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One of my favorite movies is called How do You Know? (starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson, and Owen Wilson). It’s funny, romantic and very thought-provoking. Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, a young 30-something that has an identity crisis beginning in her career and in her personal life as well. The same is happening for George, played by Paul Rudd. Both have opportunities to rely on their character and seek real answers for what they will do next. In other words, we can all learn from them. I highly recommend you watch this movie.

In it, you see the power of personal choice and internal motivation. You see characters that automatically do what’s expected of them, some who take shortcuts, compromising their integrity and values, and others who operate from fear or overcome fear to act from authentic power. My favorite scene is one in which Lisa goes to a psychiatrist and asks this central question of the movie, “What’s one thing you might tell just about anyone, that will help almost everyone, with almost anything?” He says, “That’s a great question. Figure out what you want, and learn how to ask for it.” Lisa says, “Those are both really hard to do.” She’s right. How can we all help ourselves to do both well?

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

― Nelson Mandela

Figuring out what you want.

Most of us have a committee of voices within us trying to guide us and in the process they often create confusion and emotional upheaval in us. They are there seeking to protect us by voicing possible negative future outcomes as well as reminding us of past negative ones that have occurred. They may be the voices of people who taught us right from wrong, but seek a black and white, one-size-fits-all answer. Add to this, we have not always been taught or encouraged to pause, slow down and allow our inner wisdom to be heard (which usually doesn’t take more than 30 seconds and usually less than 5 when we do). Every decision we make always comes with positive and negative consequences. However, we often feel there is one right thing we should want or choose. In a way that’s true, for when we settle into a current context moment with curiosity and compassion, we discover what we want and that answer is right for us in that moment. I often help myself with this part by envisioning a committee and inviting each up to a podium, saying, “Next” until I discover clarity, especially in significant matters.

Learning how to ask for it.

This one’s a real doozy. We all have so many programmed fears and unexamined beliefs about asking for what we want and saying no, that we don’t even realize how afraid we are to do either. In our work, we teach people to create accountable requests and make accountable responses and to practice them. Most were taught not to do either, and were called selfish as children when they did so. Most experienced punishment, disgust or shame for both too, and hardly any consistently saw the adults around them modeling direct and straightforward communication in these, without being mean or manipulative.

This all confuses us. We become afraid to trust others, or ourselves, so we avoid asking altogether. I see it the most clearly when I ask indirect questions. For example, I once caught myself saying, “What are you having to drink?” when I wanted to split a milkshake rather than simply saying, “Will you split a milkshake with me?” It was as if I needed to hint at, or dip my toe in, rather than go for what I wanted in a straightforward way.

What can we do to get better at both?

It takes courage to be honest and straightforward, even within ourselves. I see and hear people go on autopilot to avoid the inner turmoil knowing and asking causes in us. If you listen closely to words, you will hear many that indicate a fear of asking. You’ll see discomfort and a desire to rush past the inner work needed just to avoid it. I recommend if you are a praying person that you say, “God, help me let go of any need for love, approval and acceptance from others.” We really don’t need it. We need to practice these with ourselves and towards others.

When we worry about it, this takes us out of the present moment, keeps us from hearing our wisdom, and makes it difficult for us to be authentic. Another suggestion: slow down, listen your thoughts and words and whether you are asking from fear or empowerment and if you are following through on asking for a commitment. Decide to practice both asking and responding no and yes. As you improve in knowing and asking for what you want, and responding with what you really mean, you experience great joy that comes from self-care and integrity in being true to yourself.

This article has been published nationally in the column Emotional Intelligence in Women’s Journals, April 2016

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