seen that way, though. High-powered business people, e.g., spend a lot of time working hard to achieve and they are seen as powerful, not as clingy, needy, or wanty. (‘Bitchy’ and ‘bastardy’ at times, perhaps.)

When I dither about dinner, I know it’s not just about where to eat; I can feel my restlessness and the small child in me shrieking, ‘Give me what I want!’ even if, as is often true even for small kids, I don’t know what I want.


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