The Uncomfortable and Exhilarating Act of Asking for What We Want

I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or literal, but there’s a story I once heard about the founder of the life coaching profession, Thomas Leonard. According to the story, he loved a standing ovation after he gave a talk, and he got one every time. Was it because he was such a fantastic speaker? While I’d imagine he was no slouch, he got his wish not thanks to extreme talent – or a magic wand or salting the audience with confederates who would jump up applauding and hooting at the end of every talk.

No, he simply asked.

I thought of this last week as I sat with Theresa at her workplace during a rare workday visit. One of her coworkers – a person who works in a different department and so isn’t someone Theresa has gotten to know – walked by and said, “I figure if I’m really quiet today, then no one will say anything.”

Hook, line, and sinker.

“What do you mean? Say anything about what?”

“It’s my birthday! I don’t want anyone to know.”

This went on for a minute or two, with Theresa noting that she always takes her birthday off and her coworker giving paper-thin excuses for why she wasn’t able to do that, and so on.

No doubt, Theresa wasn’t the only person who found herself wrapped in a net of this woman’s shy, self-conscious desire to have her birthday acknowledged. Sure enough, people followed through with the company tradition of birthday wishes on the loudspeaker and other warm attentions. And though I’d imagine the birthday woman squirmed, I’m willing to bet that she was also pleased.

On a spectrum of Thomas Leonard to Theresa’s coworker, I trend more toward the coworker. I can picture the number of times I have stood in front of a crowd, delighted to be the one with the mic only to miss whatever applause I received as a self-conscious part of me denied the acknowledgement I secretly desired.

I see it, too, in our shared mythology that if we have a partner or spouse, that person should simply know how to be present for us: How to delight us on our birthdays, respond to our hardships, seduce and touch us, and generally fulfill our every need and desire without instruction.

What pressure we place on others! What subtle ways we diminish our own power and personhood!

Imagine, for a moment, if your partner said to you, “I’d like for you to seduce me today and it would feel great if you started by kissing my neck.” As I imagine it, I feel relieved and confident.

Imagine, for a moment, if the co-worker had said, “It’s my birthday! I’m so excited it’s my birthday!” As I imagine it, I feel invited to celebrate her instead of uncertain how to proceed.

Imagine, for a moment, what it might feel like if you allowed your needs and desires to be known rather than tucking them shyly away into a locked chest of gremlin design sealed with self-consciousness and shame. As I imagine it, I see myself pausing at the end of a talk and making grateful eye-contact with those who generously offered me their appreciation through applause. In that way, I would both receive their kindness and reciprocate with acknowledgment. It makes me smile just to imagine.

I admit, I feel a touch uncomfortable as I imagine emulating Thomas Leonard in so directly asking for what I want, and everyone I have ever told this story to has responded similarly. And yet the reality was likely the win/win of Leonard’s satisfaction and the audience feeling empowered to repay his time and teaching with the simple and, to Leonard, meaningful act of standing and applauding.

We already knew, though, that the paths to our bigger, badder lives are paved with manageable discomfort. Onward.

The Bigger Badder Squad got this post right in their inboxes, it’s true. They also got a related challenge, a private post with a tool that has served me oh so well in my growth journey despite how simple it is, and an invite to our weekly community gathering, Chomp & Chat. We sure would love to have you there; it’s free and fast to join in.