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Three Reasons It Can Be Hard to Know What You Really Want

These factors may cloud your perception.

To create a fulfilling life, we need to know what fulfills us. But knowing this isn’t as simple as it may seem. When it comes to career, relationships, health, and other areas of life, psychological processes meant to protect our self-esteem can keep us from digging deeper or acknowledging uncomfortable truths. The following are three ways our genuine desires may be obscured.

1. When something feels out of reach, we might downplay its importance.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” they say, but sometimes it works in reverse: We have to believe it’s doable before we can muster the will to do it.

For example, people often find it difficult to sustain healthy habits, like regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and limiting alcohol consumption. Presumably, most of us do, in fact, want to be healthy, but we may have doubts about our ability to get there, especially if we’ve already tried without success. It may feel safer to say we don’t really care about those things anyway, rather than let ourselves want something that feels unattainable.

Research suggests that believing we’re capable of achieving a goal might jump-start our motivation to achieve it. In one study, early-career professionals from a range of fields completed surveys several times per day for five weeks. Those who agreed more strongly with statements like "I am able to work effectively towards long-term goals" also reported greater autonomous motivation for work-related projects—that is, they felt more of a genuine desire to work on them.

By contrast, if we don’t feel confident about something, we might come to believe that we are less interested in it than we would otherwise be. This tendency can also play out in romantic relationships: If we doubt our ability to make a relationship work or be a good partner, we may convince ourselves we don’t value the relationship as much as we actually do.

2. Once a decision is made, we might rationalize the status quo.

Researchers have uncovered a surprising pattern of behavior: People tend to slightly increase their support for government policies immediately after these changes take effect, even if they didn’t support them to begin with. This shift happens so quickly that there is no way it could be explained simply by observing the effects of the policy and adjusting one’s beliefs accordingly. Instead, it seems to be driven by a psychological defense mechanism that helps us feel better about the way things are, regardless of how unpleasant they might be.

In truly irreversible situations, this defense mechanism can be adaptive—it allows us to look on the bright side and make the best of a situation—but sometimes we resign ourselves to our current reality when we don’t have to, and this resignation can hamper our motivation to make things better. We might tolerate unjust social conditions by viewing them as inevitable or deserved, or we might stay in an unsatisfying job or relationship because we’ve persuaded ourselves it’s not really that bad.

3. When our freedom is restricted, we might want something that’s off-limits—but only because it’s off-limits.

Despite our tendency to rationalize circumstances that feel outside of our control, perceived restrictions on freedom can sometimes trigger the opposite reaction. According to the reactance theory, we might want something more when it’s forbidden. But if we ultimately get it, it may lose its luster, revealing that we maybe hadn't wanted it very much in the first place, at least not on its own merits. And although challenging unfair restrictions can be beneficial, if we’re fighting the rules just for the sake of fighting, we may lose sight of our larger goals.

For example, teenagers might be more drawn to romantic interests whom their parents prohibit them from seeing, regardless of whether the person is actually a good match for them. Or marital partners might resist their spouses’ requests simply because they don’t like being told what to do when it could be that if they sit down and think about it, they want the same thing too.

The sources of bias described here can function like blinders, either blocking us from seeing the potential for something better beyond the status quo or keeping us from appreciating what we have in front of us. The problem is, we’re often unaware of their influence. To gain greater clarity, consider what your aspirations would look like if these factors were not at play—if you had full confidence and free choice. Wanting something is no guarantee of attaining it, but being honest with ourselves and others can open unexpected doors.

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