Adam Phillips on Desire, Satisfaction and Not Getting What We Want


“How much of our so-called mental life is about lives we are not living…the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, the experiences, the things and the people that are absent.”

Story Break

Let me begin by referencing a memory I’m sure we all share. A sudden, lush romance, passion. Love, even. Quickly leads to an imagined future, possibilities of our new self, coupled. And then, suddenly, silence. That long, distilled silence that proceeds a breakup. But we don’t understand it, we certainly don’t want to accept it. As we cycle through phrases of loss and anger, we eventually get to a point where all we want is to know: Is everything is OK? Just a text, a call … something.  Just that. It’s all we want.

That formative life event—who hasn’t lived through it? That feeling of loss, frustration, and longing is universal. I just need to know something. 

Except, it’s not just to know, is it? What we really want is to be. To exist as we once were, back in that imagined life. To change our current state to one that we perceive as better. That is what we really want.

Or is it?

In Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived LifeAdam Phillips—British psychotherapist, Freud scholar, and author of many books exploring mental states of pleasurekindness, and balance—tackles issues of longing, satisfaction, frustration, and who we become when we live inside our own head.

According to Phillips, knowledge is not what we really want. Rather, “Knowledge is what we start to ‘really’ want when we evade (that is repress) our desire; knowledge is sublimation.” In other words, unsatisfied desires become too much to bear, so we transform them into something else. When we can’t have, we want to at least know.

You might well ask—as has anyone tortured by love—why do such desires exist, and why do we let them tear us asunder? Phillips argues desires stream so strongly and powerfully in our minds (and thus need to be sublimated into knowledge) because they hook us visually:

“It is impossible to have a wish without having a picture of its satisfaction; desire always comes with this picture attached; though it is often a tacit picture, as it were, an unconscious one. A picture rendered unconscious by the exigencies of reality. Satisfaction has always happened in our minds before we are satisfied.”

Our desire and its ultimate state of satisfaction, which we assume exists (though paradoxically is something we can never achieve because it’s imagined) are so visual and powerful they become our new narrative. Often times, it overwhelms the narrative of what is actually happening. Have you ever felt certain of how something will turn out, even if you lack certainty—or even awareness—about how things actually are? We enter a state of creating that “knowledge” ourselves and even find certainty and comfort in a future that is nothing more than projection and conjecture.

“Our doubts tend to be about whether we can get the satisfactions that we seek, not about the nature of these satisfactions.”

So,what about that lengthy silence from someone we love (I believe kids today call it “ghosting”), what is the desire? To be reached, talked to? Of course not. The desire is that it never happened. That life will continue as we had planned. That is why loss is so difficult because it requires a re-imagined future. We’re so quick to rewrite the narrative, we forget it’s just that; narrative.

A terrific short story that illustrates exactly this tension between imagined life and current life is A.M. Homes’ Yours Truly, a first-person narrative of a child who, while hiding in a linen closet, undergoes an existential crisis on the pages in front of us. The story is entirely in the state of Phillips’ Unlived Life, a mental state of such certainty and doubt that cripples our protagonist.

Only when we step back from her emotions, do we realize that nothing actually happens in the story. It’s all conjecture of what will happen. The imagined state is punctured by one event: the family’s trusted maid brings our protagonist a sandwich and milk. That action changes her narrative to one of love, of optimism. She lets the action get to her, affect her. It changes her narrative. She sees love, warmth, kindness, and she imagines leaving the closet and tossing love and kindness to everyone she previously loathed. But it is just imagined. She replaces one narrative with another. She doesn’t actually live.

I find myself wondering if—rather than asking the impossible, sublimating desire into knowledge, or constructing a false future—it’s best to sit in the vacuous space created by the absence of what was and just, well, sit with the pain. Placing all our hope in the idea that “this, too, shall pass.”

Story Break

Find Yours Truly in Victoria Hislop’s excellent collection Life: Great Short Stories by Women. To read more about longing and letting go of our imagined self, I recommend my post I hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 miles and still so far to go.



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