Years ago I had a good friend who always had crushes on unavailable women. Specifically, unavailable in this tantalizing way where they seemed like they were almost about to reciprocate his feelings, almost ready for a committed relationship. One day he was telling me about the latest in this series and I said, you like it when girls are unavailable. No, he said, I just like strong women, and strong women often aren’t looking for relationships. I replied, no, you like this particular dynamic. That’s why you choose it over and over.
One thing I strongly believe is that you have what you want. Another way of phrasing it: you want what you choose. Even if, and sometimes especially if, what you choose is an impediment to your flourishing.
In Jungian psychology there is the idea of the shadow self, the part of your personality that is unknown to your conscious brain. This is the half of you that desires what your conscious self refuses to acknowledge. For instance: you might want love, but part of you might also want pain (so you choose relationships that hurt you). You might want to be independent, but you might also want to be taken care of (so you sabotage your own attempts at autonomy).
We love to convince ourselves that things are circumstantial. Like, I love painting, but I don’t paint anymore because I’m too busy. Like, I’m not really happy with my suburban life, but I’m trapped in it indefinitely. But what if these things aren’t circumstantial? Instead of blaming the external world, imagine believing that some part of me wanted and chose this. Another part of you might resist it, but that’s the nature of getting what you want: it’s not perfect, and you’re almost always conflicted. The conflict is not a sign that you don’t have what you want. The conflict is a sign that different parts of you want different things, and you have what best satisfies the most important part of you.
With S, for example, there’s a part of him that wants more commitment and a part of him that wants less. Part of him wants the future to be decided: plan a winter wedding, buy a house, have two chubby-cheeked children. Part of him wants no responsibility and no commitment, to live like he’s 20 again in a high-rise apartment in a gleaming city where he knows nobody. These two possible lives are, to some extent, mutually exclusive. When he tells me about the ghost life tugging on him, I shrug and say, you choose what you want. (Yes, I’m the worst type of partner: big on theories, low on sympathy.)
All flippancy aside, I do often think about the way we’re haunted by unlived futures (see: Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life). People aren’t fungible and neither are relationships: we never get back what we lose. I could spend years searching for you in every hidden corner and never find you again. And yet: we were born to give up what we love. To respect the sanctity of autonomy is to make your choice and let other people make theirs. The only way for us to consolidate our fractured selves—to become whole—is by fully inhabiting our choices.
Imagine believing this: if you actually didn’t want something anymore, you would get rid of it. There are, of course, many things we can’t change: health problems, personal tragedies, sudden global pandemics. Those make it more imperative that we take accountability for what we can change. Most people I know could leave their cushy job, they’re just not comfortable with feeling uncertain. Both them and their partner would survive the end of the relationship, but they want to stay in it. They could have different friends or call their family more or make adventurous decisions—they just don’t want to. And it’s okay to not want to. Everything begins when you admit to yourself what you actually want.
It’s hard for us to acknowledge that we have what we want because sometimes what we want is embarrassing and ugly. But when we don’t acknowledge these unconscious desires we are controlled by them and left unable to move forward. Jung: “A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps... living below his own level."
Don’t live in with one foot in an imagined world, ungrateful for the life that you created. We flourish when we stop fantasizing about the unlived life and accept the one we’re in.