Disavowed Desire leads to Abstracting Desires, capping your ability to get what you want
A model, and an example.
Sometimes, I have desires. Sometimes, I disavow these desires. Ignore them, tell me self I don’t actually want what I want, feel averse to the fact that I want what I want, or even hide from myself that I want what I want.
Maintaining this separation requires some flavor of self-deception, and a key thing about the nature of self-deception is that it globally reduces my efficacy. Self-deception works by fragmentation and compartmentalization, preventing different parts of my mind from talking to each other, and importantly, not leaving a paper trail through conscious memory. The disavowed parts of me do have all sorts of abilities that “I” don’t, but I’m more or less blocking off being able to pursue any desire with the full strength of my combined body-mind as long as I’m fragmenting around it.
But there’s another way that I get shot in the foot with disavowed desire. Not only am I handicapping my full problem-solving capacity, but depending on the exact nature of the aversion/disavowal, “I don’t want X” has to be “believable” in some sense, to someone. Denying something to myself is almost always entangled with denying something to others. And the better and more reliable I am at getting the thing I want, the more obvious it will be to any one paying attention that I want it. This means that if I have a desire that I’m trying to satisfy while also hiding from myself that I have this desire, I can’t get too good at satisfying the desire, otherwise the whole ruse will unravel.
One way I’ve noticed this manifest in myself is through the “abstracting” of desire. The original desire will arise from some really concrete situation/source, but will quickly be generalized, abstracted, and decontextualized. This laundering of concrete desire through the abstract allows me to move in the direction of satisfying the desire (the abstract version still has some connection to the original disavowed desire), while also no longer being incriminatingly associated with what I’m trying to avoid. Unfortunately abstracted desires really SUCK for guiding my actions when push comes to shove. The more trade-offs and tough decisions I have to make the more I need clarity about the exact shape of my desire, a clarification that said abstracted desires resist in order to maintain plausible deniability.
Sometime in early 2021 I spent several weeks feeling like I really wanted to make a “cool and slick” project in the Tools For Thought space. I spent a few days on and off brainstorming ideas but nothing felt right and things that did feel right stopped feeling right soon after poking into them more.
At some point it hit me, that this whole endeavor was downstream of wanting to impress Conor Sullivan, the founder of Roam. The idea of trying to work at Roam had been floating around in my head a bit. I liked the product, I’d been getting into Clojure recently and knew they were a Clojure shop. And perhaps most importantly, or at least the immediate cause of all this, was the week before I saw someone tweet a demo of something cool they’d made and Conor replied with “You want a job Dan?”
I don’t recall what sparked this realization, but when I poked around at it it was very clear this was the grounding desire for the whole project. So why hadn’t that been clear to me earlier? Why didn’t I see that tweet and go “oh shit! Possible entry point for getting this job I’m pretty interested in! Let’s hit it”
This is the disavowal part. I’ve got a non-trivial amount of aversion to anything like “put effort into impressing a specific person”. There’s some useful instinct there. Too much focus on impressing others can lead to overfitting which makes life suck. But this wasn’t just a cool-headed decision to not putting energy into impressing Conor, it was aversion, and aversion is the starting point of things getting shunted out of awareness. The grounding desire formed after seeing the tweet, it was quickly disavowed, and then transmuted into a more abstract desire (Make a Generally Cool Project), which still pointed me roughly in the direction of satiating the original desire but was way less useful for guiding my actions and making design decisions.
Something I could have done was “okay, so I’m clearly trying to impress this specific person, and have several examples of what impresses him. I also probably won’t be able to summon the energy for the project if I don’t also think it’s cool. So let’s hunt around for the intersection of stuff I dig that I think Conor would also dig.”
But the fact that I had disavowed the “impress Conor and get a job” portion of the desire meant I was stranded in no mans land. I couldn’t just follow my own gut, because I was motivated by Conor, and I couldn’t just double down on Conor, because I was trying to ignore that part of my motivation, and I also couldn’t attempt any synthesis of the two directions.
Just to not end on a cliff hanger, that particular situation ended with me checking in on “do I actually want to try and change jobs right now?” and I got a resounding “Nope”, so I put the whole thing to rest.
This example was fairly emotionally low-key and only spanned a few weeks, yet perfectly illustrates the structure of disavowed desire and was in fact the incident that made me notice this structure. For a more intense “core through-line desire of my life that was denied” check out this post for the structure and this thread for a bit more of the emotional side.↩︎