Why You Want What You Cant Have
"You can't always get what you want . . ." The Rolling Stones will soon be singing this refrain at venues around the world, as they embark on a year-long concert tour in August.
This song, now decades old, addresses a universal truth. Here's the rest of the refrain:
You can't always get what you want . . .
But if you try sometimes
You just might find
You get what you need.
What is it that you really wanted and didn't get? The affections of a person who was with someone else? That dream job? The last cinnamon-raisin bagel snapped up by the customer in front of you?
These scenarios range from trivial to potentially life-changing, but they all have one thing in common:
WHEN YOU DON'T GET WHAT YOU WANT, YOU WANT IT EVEN MORE.
Here are three reasons why this is so:
1. Heightened attention: When something is hard to get (or forbidden) you immediately pay more attention to it. Notice that when you are on a restricted diet, you sometimes get too focused on what you "can't" eat. This heightened attention -- which can escalate into obsession -- makes the forbidden food seem very important. Your inner brat takes advantage of this, and tries to convince you that you MUST have that chocolate.
2. Perceived scarcity: When something is scarce or in short supply, its perceived value increases. You want it more because you think other people also want it. If you've ever bid at auctions or on eBay, you know the experience of that last-minute excitement as you watch the bids spiral upward. The more people who bid, the more you're willing to pay for the item. Your inner brat wants it at any price.
3. "Psychological Reactance": People don't like to be told they can't have or can't do something. It's related to not wanting to be controlled by others, especially if the situation feels unfair or arbitrary. The "reactance" is both emotional and behavioral.
The emotional part is your inner brat saying, "Oh yeah? I can't have what I want? Just try and stop me!"
The behavioral component is what you do about it, which usually involves some type of rebellious reaction. You see this with teenagers whose parents have forbidden them to date certain people. Reactance also explains why a "Wet Paint" sign invites unwanted fingerprints on the newly painted surface.
Next time you don't get what you want, ask yourself whether one of the above factors has influenced your desire. If so, let go of the pursuit. Your inner brat won't be happy, but ultimately (in the words of the Rolling Stones,) you "might just find [that] you get what you need."
Pauline Wallin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Camp Hill, PA, and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior" (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2004)
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