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Captured in a moment of introspection, a young woman writes in her journal, her focus intense and determined. This image beautifully echoes the theme of self-discovery and clarity explored in the accompanying blog post, guiding readers towards the therapy process of self- understanding and articulating their preferences with mindfulness and purpose.

I’ll Have Whatever She’s Having: 4 Reasons Why You May Struggle to Know Your Own Preferences and How Therapy Can Help

Many of my therapy clients at Embodied Counseling find it difficult to know and communicate what they like or dislike. 

This may show up as early as in the first therapy appointment when we discuss scheduling, and they may defer to “whatever works best for you,” or they may want me to determine the direction of the therapy session solely. 

One of the most powerful offerings that attuned therapy can provide is a space in which you, as a client and individual, begin to identify what does and doesn’t work for you and explore acting on these insights within a supported environment. 

Difficulty acting on and expressing our needs and preferences is usually caused by either a lack of internal knowing regarding what we like/dislike and/or a clear knowing but difficulty expressing it to others. Do any of the following scenarios resonate with you? 

  • Making sure other people feel comfortable is more important than getting what you want or need (in fact, what you “need” is for others to feel ok).
  • Making decisions, especially in a social setting, about where to go to dinner, what to order, or what movie to watch feels so stressful. You tend to feel put on the spot and reply by saying, “I don’t care” or “I’m good with whatever.” 
  • Other people experience you as easy-going, which may feel both relieving and disconnecting. 
  • Your first step when making a choice or decision is to seek feedback from multiple people. 

 

Why do I do this?

If the above scenarios ring true with you, you might be wondering why you tend to experience difficulties with knowing and communicating your preferences. Here are some common reasons this may be challenging: 

  • Difficulty tuning into yourself: Connecting to your inner voice, desires, and preferences may be inhibited by anxiety, too many demands on your time and attention, trauma, physical pain, or other experiences that may make it hard to get in touch with yourself and cause you to focus on external cues primarily.
  • Fear of rejection: Some individuals may know what they like or dislike, but the thought of expressing it to others who may feel differently is scary. Orienting to others’ desires and preferences may be a socially adaptive strategy to try and feel a greater sense of belonging. 
  • Low self-esteem: Maybe you feel that you are undeserving of having your preferences recognized. You may feel like your needs are less important than others’ needs and subsequently suppress your preferences or try to mold yourself to what you think others like.
  • Safety: For some people, based on their identities, body presentation, or past experiences, it may not be safe to express preferences for fear of further marginalization, discrimination, or abuse. For others, their current environment may allow for this expression, but they may not feel safe to do so based on past relationships or experiences where this was not permissible. People pleasing often gets a bad rap, but it’s important to understand it can be a highly adaptive survival mechanism.

 

The benefits of knowing yourself- if knowledge is power, then knowledge about yourself is a superpower 

Understanding your needs, wants, interests, and limits is essential to being able to make decisions that feel true to you and can have a significant impact on the quality of your life. 

Many of the chronic issues that clients come to therapy for can be tied back to feeling at odds with their authentic selves. For those who struggle with a difficult relationship with food or their bodies, a sense of connectedness to inner cues may feel suppressed or disrupted by intrusive thoughts or outside noise. 

I support clients in using therapy to build awareness of inconsistencies between how they are currently living and who they are and support them in bridging this gap. 

 

A helpful therapy exercise in building self-understanding

The concept of getting to know yourself may feel exciting and intimidating. I encourage clients not to rush this process and start from a place of playful curiosity.

One ‘assignment’ I often invite clients to try between therapy sessions is beginning to keep a list of things they like and dislike. 

You may use a notebook or note on your phone and jot down things you enjoy and things you don’t enjoy. As you go through your day, imagine you are observing your routine and choices anew and notice what it feels like to pick, engage, and consume the things that you do. 

 

Pay attention when you enjoy something.

  • When you get that perfect coffee-to-cream ratio, does it feel like a key turning in a lock? 
  • When you sink into a bath that’s just the level of hot you love, does it feel like something expands in your chest? 
  • What parts of your day do you look forward to?

 

While some of these experiences may seem trivial – pleasant, low-stakes experiences are a perfect opportunity to build attunement to yourself and your inner compass. Additionally, being able to access pleasure and enjoyment is important to building long-term mental well-being and engaging in a healing process. 

 

Additional resources:

https://harvard.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_e35whN7tkXtvlHv (Free values sort, i.e. clarifying what’s important to you)

https://podcasts.apple.com/si/podcast/how-to-set-hold-boundaries-with-melissa-urban/id1564530722?i=1000584039948 (Setting boundaries podcast episode)

https://joannagoddard.substack.com/p/ashley-ford-favorite-things (“How poverty makes it hard to figure out what you like” with Ashley Ford)

 

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