People always want things that they cannot have. Whether that is the latest iPhone, the newest car, or even a person.
The desire to possess things that feel out of our reach is universal. People from all walks of life want what they can‘t have.
The reasons may be different, but perhaps ultimately they believe the object of their desire will give them a sense of belongingness, happiness, and satisfaction.
In reality, however, it usually isn’t the case.
Here are 10 common reasons people want what they can’t have, and how to overcome it.
1) The scarcity effect
Let’s begin with a bit of ‘want what you can’t have psychology’.
The scarcity effect is a psychological phenomenon that says when you see something that is rare, desirable, or expensive, your subconscious mind makes you think about having it more than if you saw something that was abundant.
This happens because we tend to associate value with rarity. So when we see something that is scarce, it subconsciously makes us think about wanting it more.
Think about it this way: If I told you there were 100 apples in my fridge right now, would you eat one? Probably not. But if I told you there was only 1 apple left… well then maybe you’d be tempted.
So why does this happen? Well, it has to do with the fact that we’re hardwired to survive. That means that as soon as we notice a lack of anything, we are programmed to think about it more.
This instinct can diminish our decision-making and control, leading us to crave something (or someone) we cannot have.
2) It gives you a dopamine hit
It’s a tale as old as time.
Unrequited love, chasing the girl you cannot have, wanting the player who gives you very little attention — it’s the cause of so many of our romantic woes.
But still, we continue to fall into the habit.
What is going on chemically behind the scenes in your brain could be to blame.
When we like someone, our brain will release the hormone dopamine (aka “the happy hormone”) if we get any attention from the object of our desire — i.e. when we receive a text message or they ask to see us.
The catch is that if we get intermittent attention from someone, it’s all the more addictive than if we got it all the time.
Think of it like this. When you eat chocolate all the time, it may still taste good, but after a while, it starts to lose that initial kick you get from it.
But don’t eat chocolate for 6 months, and that first bite is next-level good.
In a similar way, the deprivation of the attention you desire from someone, only to get an occasional bit of validation, feels in a weird way to the brain extra good — because it is rarer.
We want another hit of dopamine so badly simply because it isn’t available all the time. And so we put up with dating deadends like breadcrumbing.
3) Your ego can be a bit of a spoiled brat
None of us like a bruised ego.
Feeling rejected, denied, or questioning whether we are “good enough” to get or have something in life tends to leave us feeling fragile.
It can play with our self-esteem and wound our fragile ego.
We want it. And not getting it only irritates our ego more. Sometimes the ego can be a little bit like a toddler having a tantrum when it feels like its demands are not being met.
I saw a funny meme that highlighted this:
“Me sleeping like a baby knowing that the boy I like doesn’t like me back, but he still gave me his attention so I won.”
Who of us hasn’t been guilty of entering into a silent competition like this before.
Our mind thinks that getting the object of our desire makes us the winner. We want “the prize” just to feel like we have succeeded.
If you’ve ever wondered ‘why do I want something until I have it?’ then this is the perfect example of why. It’s all about winning. Once you’ve “won”, the prize is no longer appealing.
4) Heightened attention
In a very simple way, we often want what we can’t have because we tend to put more of our focus on it.
Anyone who has ever been on a diet will instantly understand.
Tell yourself you cannot have that candy bar and it’s all you think about. When we feel restricted in some way, we bring more and more of our attention to the absence of something.
It’s the same for romance. When you feel secure in a romantic attachment, you probably give it less thought. You just enjoy it.
But when it doesn’t seem to be going well your thoughts are plagued with heightened attention.
If we’re not careful, this sense of heightened focus on not having what we want can slide into obsession.
Compulsive thoughts tell our mind that this thing we cannot have is very significant, which makes you want it all the more.
5) We think it will make us happy (but usually it doesn’t)
The overwhelming majority of us spend our entire lives looking to external things to try and make us happy.
Marketing and capitalism feed into this, constantly creating the next “must-have” and encouraging you to strive for it. The economic system we live in relies on it.
If you were not raised to believe that a new sofa, a pair of the latest trainers, or that kitchen gadget that chops carrots 4 different ways would make your life better — you wouldn’t spend your money on it.
This is part of our social conditioning.
We are all clogs in a larger operating system. And for it to work, we are programmed to desire things that must remain out of reach.
We are taught to think that attaining things we desire will make us feel better. Whether it is having a certain amount of money in the bank, achieving a particular goal, finding our one true love, or buying a Ferrari.
We think reaching the unreachable will give us something that it can’t. We think when we finally “get there” we will feel something that in reality we don’t.
Sure, there may be a short-term high. A quick pat on the back and a brief feeling of satisfaction, but it quickly fades, and so you move on to the next thing you want.
It’s the eternal search to scratch an itch which is never quite satisfied. We’re always chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
You know what they say “comparison is the death of joy”, and for good reason.
Comparing ourselves to others never ends well. Jealousy creeps in and we think we need to keep up with others in order to feel good, worthy, or valid.
This leads to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
When we compare ourselves to others, we often end up chasing things because we think we should have them — regardless if it’s even what we want.
Do we truly want the latest smartphone or do we just feel left behind without it?
Comparison breeds dissatisfaction. It creates a cycle of wanting more than we actually need or even probably really want.
7) Psychological reactance
Psychological reactance is sort of a fancy word for stubbornness.
We don’t like to hear that we can’t have something. We all want to feel the illusion of control in our lives. Hearing or feeling ‘no’ means we are at the mercy of someone or something else in life.
We don’t want the power to lie outside of us, so we push against what “is” and try to change the situation.
Think of psychological reactance as the rebel in us, fighting against the things we think are taking away our freedom.
The more we think something is unavailable, the more we dig our heels in and feel motivated to want it.
Our minds are forever playing out stories in our heads. The vast majority of them are based on fantasy rather than reality.
Once we have created this narrative that X, Y, or Z is exactly what we want, it can be difficult to let go.
We want to live out the projection.
This explains why you find yourself devastated that the person you had one date with didn’t call you back.
In practicality, you have not lost anything. But in your mind, you lose a projected future you had imagined with this person.
This utopian image can be very difficult to give up on and so you end up chasing what you cannot have.
9) We feel threatened
If we think we can have something, only to realize we can’t, it triggers a primal instinct in us that makes our very safety feel threatened.
A psychological condition known as the ‘endowment effect’ can mean that we place undue value on something we have a sense of ownership over. Because of this, we feel a heightened aversion to losing it.
Now put that within the context of the ex that you want back so desperately.
Perhaps you want your ex back so much it hurts because, in some way, you see them as belonging to you.
Feeling this ownership makes you unwilling to give them up. You value them more, simply because you see them as already yours.
10) We like the chase
Sometimes we want what we can’t have, simply for the challenge it presents.
If it’s harder to get, the brain assumes it has a greater value (whether it does or not.)
Why is it that we want the ones that don’t see us, instead of the ones that do? Rather frustratingly the reason is exactly because they don’t see us.
The unavailability is what gives it value and also creates the excitement and extra validation in attaining it.
This has even become a common dating cliche — that some people only enjoy the thrill of the chase.
When a man wants a woman he can’t have he may quickly change his mind once he gets her.
How to stop wanting what you can’t have
Learn to love what’s good for you
We talk a lot about letting our hearts guide us. But what we usually mean is let our feelings guide us.
As wonderful as emotions are as guides and signposts, the truth is that they aren’t reliable. They are incredibly reactive and prone to changing quickly.
I am a hopeless romantic, so I am certainly not recommending you try to become robotic and unfeeling. But for the sake of your overall well being, decisions do need to involve the head as well as the heart.
As with everything, it all starts with awareness.
Now you understand the common reasons why people want what they can’t have, you can ask yourself what are your motives when you want something you can’t have.
We need to be able to actively question the emotions that drive us.
For example, let’s say you are dating someone who suddenly pulls away, acts distant, or behaves disrespectfully towards you.
It’s easy to end up justifying to ourselves why we let someone act like this and remain in our lives. We may find ourselves saying something along the lines of:
“I can’t help it, I’m crazy about him” or “I know she doesn’t treat me right, but I love her”.
Whilst it may be true that you cannot help the way you feel, you do still have power over the way you decide to act.
And sometimes we need to act in a way that is better for us in the long run. In this way, we can slowly learn to love what is good for us.
The most practical way to do this is through boundaries. These are the rules that we create to help protect us in life.
Let me give you a real-life example from my own dating history.
I was meant to go on a date with a guy I had been seeing for a few weeks. He got in touch earlier in the day and said he would contact me in a few hours to meet up, but then…
…I didn’t hear from him for 2 days.
When he finally dropped into my inbox, he was full of excuses, but not very good ones.
I’ll be completely honest, my heart (which had already gotten attached) wanted to accept his excuses.
Him becoming instantly unavailable made me want him all the more, even though I knew it shouldn’t.
My head had to step in. I knew deep down this was someone I could not pursue. Doing so would only set me up for more heartache later down the line.
Desire can feel overwhelming, there’s no denying it.
And the reality is that you won’t always be able to stop yourself from wanting things you cannot have. But we do have a choice over whether we chase after those things or not.
Try to see through social conditioning
We’re bombarded with messages every single day that subtly suggest to us that we are not good enough.
Glossy and envy-inducing social media, or ad campaigns with beautiful models adoring the latest fashions.
We’re taught from a young age to strive for more, achieve better grades, and get better jobs.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with having goals and ambitions, this social conditioning can have us chasing other people’s version of happiness, rather than our own.
But what if you could change this, and as a result change your life? What if you no longer felt the need to go after things, which as soon as you got, you don’t even want anymore.
You see, so much of what we believe to be reality is just a construction. We can actually reshape that to create fulfilling lives that are in line with what matters most to us.
The truth is:
Once we remove the social conditioning and unrealistic expectations our family, education system, even religion has put onto us, the limits to what we can achieve is endless.
I learned this (and much more) from the world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandé. In this excellent free video, Rudá explains how you can lift the mental chains and get back to the core of your being.
A word of warning, Rudá isn’t your typical shaman.
He’s not going to reveal pretty words of wisdom that offer false comfort.
Instead, he’s going to force you to look at yourself in a way you have never before. It’s a powerful approach, but one that works.
So if you’re ready to take this first step and align your dreams with your reality, there’s no better place to start than with Rudá’s unique method.
3 practical tools to find daily contentment in what you already have (instead of chasing things you cannot have)
1) Gratitude practice
Science has proven the huge benefits of gratitude. Actively looking at what we already in life have helps us to feel more content, and less compelled to go chasing fool’s gold.
This simple exercise will help you to focus on all the positive aspects of your life right now. Every morning, make a list of the things (both big and small) that you are grateful for.
2) Limit social media time
Social media is an amazing tool, but it can easily become its own addiction.
If you spend too much time scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc., it can easily trigger comparisonitis. So limit your daily screen time.
You can also use it to talk some sense into yourself when you find yourself chasing after something you can’t have. It’s the perfect way for your head and your heart to “talk it out”.
Lost Your Sense of Purpose?
In this age of information overload and pressure to meet others’ expectations, many struggle to connect with their core purpose and values. It’s easy to lose your inner compass.
Jeanette Brown created this free values discovery PDF to help clarify your deepest motivations and beliefs. As an experienced life coach and self-improvement teacher, Jeanette guides people through major transitions by realigning them with their principles.
Her uniquely insightful values exercises will illuminate what inspires you, what you stand for, and how you aim to operate. This serves as a refreshing filter to tune out societal noise so you can make choices rooted in what matters most to you.
With your values clearly anchored, you’ll gain direction, motivation and the compass to navigate decisions from your best self – rather than fleeting emotion or outside influences.
Stop drifting without purpose. Rediscover what makes you come alive with Jeanette Brown’s values clarity guide.