I’ve recently gained a new understanding of what it means to “want.”

I had previously put it into two broad categories.

The first category was one of complete ownership and responsibility (read: I need to control the outcome).

While I knew on some level that we only have so much control, it was difficult to really want something knowing that it might not happen. The gap between desiring something and actually getting it left too much room for shame to surface. What if I claimed that I wanted something and never got it? What would that say about my self-worth? It was often too painful to want something for fear that I’d come out on the other side with evidence that I wasn’t “good enough” to have it.

This is a terrible set-up, isn’t it?

Stuck within this orientation of control, I had to be rather rigid in my thinking. I had to take stock of what needed to happen and how I could make it happen. Of course, this was based on my current reality at the time (where the achieved desire didn’t exist and, therefore, seemed impossible right out of the gates). In other words, I had to clamp down and manufacture a road map toward my future that was based solely on my past. It couldn’t include the unknown, abundant, mystical, and mysterious nature of the future because that would leave me open to the “gap of shame.” It couldn’t be an openhearted journey; it had to be a painstaking one where each and every step was fraught with “is this where it’s all going to fall apart?” There was so much pressure, so much responsibility for things that I couldn’t be responsible for, and if all my efforts were to try and achieve something so that I would ultimately feel “worthy,” I remained, by default, unworthy.

The other category for wanting something was forcing myself not to want it at all.

I had to deny its very existence. When you look at the former category, it’s easy to see why this might be a welcomed alternative. Why face the potential for failure? (And from a shame perspective: not a failed venture but failing as a human being!) Nope, that definitely wasn’t worth it, so the kinder approach was to make believe that I didn’t (or shouldn’t) want something to begin with. No risk, no reward, but did I mention, no risk! I would come up with lots of creative way of shutting down the longing, but my favorite method was judgment. I would shame myself for wanting something before I ever hoped to have it. (Isn’t shame sneaky that way?) This actually begs the question: If shame gets ignited in response to my longing no matter what, what might transpire if I acknowledge both the shame and my want? I’ll say more about that in a minute.

As I write about the two distinct categories for longing, I feel a little sick to my stomach. They are riddled with fear and doubt. They are based on the assumption that I’m not good enough, that I’m not okay in this moment, and that I need to be “better” or hide the fact that I’m not. They leave me isolated and lonely. They take an enormous amount of energy.

I’m very grateful that a new way of relating to longing has emerged!

Here is what I’m thinking:

What if we looked at want as a birthright and a compass for our lives?

What if wanting something was the necessary ingredient for positive change and growth?

What if wanting was a God-given impulse that, if honored, would take us exactly where we needed to go?

What if wanting wasn’t a negative or greedy orientation but a gateway to our spiritual path?

And here’s the good news: I now believe that all of these things are true!

Wanting can be the gateway to a spiritual path, leading us toward our most authentic selves.

We just can’t control where the path will ultimately take us. There is a delicate balance between recognizing our longing (because it speaks to where we need to grow to be our best selves), stepping toward it, and remaining open to what we find once we’ve arrived at the next step. Wanting in this way requires vulnerability. It is an open-hearted journey. Admittedly, this is a much scarier orientation, but it is also more honest, more creative, and soulful.

Additionally, I believe that listening to our longing is spiritual because it requires faith and trust to be that open and surrendered. If the gap of unknowns isn’t filled with doubt and shame, we need to fill it with a belief system that supports our growth. A system that believes that there is purpose and meaning for our lives. A system that is much larger and more creative (i.e. universal) than our small minds can conceive. For many people, this means spirituality.

If we look at longing or desire as a spiritual process, it also becomes clear why so many spiritual folks talk about non-attachment. I think one of the secrets to success is to be able to honor the want without getting attached to the outcome. This is important because life rarely looks the way we thought it would and the timing is rarely what we think it should be. For instance, I didn’t know that wanting to be a rock star and moving to New York at nineteen would eventually lead me to being a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles! Who could have seen that coming? But I landed right where I needed to, in the most fulfilling way, and all by pursuing the original desire. I’m not a failure because I’m not a rock star today. Pursuing my musical dreams provided wonderful life experiences while honing what was deeply embedded in my original want: to have a voice.

I didn’t even know it at the time, but a large part of my desire to be a singer/songwriter was about wanting to have an authentic voice. It felt safe to have a voice within the framework of a song but much more difficult in the rest of my life. Over time, it became safer to have a voice in other areas of my life. I didn’t need the safety of the song to be authentic. Now I can have a voice in relationships, in blogs, and in places that were much too scary in the beginning of my path. But the path knew that I had to start where I was, and as I honored each and every step, it brought me here, where singing still brings me joy, but it isn’t my only source. I still love music that gives us permission to have all of our feelings, but I now have permission in the rest of my life to be a whole person.

What I love about this story is that I couldn’t have made a controlling, clamp-down list of how to get from A to B because I didn’t even know I wanted B! I didn’t know it until one small step at a time, I grew into more of myself. And it was the original longing that mysteriously led me here.

I hope that you might take some time to think about what you really want.

Perhaps you won’t ultimately get “it,” but I believe that the path has the potential to bring you somewhere you can’t even envision yet. I welcome your personal stories of listening to your longing and encourage you to own what you want in the comments section. Let’s see where that small step might lead.

Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice. For more on Ingrid and her daily inspirations on achieving emotional sobriety, visit her website and follow her on Facebook.

*Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae via Compfight cc