Psychology

Why Do We Want What We Can’t Have? (According to 9 Experts)

We’ve gathered psychologist, coaches, and other experts to share their insights on why we want what we can’t have.

Here are their insights:

Dr. Laura Louis

Laura Louis

Licensed Psychologist, The After I Do Academy

It’s human nature to feel jealous and to desire things

I think one element of feeling this way is that the grass always looks greener on the other side. There’s something about the illusion of difference that’s alluring and captivating.

Sometimes social media can reinforce wanting things we can’t have, and in an age where social media is basically inevitable, these feelings, too, are perpetually reinforced.

Comparison is the thief of all joy, and we are constantly comparing ourselves to others on social media.

We compare other people’s best days to our worst days. It is entirely unfair to ourselves to feel like there’s something wrong with us or that we’re lacking something fundamental that prevents us from living a “better” life.

This is absolutely psychologically damaging and mentally draining. This can create feelings of envy, hopelessness, shame, and even guilt.

You can start feeling like you’ll never be on the same level as the other people on your social media even if they live a completely different life than yours, and the basis of comparison is invalid.

Here are some ways to prevent this negative pattern of thought:

  • Be mindful of what you’re looking at on social media
  • Be intentional with your time on social media
  • Be grateful for what you actually have
  • Journal your emotions to give yourself a way to acknowledge and process how you feel

Related: 18 Best Mindfulness Books

Meera Meyer, CFP

Meera Meyer

Financial Coach and Financial Planner | President and Owner, Life Money Balance

As a financial coach and financial planner, I’ve had a unique window into people’s wants and needs.

I’ve worked with overspenders and undersavers, people who have $2 million but are spending it at a rate where they’ll be broke by the time they’re 40, and people who have more money than they know what to do with but get stressed out whenever a big bill comes in.

I’ve come to realize that there are two main reasons why we want what we can’t have:

We have created a persona of ourselves in our head that requires maintenance

Let’s say I run a business. All of my friends are other successful business owners. They take their families to the Caymans for vacation and drive Teslas.

Unbeknownst to them, my business isn’t doing so great. But I’ve been vacationing with them for years and would be mortified if they knew I was going broke. So they invite me on our annual vacation, and I go.

I can’t afford to go—I shouldn’t go—but I want to maintain this persona that I’ve created. In my head, not going would be devastating, worse than being in debt.

We have restricted ourselves to the point that we rebel against ourselves

Let’s say I am trying to save more money. I tell myself that I am not going to order DoorDash at all anymore. I spent $600 on DoorDash last month! Man, it’ll be so easy to save money if I just stop using DoorDash.

The next day, the first thing I think of is how nice it would be to DoorDash some sushi. I just can’t get it out of my head. Now I’m in this battle between wanting to save money and just wanting my life to be easy.

By telling myself I can’t order DoorDash, I’m effectively setting myself up for failure: Either I don’t DoorDash and feel disappointed that I don’t have the food I want, or I do DoorDash and feel guilty for failing to meet my goal.

How to counteract these problems:

Make a list of things you’re grateful for

If I am the example who feels compelled to live up to the persona of myself, the first thing to do—and this may sound super cheesy—is to make a list of things I am grateful for.

Start with basic needs; a roof over my head, running water, heat. Then move on to more specific things; a car that runs, a dishwasher, Netflix.

Related: 18 Things to Be Thankful for (The Ultimate List)

Feeling compelled to buy something so other people will think of you a certain way is just that—a feeling. Instead of letting someone else decide what your life should look like, take the reins and decide for yourself. Take your family camping instead of going to the Caymans.

Remind yourself of all that you have, and you’ll worry less about all that you don’t.

Don’t tell yourself that you can’t have it

If I am the example that craves something, the second I tell myself I can’t have it—then I don’t tell myself I can’t have it. The best method to use for this type of wanting is delayed gratification, meaning I tell myself I can have that thing… later.

So I would say, “If I can make it through the week cooking food at home, on Friday, I can order sushi on DoorDash.”

The second you permit yourself to have the thing that you want, you’ll find that you want it a lot less, and it’ll be so much easier to cook at home knowing that on Friday you get to put your feet up and let the food come to you.

Nancy Kalina Gomez

Clinical Psychologist, CouchIssues

People usually value something more if it is more difficult to acquire

It’s common knowledge that when we’re told that we can’t have something (or can’t do something), we may end up wanting it that much more.

  • “You won’t be able to do that.”
  • “You can’t see X person anymore.”
  • “You won’t ever get there.”
  • Someone else has something that you want: better shoes, social standing, etc.
  • Dieting: No sugar. No carbs.

In each of these cases, we are prevented from having X, Y, or Z. This triggers a primal instinct of self-preservation… survival. It’s as if we are alerted to a threat to our well-being.

Something that we perceive as already ours is being taken away. So, we want to fight for it.

If we are led by these primitive feelings rather than our more developed frontal cortex of reasoning and logic, we could be impulsive and rebellious. We would go after it anyway, even if it’s bad for us.

In marketing, the scarcity principle is used to trigger this feeling of hunger and the fear of missing out (FOMO).

Seeing a clock on a website counting down the time of a product/service launch that you were maybe interested in can easily create anxiety and increase your “need” to have it. It is geared to making you feel that you are “lacking” without it.

Perceived value is another factor in scarcity dynamics; People usually value something more if it is more difficult to acquire.

Similar to “Fear of Missing Out,” if something takes hard work to reach, accomplish, or obtain, the value skyrockets versus when it requires little to no effort. While these are general themes, we can get more specific and add a twist.

Maybe, while you are in pursuit of “it,” you realize that the effort versus outcome is overstated:

  1. You realize that extra shifts at your job to pay for that coveted “something” is “not worth it” because you really don’t need it and can work around it without spending so much money.
  2. Finally having a chance to spend time with that someone you’ve liked for a while and realizing you aren’t a match.
  3. A type of diet you chose is too restrictive, leaving you feeling miserable after a couple of weeks, so you look for a regimen that makes allowance for some of your favorite indulgences.

Rarity is also akin to scarcity, such as certain types of gemstones, comets, or plants, to name a few. While we may not necessarily want them, we can be desirous to appreciate and maybe study them because of how rare they are.

As I explained earlier, we are going to, at some point, want something that we can’t have. However, it’s important to pause and ask yourself:

“What is making me feel so strongly about having X, Y, or Z?”
“Could this be a substitute for something that I should be giving to myself?”

Remember that scarcity can reveal feelings of insecurity, fear of abandonment, jealousy (behind that is fear), and anger. If you can use these feelings to find out what it is you truly need or are lacking, then you will be on your way to finding what is really yours.

Not everything is for you. Waiting for what is truly for you, in any situation, is much more valuable and satisfying.

Max Harland

Max Harland

CEO, Dentaly

Pleasure can take many forms, including money, fame, power, and love

The human mind always seeks pleasure. Most of the time, this pleasure comes from external sources. No matter what you have, if the other person has something that you don’t have, you’ll naturally want it.

There is an innate desire that fuels this urge. Mostly this happens because you lay excessive emphasis on what’s happening outside rather than concentrating on yourself.

For instance, if you have a decent watch and your friend pops up with a Rolex watch, even though you can’t afford it, you’ll start craving for it. The watch you own no longer makes sense to you just because your friend has a better watch.

Your mind seeks the pleasure of owning something expensive. In this case, it’s the watch. It’s worth noting that both the watches tell the same time.

There’s absolutely no difference. But our brains are wired in a way that shrouds this fact. Pleasure can take many forms, and it includes money, fame, power, love, etc.

Desire and pleasure make us do things that fall outside our reach

Businesses thrive on the notion of desire. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed it, but businesses create a sense of need and bank on it.

For instance, if you have a TV, advertisements will always talk about the beauty of 4K, 8K, or OLED displays and how you absolutely need to own it for the best viewing experience.

Now, if someone has a Full HD TV, they’ll immediately start feeling dissatisfied just because Full HD is not equivalent to 4K, and there is still room for better clarity.

So, that’s how everything works. Desire and pleasure make us do things that fall outside our reach.

Natalie Fikes

Natalie Fikes

Performance and Skill Development Coach | CEO, Greater Purpose Society

The only reason we can’t have what we want is because we don’t know what we want

We are stuck in The Cycle of Sabotage. Because we have no clear destination for our lives, there is no fulfillment because you don’t even know what you’re aiming for.

So many of us have been programmed to want the house, career, family, and fame, but once we get it, we feel no real sense of fulfillment.

It’s the reason why couples argue so frequently because one or both people thought they were doing (or being) what the other wanted. We are chasing the wind and ending up nowhere.

To combat the cycle and start living life the way we want, we have to clearly answer the question, “What do you want” and break it down in all areas of our lives.

Don’t use evasive words like “to be happy and free.”

  • What does happiness look like?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What does freedom look and feel like?

Related: How to Make Yourself Happy

Make it tangible. The next step is to do only the things that will get you what you want.

April Maccario

April Maccario

Founder, Ask April

The urge to have what we can’t have can allude to self-esteem or self-confidence. Either way, it pertains to wanting or yearning for what you don’t have yet.

Studying human behavior for a reasonable amount of time has taught me that we human beings have the urge to attain what we don’t have, especially if we can’t have them.

The chase adds excitement to our lives

The chase makes us feel alive and adds excitement to our daily lives. Wanting what we don’t have pushes us to pursue the unattainable, and the way it makes us feel alive adds to the thrill.

The satisfaction of acquiring something that seemed impossible boosts our self-confidence

Getting what we want after we’ve worked hard for it gives us satisfaction and adds to our self-esteem. The satisfaction of acquiring something that seemed impossible only adds to the ego and boosts self-confidence.

We are attracted to the mystery and unpredictability of things or people

As humans, we are innately curious about the unknown, and what we don’t have only adds to the allure of wanting it. We are wired to be attracted to the unpredictability of things or people since humans are naturally dynamic individuals.

Chris Pleines

Chris Pleines

Dating Expert, Datingscout

Challenges arouse us and accomplishing them gives a sense of fulfillment

We are naturally adventure-seeking beings. Challenges arouse us, and accomplishing them gives a sense of fulfillment. Relationship-wise, you may have found yourself being caught in unrequited love at some point.

Aside from the thrill, you are hopeful that your efforts will be rewarded if you take on the challenge. Persistence has worked for some, but it is always not the case. The best way to go is to calculate your risks to the reward or just go with the flow.

Things we can’t have are perceived to have more value

Sometimes, the things we needed the most are the ones that are right in front of us, but the things that we can’t have appear to have more value, and thus, ‘we got to have it.’

It doesn’t matter if we struggle, as long as we get our hands on that sweet, sweet prize because of its perceived higher value.

Forbidden fruits are always the most tempting

It’s hard to resist the temptation, especially when you’re not allowed to do it. It’s as if a voice is telling you to do it, which makes it even harder to fight off the desire.

The forbidden fruit could represent several things in your life, such as your love life, career, or even smaller things such as food and other material things.

Because “you’ll never know until you have it “

Some people think that new is “always” better—this or that is better “in general.” However, you wouldn’t know until you have it.

It’s like always wanting expensive things that you cannot afford because your favorite celebrity has them. You want to have it because you think that you’ll feel like a celebrity when you get it.

As for relationships, you can insert the concept of “trophy” girlfriend/boyfriend. It would be very hard to get someone “perfect” to notice you, but you believe that if you do, you’ll have the perfect relationship, which is not always the case.

Jessica Ulloa

Jessica Ulloa

Community Manager at MyPerfectResume

Social approval plays a big role in us wanting what we can’t have

Oftentimes, we put conditions on our happiness or feeling of accomplishment. We believe that only by getting X, Y or Z can we be truly happy and fulfilled.

Social media has had a huge impact and increased our feeling of missing out. Just by scrolling through Instagram, you will find people who travel constantly, wear luxury products, make more lots of money, look good and fit, have lots of friends and adventures, and most of all, seem very happy.

Related: 25+ Benefits of a Social Media Detox

It’s easy for regular folks like us, living an ordinary life and working in an ordinary job, to feel attracted to these people’s lifestyles and want it for ourselves. The desire to live how they live makes us forget about the positive and amazing things we have in our lives, leading us to downgrade our accomplishments.

Social approval also plays a big role in us wanting what we can’t have, and it’s not only about material things.

Our society created guidelines that measure how successful you are in life, and if you don’t meet these guidelines, you are seen as a failure. Society tells us that women should marry before 30, men must have a top management job by 25 along with a car and a house.

Meeting such standards puts us in an endless cycle, one where once we get what we want, we look for another desire to replace the one we just gained.

If you live your life constantly comparing yourself to others, then you’ll never be fully satisfied. Learn to appreciate and celebrate even your smallest accomplishments, make time for your loved ones and yourself.

You have full control over your life, and only you can decide how to live it.

Dorota Lysienia

Dorota Lysienia

Community Manager, LiveCareer

We forget about the beauty of current moment

It’s common for us to think that the grass is greener on the other side. Many of us believe that happiness is hidden somewhere else, and we need to try hard to catch it.

We imagine that we will be happy once we get richer, more successful, or prettier. We continuously chase materialistic stuff in the hope of finally getting what we think we want.

As a result, we often forget about the beauty of the current moment and the many blessings we have in our lives. People get into a common trap of taking things for granted and neglecting meaningful relationships or passions to focus on “urgent” matters.

Sometimes I’m also a victim of this future-oriented mindset. However, what helps me to regroup and focus on the present moment is a quote from Jim Carrey, which says:

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

The problem lies in our wrong perception of happiness. The truth is what we can’t have often won’t make us happy. Finding little joys every day, smiling at a stranger, or calling your grandma might give you life satisfaction today rather than in the distant future.

Talk with a licensed, professional therapist online.

Affordable, private online counseling.

Anytime, anywhere.

Get started Learn More
As a BetterHelp affiliate, we may receive compensation from BetterHelp if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

Similar Posts