Are you wanting more or wanting less?

vine on white wall, words - are you wanting more or wanting less - blog post by Santa Rosa counselor Patty Bechtold at wiselifetherapy.com

Let’s start with the question of wanting more. (It’s a common question, right?)

We ask it often, of ourselves and others. We ask it almost automatically in some situations: Do you want more pie? Do you want more space?

Yet in times of transition and change, asking what you want more of is far from simple.

In fact, during lengthy periods of complicated change (collective and personal), the fingers of wanting can continually pull at you in multiple ways.

This is the stage of transition when you’re moving away from the in-between or stuck phase, holding onto guarded hope and the stirrings of new possibilities. There may be a sense of promise around every corner that sits right next to the possibility of dashed hopes.

It’s a time when you sense the pull of wanting more but also feel confused, unable to name it clearly or hold on to it.

These days, the confusion might feel amplified.

You might find yourself unsure about not only what you want but also where you are on the continuum of wanting.

Perhaps, at some level, you’re even pondering questions like these:

  • Do I want more?
  • Do I want less?
  • Am I drifting as I contemplate what’s next or what’s normal?

words: wisdom is finding your place on the continuum of contentment

It’s helpful to remember that “normal” life is influenced by the urgency of always wanting more.

The fact is we live in a world of information overload that’s anchored to the belief that always wanting more is a good thing.

While it’s no secret, we do tend to forget it because we’re pretty much required to engage with this flow of information in order to function and get through each day. It’s become just another thing we do.

If you step back and listen closely, you’ll hear (and feel) the rhythms of wanting.

The rhythms of wanting–always wanting more—beat their way through this excess of information. It’s all around you, 24/7. Things you never even knew you wanted hurtle towards you at record speeds.

It’s propelled, in part, by human nature and biology.

But there are many other things that influence it: mass marketing, social media, privilege, perceived scarcity, societal values, grind culture, inequality, comparison, self-worth, family of origin, peer pressure, and social constructs about what constitutes a good life.

During the past few years many women shifted their relationships with wanting.

The changes were driven by both circumstance (a global pandemic) and choice. And it wasn’t always easy, not getting everything we wanted. It was scary and we had to adjust pretty quickly to life as we never expected it to be. 

Still, for many of us, moderating our desires and shifting our behaviors didn’t take as much effort as we probably thought it would.

Of course, I’m talking about those of us who had ample resources, could work from home, take advantage of online shopping, and keep ourselves relatively safe. I know this wasn’t the case for a lot of women who worked on the front lines, had children at home, had scarce resources, or were dealing with many other issues.

Less wanting had both its upsides and downsides.

One of the things I remember most about the past few years is that as my clients parked some of their expectations about what they could do or have, they experienced more of everything. 

Without a doubt there was more…

  • stress and overwhelm
  • anxiety and depression
  • fear and uncertainty
  • grief and sorrow
  • trauma and pain

There was a surprising sense of more goodness too.

By this I mean more….

  • self-understanding and empathy
  • calm, simplicity and peace
  • relaxation, autonomy and rest
  • deeper connection and serenity
  • joy in small moments
  • gratitude and compassion
  • serenity and self-acceptance
  • deep breaths and appreciation of nature

I don’t mean that it was easy or that this goodness was simply there for the taking all the time. But it was as if it held more meaning and depth when it did come along.

Perhaps slowing down, accepting the present moment, and releasing some of the excess wanting made us able to experience the goodness more fully.

Buddhist philosophy has a name for this: contentment.

It’s the fundamental wisdom that suggests that practicing more acceptance and less wanting creates space for more contentment and less suffering.

It may seem strange to claim that in some ways we deepened our experiences of contentment during a global pandemic. Yet I know many of you can relate to this.

And the tricky part now (and always, when you consider it) is finding your sweet spot on the continuum of wanting, where contentment is abundant and wanting feels just right.

I wish that for all of us as. And I’m very aware that my own relationship with wanting and contentment has transformed over the years and is still a work in progress.

My awareness of it actually started many years ago.

I first saw the delicate dance between wanting and contentment through the eyes of two women.

Both of them–Regina Giddens and Birdie Hubbard–have been on my mind lately. They’re actually sisters-in-law and if their names sound familiar it’s because they’re characters in Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes. 

If you haven’t seen the play or the original film with Bette Davis, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t like old movies, it’s worth watching, especially now.

It’s set in Alabama in 1900, after the Civil War. Not only is it magnificently written, with captivating characters and fascinating plot twists, but it is a story for our times.

The Little Foxes opened on Broadway in 1939, so it might seem terribly out of date. In reality, it’s a primer on many things we’re currently wrestling with: power, patriarchy, class, systemic racism, gender inequality, and family dysfunction.

Birdie and Regina revealed the shadow side of desire and wanting for me.

Years ago I played Birdie and Regina on stage. But not at the same time, like Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon did during the recent revival.

However, within about a three year time span, I was cast in the play twice.

It may seem a bit strange that two fictional characters made such an impact. But sometimes, long after I’ve played a part, the character and their words remain lodged in my memory and my body.

I can feel in my chest and hear, as clear as a bell, the frustration of Regina’s intense desires. Then I speak her declaration of it:

I want more. I want a bigger share.

At the same time, I can feel in my chest and hear, as clear as a bell, the despair of Birdie’s lost yearnings. Then I speak her declaration of it:

In 22 years I haven’t had a single, whole day of happiness.

All these years later, the feelings, yearnings, words, and lives of these women still reside within me. I suppose you could say they’re a part of me.

Regina’s intense wanting and Birdie’s lack of wanting didn’t lead either to contentment or happiness.

Regina had pretty much devoted her life to having and getting, always wanting more. She wanted fiercely and ferociously.

Not only did Regina want the world, but she was mad as hell that she wasn’t getting it. In a patriarchal and privileged family where women had few rights, she’d stamp her feet and demand to know, when will it be my turn? 

Regina did eventually get what she wanted, sort of. But she had to resort to some pretty despicable acts, like manipulation and lying. Not to mention antagonizing and literally turning her back on her biggest obstacle (her ailing husband Horace) by refusing to give him the medicine that would save his life.

And at the end of the play, to truly get what she wanted, she had to release her daughter Alexandra, perhaps the only person she really loved.

Birdie was a very different woman from Regina: meek, sad, broken.

Her desires had to go undercover, and you could say she lived a lack of wanting.

Sweet Birdie, she’d been through a lot. Her husband was abusive and had married her for her family’s money and land. It was heartbreaking.

Birdie couldn’t allow herself to want much; it was too dangerous. In fact, her most fervent wish was for what she knew she couldn’t have. More than anything, she wished for life to return to the way it was in the days when she was growing up with her mother on their plantation.

And even though she was much loved by her closest kin, she often pushed them away, claiming she had a headache, then retreating to her room to drink too much elderberry wine. In one devastating scene near the end of the play, she pushes her beloved niece Alexandra away and cries, “Don’t love me. Because in 20 years you’ll just be like me.”

Right now you might be wondering: Is wanting bad? Is not wanting bad?

Clearly Regina and Birdie reflect the opposites of too much wanting and not enough wanting.

I tend to think of this as the dark corners of desire.

And we probably do all have a bit of Regina and Birdie within us, in varying degrees.

However, it’s normal to want. It’s also normal to need to retreat from it.

On the one hand, when wanting is coupled with deep, heartfelt desire it’s often joyful, positive, and life-affirming. I believe that’s the kind of desire that supports contentment.

In fact, tiny inklings of wanting are often the first signs of hope and healing if you’re coming out of a time when your desire has been disabled for any reason.

On the other hand, wanting can feel trance-like and exhausting. Functioning in a system that’s built on keeping people in a perpetual state of wanting can make contentment seem elusive and unattainable.

You can definitely get burned out on wanting. If you sense that burnout is building within you, it’s wise to disengage if you can.

One more thing: too much or too little wanting might require you to give up something very precious.

In The Little Foxes both Regina and Birdie push Alexandra (Regina’s daughter/Birdie’s niece) away. In fact, she leaves the house quite dramatically at the end of the play.

I’d forgotten that Regina and Birdie shared this experience. Until now I hadn’t paid much attention to these parallel experiences. They didn’t land as powerfully as they do today when I step into them again.

Perhaps it’s because I’m older. Or maybe it’s the result of living through the extremes of our recent collective past.

Whatever it is, it’s a powerful metaphor and I can now feel how gut-wrenching this loss is for both of them. Alexandra is deeply loved by both Regina and Birdie, of that I’m certain.

Bottom line: any wanting that requires you to give up what is deeply meaningful is a huge red flag.

Here’s a quick way to explore your current relationship with wanting and contentment.

These questions are based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced both as a therapist/coach and in my personal life. I’ve also based them on insights I’ve gleaned from the characters of Regina and Birdie.

This isn’t a test or a quiz, though.

The questions are here to help you notice and reflect on what you’re experiencing right now, and whether your wanting or lack of it feels life-enriching or life-depleting.

Journaling prompts: exploring your place on the continuum of wanting.

You can answer these with a quick “yes” or “no” but journaling beyond your initial answers will deepen the experience for you.

By the way, you can be in both places at the same time: feeling some pushy and forceful wanting as well as some lessening or lack of wanting.

1. Is this you? My wanting feels somewhat pushy and forceful.

If yes, does it…

  • conflict with your deeper wisdom about your true needs?
  • require you to act in ways that are out of sync with your values and beliefs?
  • leave no room for questions or doubts?
  • stem from trauma, grief, anxiety or depression?
  • interfere with your sense of contentment?
  • require you to give up something very precious?

2. Is this you? My wanting feels somewhat lacking or lessening.

If yes, does it…

  • require you to deny your needs or push down your desires?
  • leave no room for self-compassion?
  • reflect a belief that you don’t deserve to want anything?
  • stem from trauma, grief, anxiety or depression?
  • interfere with your sense of contentment?
  • require you to give up something very precious?
Patty Bechtold

Patty Bechtold

I help women find their way back to their deepest wisdom when they feel like something’s missing in their lives or themselves. On my blog I write about the stories, insights, ideas, and wise words I’ve picked up along the way. Thank you for being here.