My earliest memory of getting so close to my Hell Yes I could taste it may even have been preverbal. I was with my mom, and her grandmother, my great-grandmother. There was another little girl, who offered something sweet my way. I stared at it, fascinated. The wheels inside me were turning, as I continued to look, silently, when all of a sudden, my mother said,
“I don’t think she wants it right now.”
My chocolate fantasy vanished just as soon as it had appeared.
Yes, I wanted it. I just didn't know how to say so. And I was sad when it the opportunity wet away. I didn’t know how to say that, either. It was as if I had no voice, or it wouldn’t come out. Just a choked-off longing that never got expressed.
Perhaps this is a clue to my current chocolate affinity.
When I contemplate the question of how we know what we truly want, or where our Hell yes lives, I immediately think of the related question, What gets in the way of knowing? Once we are old enough to have words, why don’t we use them more?
So much of my work is helping others get “internally referenced,” by which I mean tuning into what we truly feel, want, and know, rather than what we think we should or can feel, want, and know based on external sources. My practice is called Wisdom of the Body for just this reason!
It turns out, there’s a lot in this U.S. culture, and in the English language that trains our attention outside of ourselves for answers. We ask, How should I feel? What ought we to do? Are we making the right choice?
In Part 1 of this series on Deep Consent, I gave an example of how my then-boyfriend and I referenced externally to what each of us thought the other wanted, instead of sharing our own self-knowing feelings and assumptions with each other. So we both wound up having sex just because each of us thought the other wanted to, and afterwards wondered in horror, Did we rape each other!?
Sometimes, when I’m in a situation where I need to decide what I want, I’ll notice what my body leans toward, literally, or figuratively. For example, at a gathering, I’ll find myself standing up…then I’ll go to the bathroom to buy myself some time to figure out why the heck I’m standing up, and I’ll realize I want to leave.
I’m tired. The noise is getting to me. I’m bored with the conversation. The chairs feel too hard. And so on. (Thinking wow, do I sound like a cranky old fart, or what!?)
What gets in the way of knowing my true Hell yes often turns out to be a story I’m telling myself, like…It’s her birthday….if I leave now, I’m not being a good friend…or, they have too much going on already, they won’t want to hang out with me… or, if I stop this kiss, I won’t get to see what they feel like when they’re not using so much tongue… and so on.
True or not, none of these lines of thought brings me any closer to knowing what I want. If I want to find out my true Hell yes, I need to slow down my thoughts, and tune into my body. What does my body want and need?
This line of questioning goes against most of our training. Marshall Rosenberg is the founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), one of the best practices I know for getting internally referenced. He said that during the entire time he was working toward his PhD in psychology, not once did anyone ever ask him how he felt! He went on to develop NVC, the body of work that works better than any I have seen to tune into our feelings and needs, a prerequisite for finding our Hell yes.
If it weren’t hard enough simply to tune in, this culture also tricks us by proffering
stand-ins for real needs. Quoted by my friend Joel Siegel, NVC author and trainer Miki Kashtan writes about how we get offered certain “privileges” as poor substitutes for basic human needs: comfort substitutes for pleasure and joy; security for community; success for a sense of purpose; productivity for creativity; the accumulation of wealth substitutes for freedom, and control replaces a sense of real power in the world. These privileges, we are told, are scarce, commodities which must be worked for and hoarded.
But the real needs which they purport to replace seem so impossible to meet, and have gone so long unmet, that the privilege is all anyone can hope for. So we struggle ever more desperately to accumulate privilege, wreaking untold harm to others and to the planet, yet we are never satisfied because the needs remain. Kashtan writes more about that here.
Because we’re so trained against it, developing that habit of tuning in to what we
truly want, feel and need may take practice. Giving it weight and holding it along with other wants and needs can take even more practice. Those needs can feel like they are opposites warring inside my consciousness. I might make one "wrong" and the other "right," like an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other.
Once I can feel into what my body wants, I can hold that along with, for example, my value of showing up for my friend. Or even my fear and shyness about asking to hang out with someone. I can weigh and measure and internally negotiate among the different wants and needs inside of myself, including those in relationship to external factors. From such a process, a much truer and deeper Hell Yes can emerge--one that includes all my desires.
Let’s take the first example above, and call the parts of myself Me 1, who’s tired, and Me 2, who wants to celebrate with my friend.
Me 1: I’m tired. My feet hurt. I want to go home.
Me 2: But Jaime lives so far away, and I rarely get to see her. I want to make the most of this birthday celebration. I know she hasn’t had a real celebration in years, because her kids’ birthdays are so close to hers, and so she has sacrificed. I want to make her 40th extra special!
As I hold both of these realities with care and compassion (as opposed to squashing or shaming one or the other), a new possibility emerges:
“Jaime, would it be OK with you if I lie down for a while in the back? I’m not feeling 100%, and I think a bit of a rest might give me a second wind.”
In truth, I don’t really know how I will feel after lying down. But I want to see if there’s some way I can meet both my need for care of my body, and my need for celebration of Jaime. Therein lies my truest truth, my deepest Hell yes.
If I had not given weight to my physical needs in the first place, I might have pressed on, and made myself too sick or tired to drive home. If I had not given weight to my care for Jaime, I might have missed an opportunity to further celebrate and connect with friends. The Hell Yes lived in the interstices of these apparently competing factors. I reached my Hell yes by checking in with and getting consent from each of my inner parts. Here’s how:
Truly and deeply listening to what each of the different parts of me were saying
Giving care and spaciousness to each of those parts
Being willing to sit with each of those long enough to allow the sense of polarization to soften, empathy and compassion to emerge, and from there, to see a new possibility arise that could mean the needs of each part of me were met.
Once I knew what each part of me wanted, I could find a scenario that each of those parts could say yes to — and then check afterwards to see how each part was doing.
Was the part of me that wanted rest satisfied? Did it need more rest? Was the part of me that wanted connection and celebration mourning having missed that and wanting to rejoin the party? Time to revisit the parts, and update the consent to present time!
That process, by the way, in a nutshell, is the heart of connection repair, and also of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) mediation. It’s also essentially how we do connection repair in the Immersion, the nine-month training I offer each year starting in October.
Just imagine that instead of two different parts of one person described above, the two seemingly competing desires are each held by a different person. This often results in arguments, or disconnects. You may be familiar with these phenomena. The process of tuning in, holding, giving empathy, and staying with the process is essentially the same, except it's with two people instead of two parts of the same person.
How does all this land with you? Have you practiced it, or could you imagine practicing it? What might that be like? Or do you have a different way of working with your own multiple wants and needs? Feel free to share your thoughts. The next topic will be how to communicate our beautiful wants and needs!
If you like this sort of thing, I offer a number of different events and services. In the events, we play with these and related topics with real live humans, in community. I also work by video. See what’s current