A Voice in the Arena: The Wanting Self by Dr. Chad Foster

A Voice in the Arena: The Wanting Self 

by Chad Foster, DDS, MS, editorial director

The “wanting self” is a concept discussed in one of my all-time favorite books, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, and this month I’d like to discuss how the concept might be applied to orthodontists. If you enjoy this column, please read this amazing book.

In May, I discussed how orthodontists are an elite group of achievers—people who have finely crafted the ability to set goals, sacrifice, delay gratification, endure discomfort and drive forward. Those attributes got us to where we are. For many of us, this drive is elemental to our identity and spills into other areas of our lives. One way to characterize the positive and negative inherent in this drive is by representing it as a “wanting self.”

As humans, we all have within us a wanting self. It manifests whenever you have a desire for success, love, money, status, material possessions, grand experiences or fulfillment of your wildest dreams.

Uber-achievers like orthodontists often have an exceptionally well-conditioned and powerful wanting self. It serves us extremely well when we’re competing in dental school, studying for our boards, fighting to build a practice, etc.

Outside of the clinic, it serves us well whenever we commit ourselves to a difficult endeavor or find ourselves confronted with a serious crisis. In these situations, the wanting self can drive us to effectively allocate energy and direct all inner resources toward the target of its attention for extended periods of time. In those situations, to our benefit, anything not purposeful to that end can be shed.

 The wanting self of an uber-achiever is almost a superpower, and for many it can become a source of pride. But the blade cuts both ways. What happens when there is no do-or-die challenge in front of us that demands our full attention? Does our wanting self clock out and go take a nap or a cigarette break? Is it content to peacefully retreat into hibernation? Or does it chew off its own leg? How does the power of the wanting self express itself in these nondire times?

In my life, I find that my wanting self can—to my misfortune at times—stay active even when there is no urgent goal or challenge. If I am conscious enough to observe it, I may find it pulling me somewhere nonetheless. An object of wanting can be created just to fill the void, one that doesn’t call for the urgency demanded by the wanting self. This could be in the form of one of many nonurgent issues on my office to-do list, the planning of a family trip, a minor home project, an article I need to write, etc. By themselves, these tasks are worthy of my attention, but definitely not the level of obsession that a restless wanting self would direct toward them.

When left unchecked, this becomes an expense of energy that could be more appropriately and wisely used elsewhere—energy potentially available to relax and enjoy the gift of a day with my wife and son, to truly be present in an awesome day with my team and patients, or in any number of activities that serve no purpose other than enjoyably and frivolously spending time, living fully in the present moment.

I visualize this wanting self as a transparent shell of myself that’s tethered to me by a rope. It is both exhausted and tireless as it pulls me along and takes whatever energy it needs. It’s a completely one-dimensional version of myself, stripped down to nothing but the desire of its current wanting, so that the only part of me that remains is the desire itself.

I used to be much more unconscious of my wanting self. I was prone to getting caught up in a nonurgent need or goal that would consume me, and would only come to realize the great cost of time and energy at its completion. It was then that I would see what had been lost was not worth what had been gained, and what had been gained was typically not nearly as important as what my wanting self had made it out to be. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to become more conscious of where my energy goes and the level of real freedom in my life. I try to put value on understanding what my true self wants, rather than my wanting self.

My efforts toward better awareness are imperfect. My wanting self still springs to life to drag me forward at any given moment but I try to observe this impulse and recognize what’s at the core of it. We are never set free from the tether of our wanting selves—particularly true of overachievers— but we can be more aware. We can kindly, consciously and in a nonjudgmental way be the observer of our own wanting self. By doing so, we can limit the amount of energy we allow it to take from us.

Maybe your wanting self is more or less active than mine, but it is surely there to some degree if you have a pulse and live within the culture that surrounds us—one that bombards us with messaging that we’re not enough and that the solution is being right, winning, possessing things and prioritizing what others think. The same culture then tells us that we should be ashamed of our selfishness and our self-centered thoughts and indulgences. That again brings us back to not enough, and thus the circle has no end.

But the point is not to pretend that your wanting self does not exist, to deny the craving for that which we want, or to shame or judge yourself for having a wanting self! The goal is to recognize when the wanting self is active. During each current episode, observe: Does it operate to your advantage or disadvantage? What narratives and emotions are consistently triggered by its various desires? Look for patterns (yes, inevitably, they are there).

Also, don’t forget the positive potential in your wanting self. You have built a supercar capable of great achievement; just don’t let the one tethered to you do most of the driving. Again, the ultimate goal is to be conscious enough to gain greater control of the energy that you spend, to retain energy that can be used by your true self in its search for its deepest wantings for happiness and freedom. My friends, I wish you both!

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