If only it were that simple. I guess it is the natural condition to want things. Inevitably, wanting leads to disappointment, and, as the story goes, to unhappiness. The Buddha claimed that all the pain of life came from wanting things; and he suggested giving up our wants. Christianity also recommends abstinence, to a degree, and asceticism, when possible. Some enlightened individuals claim to have achieved this spiritual state. They have risen above it all and live comfortably, they say, in poverty; but I don’t t believe them. In any case, I don’t come across such individuals in the circles in which I travel. The patients who come to me want things: comfort, fulfillment, a chance to succeed, a sense of belonging, excitement, perhaps; but also more mundane things—a better job, someone to love, and so on.
Simply asking for something does not usually lead to those wants being met. Aladdin’s lamp is a dream. In fact, asking for something in the wrong way can have the opposite effect. Someone demanding attention from a friend or a lover may be seen as clinging or “needy.” Someone who comes across as uncompromising or, even, threatening is likely to provoke resistance, whether it is in a marriage or a strike in the auto industry. Asking, like all other pro-active behaviors, increases the chance of a particular want being met, but you have to ask in the right way. On the other hand, I have been surprised over the years by how simply asking can produce remarkable and unexpected results.
At work: There are studies indicating that patients who have been in psychotherapy for a while begin to earn more money. That is what you would expect. Someone who begins to feel better about himself/herself is more assertive and more inclined to ask for more money. But not always, and not right away.
Two patients stick in my mind because I saw them at the same time, and they were making the same amount of money. Both were being underpaid. After getting a feeling for how important they were to their employers, I suggested to both of them that they ask for a 30% raise. Both balked; and, then, by coincidence, both agreed after some discussion to ask for a 25% raise.
The first man approached his boss with some trepidation and made the case for his deserving more money. His boss listened to him for a moment, and then agreed. I thought his agreeing so readily meant that my patient had not asked for enough money.
The second patient was turned down when he asked for a raise. I was surprised. I knew he was valuable to the company because he had been retained despite having made death threats against his boss. By now I had convinced him that he was, in fact, worth more money than he was being paid. So, he decided to leave. The company gave him a going away party. Afterwards, he packed up his belongings and got one foot out the door (literally) before his boss called him back into his office and granted his request for a raise.
Affairs of the heart: It is important in such matters to seem inviting, even encouraging, without seeming desperate. For every patient I see who is too forward, I see ten who do not want to seem too eager. It is important to keep in mind that the person who you are interested in may not be self-confident, and may need to know you are interested. Of course, it is possible to go too far—but I would hesitate to say how far is too far.
I saw a woman who had been so agoraphobic, she had never married. She had not had many opportunities since she rarely left her house. But then, with treatment, she got better. There came a time when she started going to dances to meet a man. The first man she met, however, was definitely unsuitable. She was not attracted to him or interested in anything he had to say. She was repelled by him, she told me. She had to explain this to him—as nicely as she could—because he kept hanging around her at these dances. After a while, the mother of this 44 year old man called her to ask why she would not go out with her son. This invitation did not make him more appealing. A few months later, my patient informed me that she had agreed to marry him!
After I finished waving my arms around and expostulating, she explained: “He’s a nice person, and he really likes me.” An argument for not giving up.
Similarly, I spoke to a woman who had been happily married—more or less—for forty years, but who insisted to me that she would never have married her husband if he had not kept coming around and proposing.
By the way, I do not recommend endlessly pursuing someone romantically. If someone is not immediately enthusiastic about you, find someone else. On the other hand, do not presume without evidence that someone is unreachable.
My brother, who was a television producer, and was between marriages at the time, once asked Kim Novak, a beautiful and famous movie star, for a date at the last minute. When he was out with her, he asked how come she was available at the last minute. “People are afraid to ask me out because I’m Kim Novak,” she told him. So, don’t be afraid.
Random desires : When I was Director of Psychiatric Residency at an institution in Westchester, one of the residents came to ask me for money.
“My room is smaller than the other residents’rooms,” he told me, “so the hospital should pay me a little extra.”
“That’s not the way it works,” I explained to him. “Nobody gets paid extra for anything. Everybody gets paid the same. Always. That’s the way it works.”
“Still, I would appreciate it if you pass my request over to the administration.”
It wasn’t my money; so that’s what I did. And they paid him the extra money he asked for!
I had another patient who needed about thirty thousand dollars of dental work. She decided to ask some rich people for the money.
“Do you know these rich people?” I asked.
“No, but I got a list from the library.”
“That’s not going to work,” I told her.
But she asked me to help compose such a letter. She sent about twenty or thirty solicitations. And one person sent her back a thousand dollars!
“What good is that?” she complained to me. “I need thirty thousand dollars!”
Still, you never know, I thought to myself, if you don’t ask. (c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog