The Terror and Triumph of Admitting Vulnerable Desires
The single scariest thing we do as humans is admit our deepest desires.
This is terrifying because it reveals a bit about who we are as humans. What we desire tells people a lot about what we value, what we want, and what we fear we can't have. That's a lot to admit to someone who might tell us no. Even though no isn't as scary as we tend to believe, hearing no is still a skill we haven't all developed yet.
So when we're given the chance to actually ask for what we want, we often chicken out instead.
Here's an example of how I did exactly that recently. I'm in a relatively new relationship, and recently spent an afternoon with my lover and other people. My lover was distracted and distant towards the end of our time together, and when we separated I felt a little stung. I knew I wanted to connect with them, and get a little reassurance that the coldness wasn't because they were upset with me, but instead of asking directly for what I wanted, I sent a message asking "are you okay?"
You might say "that's not chickening out. You really wanted to know if they were okay." Which was exactly the reasoning I used with myself when I sent the message. After all, I always want to know that my partners are okay. But the truth is what I desired in this case was reassurance that our relationship was okay, and that’s not what I asked for.
Luckily for me, my partner is clever enough to read between the lines and check in to see why I was asking. But that's six plus months into a relationship with a very intuitive partner who’s good at catching me at tricks like this.
I do this in other ways, too. I'll ask a partner or friend I'm hanging out with if they're hungry before admitting that I'm hungry. If I’m on a road trip with others, the first sign that I need to pee is me asking the rest of the car if anybody else needs to pee. I'm much more comfortable asking those around me what they want to do than making suggestions for what I want to do. All of these things can be (and I hope often are) considerate ways to approach life.
And at the same time, they conveniently remove the obligation for me to admit my own desires. Often enough I don't much care what we do or eat or watch, as long as I'm with the people I want to be with. But I've begun to realize that it's also true that by not naming my desires I'm building a protective wall around myself that makes intimacy more difficult.
The practice I'm trying to use instead is naming my feelings (including my desires) without making other people responsible for them. Sometimes this looks like me being the first one to say "I like you" -and then carefully following that up with "please understand that doesn't mean you are required to do anything with this information, I just wanted you to have it."
Other times it means saying "I would like to eat dinner before we go out, because I don't trust that I'll be able to eat what's likely to be served at the party." Or even "would you pick where we go for lunch? I'm overwhelmed by choices right now and don't care what we eat."
Similar things work in the bedroom. "I want to do x to you" or "I want you to do x to me" are reasonable (though terrifying) things to say out loud. As long as my headspace isn’t toxic, I’m able to look at the answers to these questions as sources of data rather than referendums on my personal value and desirability, that works really well. And when I start to notice that I’m interpreting those questions as referendums on other things, it’s a warning sign for me to tread very carefully.
This way of approaching the world is terrifying, as vulnerability always is. It also has some significant benefits. First, it’s generous. I’m taking responsibility for how I feel and how I intact in a way that always asking other people what they want fails to do. Second, it ups the odds of me getting what I actually want, because although my partners are all wonderful people not a one of them can actually reliably read my mind. (Which is important for me to remember - because it’s sometimes tempting to believe that they can and that it’s wise to take their version of what i am thinking / feeling instead of figuring it out for myself.) Third, and perhaps most importantly, when I ask for what I want and I get it, it’s an amazing experience. The triumph is entirely worth the terror and the times I don’t get what I want.