Uncovering your real desires can be terrifying. It can also set you spectacularly free.
In a wonderful book titled The Bonds of Love, the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin wrote of an epiphany two psychologists once had while strolling past a hospital nursery. The setting was a familiar one to anyone who has had a child or visited a woman after she has given birth. The newborns were clustered together, each in his or her own plastic bassinet. For parents to see their children, or to show them off to visitors, they had to come out of their rooms and make a pilgrimage to the nursery, where they could only peer through the windows to try to pick their child out from the bevy of infants. Benjamin described the two psychologists, one of them the mother of a newborn boy, staring anxiously into the nursery. It must have been difficult to tell one baby from the next. To make things easier perhaps, or to enliven the drab sterility of the hospital environment, the nurses had attached to each bassinet a blue or pink card. Suddenly, instead of scanning the babies' faces, the psychologists focused on the cards. On each blue one was written in big letters i'm a boy!, while on each pink one was inscribed it's a girl! The boys were "I," but the girls were "it." The boys were endowed with an instant sense of self, while the girls were treated as objects from the beginning.
In highlighting this difference, Benjamin was emphasizing how our culture is much more comfortable encouraging desire in boys than in girls. We want boys to have an "I" right away, but we prefer girls to be objects rather than subjects. To be a subject, a person must be comfortable with his or her own point of view, but to be an object, one must simply satisfy other people's expectations. For girls raised in this scenario, desire becomes a problem, a source of conflict. Objects can be desired, but they cannot have desires—they cease to be objects once they do. Only an "I" can desire. To desire is to have a personal voice, to stop being an object, to break with the conditioning of family and culture. To desire is threatening to the status quo.
One of the primary reasons we fear desire so much is that it puts us in conflict with who we thought we were. The self that is established early in life in response to the needs of parents, family, and friends is not necessarily the self whose voice comes from within. The "conditioned" self—the one that Benjamin calls an "it"—may actually seem much more acceptable than the desiring self. The conditioned self is trained according to the needs of others, after all. It represents the survival strategy of a child dependent on the goodwill of parents, teachers, and family. It is created to be liked. Because the conditioned self starts to break down under pressure from the desiring self, we may be afraid of naming our desire even to ourselves, afraid of allowing ourselves to desire for fear of becoming suddenly unacceptable and alone, unsure of how we will be received. Desire can seem very dangerous.
A patient of mine, a professional woman in her early 30s whom I'll call Simone, described this struggle very well. Simone was an accomplished architect, respected and successful in her field. Yet in her relationships, Simone hid behind a persona that she did not feel completely in control of. She was an expert in adapting to other people's needs. Simone came across as something of an ingenue: pretty, self-effacing, caring, empathic, and more helpless than she really was. Men fell in love with her easily, and she would often find herself involved in relationships for extended periods of time with people she was not really interested in, simply because they wanted her. It was not that she was not in touch with her true feelings: She was. But her need to please was so overwhelming that she could not listen to herself for any sustained length of time. Other people had priority. She would resolve to break up with a boyfriend, fend him off for a few days or weeks, but ultimately surrender to his needs or demands. Setting a realistic boundary—even acting in her own self interest—was difficult for her.
Simone was a good example of someone who grew up with a need to please. At the expense of her own self, she developed a caretaking identity that left her feeling trapped by those she felt responsible for. Listening to her own voice, to her own desire, carried with it the risk of offending those she was close to. She feared hurting them and needed my support in setting realistic boundaries that she could maintain. I used to quote her a line of Nick Lowe's, "You've got to be cruel to be kind," from one of my favorite eighties British pop songs. To be kind to herself, and to free those she had ensnared in her adaptive web, Simone had to hazard being mean. To desire meant to risk being offensive.
Next: Why mutual love can be such a transformative experience
When then governor of New Jersey James E. McGreevey revealed his homosexuality and resigned from office, he articulated a similar sentiment: "From my early days in school until the present day, I acknowledged some feelings, a certain sense that separated me from others. But because of my resolve, and also thinking that I was doing the right thing, I forced what I thought was an acceptable reality onto myself, a reality which is layered and layered with all the quote 'good things' and all the quote 'right things' of typical adolescent and adult behavior. Yet at my most reflective—maybe even spiritual—level, there were points in my life when I began to question what an acceptable reality really meant for me. Were there realities from which I was running? Which master was I trying to serve?"
McGreevey described his fear of his own desire very well. Becoming acceptable meant fitting himself into a schema that kept his own longings away. It meant superimposing a false identity rather than allowing a truer self to emerge. This was yet another version of what Jessica Benjamin noticed in the nursery, the victory of the "it" over the "I." McGreevey sought to manage his conflict by being an object rather than becoming his own person. Knowing what was expected of him, he could pretend to be what people wanted him to be, but he was not being true to himself. Forcing an acceptable reality onto himself created a split in which his truer, subjective self was hidden away, silently waiting for the force of desire to liberate it.
A scenario like this sets up an unfortunate dilemma, one that pits desire against the need for acceptance. Hungering for approval, children have no real choice but to learn to adapt to their environment. In so doing, though, they become aware, at least subliminally, of the conditional nature of the love they strive for. Simone, for instance, felt as if her parents never knew, or did not like, the "real" her—even as she lost touch with who or what the real her might be. Her own desire, like McGreevey's, was forced underground—because it put her at odds with her parents. To trust that desire meant facing a deep fear of being unlovable.
This is one of the reasons why love—mutual romantic love, that is—can be such a transformative experience. The subjective voice must suddenly be front and center; nothing else rings true. For those who have spent a lifetime trying to fit into the mold of what was expected of them, this can be very disconcerting. There is, in love, a change in the rules. Although the culture fosters the belief that being the perfect object (for a woman) or possessing the perfect object (for a man) will bring everything we need, love demands something different. Making oneself into an object for the pleasure of one's partner might work for a short time, but it is not the way to sustain a romantic relationship. One or both parties will soon grow bored.
The revelation of romantic love is that it must be between two individuals. Two desires must intertwine for love to flourish. In discovering that one's own desire is not only acceptable but also desirable, an extraordinary healing becomes possible. When one's desire is desired, it is the authentic self that is being appreciated. The subjective voice, all too often a source of conflict or shame, becomes a means of connection, not of separation. This is a major turnaround. Where once desire meant going against the grain and asserting individuality at the expense of parental approval, it becomes, in love, the binding force of the relationship.
Yet it is a mistake to think of the connection between two "I's" as a static phenomenon, as some kind of final achievement or resting place. Two subjects do not make an object. There is always uncertainty in romantic union because neither partner can be owned or possessed. Once we become an "I," our desire evades all attempts to capture or define it. The elusiveness of desire is liberating, but it can also be frightening. After a lifetime of fitting into other people's agendas, the amorphousness of the subjective self can be intimidating. We fear desire because it can loose us from our moorings, but we also need desire because it lets us know who we are. To be in touch with our desires makes a new kind of confidence possible. It can be scary to be an "I," but it is more frightening to remain an "it."
Mark Epstein is the author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life (Gotham, 2005).