What You Miss Most Is an Essential Clue to Who You Are
To paraphrase Anton Chekhov and/or The Spice Girls: Tell me what you miss, and I’ll tell you who you are.
Here’s a thought experiment. Clear your mind, close your eyes, and simply ask yourself: What do I miss most right now? Capture the first thing that comes to mind. Not the second thing, which will be what you think you should miss most. The first, automatic thing. And to be clear, I mean a specific thing in your own life, something you can control. Let’s assume that we all miss the world as we knew it, but that’s not in our circle of influence, is it?
In this current cultural stillness, we have a unique opportunity to see things differently — and maybe see ourselves a little more clearly. “This time we’re in is interesting because we’re spending less time and energy trying to look good and mirror societal ideals,” notes Kathleen Smith, a licensed therapist and the author of Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down. “The pandemic has drowned out a lot of that day-to-day noise that tells us who we should be and what we should want, the things that distract us from what we really value.”
I was surprised by how this experiment went for me: When I asked myself what I miss most right now, the first thing I pictured was walking in my local leafy park without a mask on. Huh? This is not what my logical, planning, sensible thinking brain would have said. My thinking brain would have told you: Surely, I miss the city: the subway, meeting friends in restaurants, streets being crowded and full of life.
My thinking brain has some ideas that I like. But many psychologists believe that your most immediate thought is also your most honest (it’s what drives psychology studies like the implicit association test), and it’s interesting to me to note that my gut reaction is just to want a walk in the park — a walk among trees and fresh air, a walk without planning, a walk full of possibility, a walk that might veer into a cafe or lead me to cross paths with a friend.
How can I use this piece of information to help me keep in touch with myself once the world becomes noisier again? On a practical level, maybe I remind myself that I don’t actually need to spend so much money and time on big experiences. Maybe I’m a simpler person than I’d convinced myself I was.
On a bigger level, maybe it affects decisions I make down the line about how I shape my life and take care of myself. When we can travel again, maybe I’ll prioritize places of natural beauty, and maybe I’ll come home from those forest-bathing trips feeling rejuvenated. Maybe I’ll be able to remember that energy-wise, I’m actually kind of a naturevert.
So what is it for you? Do you picture your aging parents who live an hour away? You know what to do: Spend more time with them as soon as you can. Pay special attention if something comes up that runs really contrary to how you think of yourself: Maybe you tend to beat yourself up for not being super minimalist, but what you viscerally miss is the feeling of wearing a new outfit you love out to meet friends. Why fight that? Maybe you find that even though you’d been feeling burned out at your job before, you actually miss being in the office with your colleagues — and that a renewed focus on your career might feel really satisfying.
The key is not to judge whatever comes up. And don’t feel guilty if it’s not what you think it should be. It’s okay if you don’t suddenly love the “simple things” as much as your scallion-regrowing, sourdough-starter-nourishing friends seem to. Accepting your true self is always going to get you closer to happiness than anything else will.
Because what you actually miss most might not be entirely in line with the persona you’ve constructed for yourself. “I think a lot the time, we invest our thinking and energy into attaining what others deem important,” Smith says. “Approval and attention, and not encouraging conflict or disapproval are such human desires. We all have a pseudo-self, the part of us that just wants to look good and put together. But I think our pseudo-selves have kind of taken a backseat in this crisis.”
Write down what you come up with. Save it somewhere you can return to once you’re out and about in the world again, when your pseudo-self reawakens.
And when the bustle of life is once more so noisy you can’t hear your own thoughts, take a peek. It just may help you stay grounded, make an important decision, or steer your ship on a bold new course.