The Lure of Forbidden Fruit: 3 Ways to Overcome Wanting What You Can’t Have

Forbidden Fruit is a phrase attributed to how disobedience of a specific rules can result in serious consequences. While defiance may not cause extreme suffering today, why do we often want what we can’t have? Why is rebelling so appealing? What can we do to overcome this?

The Psychology of Desire

Psychologist Esther Perel ‘s research analyses two fundamental drivers of behaviour: stability and adventure. The polarity of these drivers simultaneously create desire; ‘to want’. Tony Robbin’s 6 Core Human Needs further validates this, suggesting we require both stability (certainty) and adventure (uncertainty) in order to be fulfilled. Between the balance of certainty and uncertainty is where desire emerges from.

The pathway between desire and an outcome is not always lateral, however for simplicity:

Healthy desires are generally straight forward: an idea comes, we consider and weigh up options, we want, we work towards it and we get an outcome; either success or failure. How is this different for something we can’t have?

The Power Within The Unattainable

Perel states that whether self-enforced or a societal restriction, something unattainable is tantalising because of:

  • A true sense of freedom arises when attaining something that you shouldn’t/couldn’t
  • Desirability grows through the imagination of the unknown in the space between stimuli and response
  1. Why is this thing important to me?
  2. What value does this possess?
  3. What would be the loss if I didn’t obtain this?

Sensing a lack of control feeds rebellion while perceived power is gained from persistence of a desire. How our imaginations create desire according to George Loewenstein is through the Information Gap. The Information Gap exists when there is a hole between our validated knowledge and what we want to know.

Curiosity is born from our mind’s need to ‘fill in the blanks’ and we regularly do this through creating a internal narrative. Curiosity releases dopamine or pleasure receptors which rise with anticipation of the unknown being known. Thus as curiosity rises, so does demand. For example, my last role in the corporate world took multiple applications before I was successful — I persisted because the idea of role was more appealing than the role in reality.

Humans are complex beings who ride a hedonic treadmill; working hard for things we want and can have, and working even harder when something is unattainable or unknown. Achieving either eventually brings us back to a set equilibrium of contentment.

Besides achieving a sense of freedom and power, chasing forbidden fruit has another effect: validating our sense of self. Our egos, according to research is linked to insecurity, suggesting that the need for challenge (uncertainty) is often derived from the need to be more secure (certain).

How To Overcome the Forbidden Fruit Syndrome (FFS)

If desire for the unattainable generates unhealthy consequences, how do you overcome FFS?

1. Build Core Confidence:

Overcoming the insecurity of chasing challenge requires an understanding of the different layers of confidence and how we derive self-worth within these layers.

The three layers of confidence are:

Surface: is what you project: your physical appearance, energy, stance, body language, tone, demeanour, expression, the way you carry yourself. How people perceive you to be.

Lifestyle: a matrix of elements that you fall back on: career, family, friends, relationships, assets, accomplishments, money, physical objects etc… How you live.

The problem with the first two layers is people have an overly dominant area in which they draw confidence from i.e. career. Both levels of confidence can be taken away, therefore true confidence needs to stem deeper.

Core: Core confidence exists through an unconditional acceptance of oneself. If the others layers disappear, you are fundamentally assured of who you are. Your values, experiences, what you’ve learned, your potential and what you can offer the world each day. Core confidence is the knowingness that you are your greatest asset.

Tips on Building Core Confidence:

  • Being response-able: detaching yourself from outcomes and choosing how to respond
  • Accepting what you can’t control and redirecting resistance towards what you can influence
  • Being kinder on yourself for mistakes and failures
  • Remembering the bigger picture with things — focusing on the end in mind and how far you’ve come
  • Challenging yourself in ways that lead to growth

2. Close the Gap Between Novelty and Nuance

Closing the information gap of forbidden fruit involves awareness of why you’re chasing shiny objects down rabbit holes . Essentialism author Greg McKeown explores how understanding the value in life is determined through understanding novelty and nuance.

Novelty is defined as the quality of being new, original, or unusual. As aforementioned, curiosity arises when something is unfamiliar. Novelty is mechanical, with perceived value existing within points of difference. Novel things are not always essential. To test if something is novel: if a crisis happened tomorrow, would this thing/outcome really matter to you?

Nuance is a subtle difference in meaning. Chasing the unknown involves understanding what qualities and characteristics you’re working for. Nuance is understanding why this thing/outcome is valuable and essential to you. If there was a crisis tomorrow, this is something that would matter to you.

3. Combat Competitiveness

Competitiveness whether personally or against others feeds persistence in order to prove a point or attain worthiness. Its appeal stems from motivation based on a greater reward system. Furthermore receiving believed success with the unattainable means we’ll seek to replicate and persist according to neuroscientist Dean Burnett.

Stopping unhealthy competitiveness requires understanding whether your desire is an intrinsic nuance or if it is to feed your ego. Would you still work on it as hard if it lost its shine? Breaking patterns of negative impulse requires acknowledgement that you don’t always get what you want in life, but you will get what you need. Taking the thrill out of the game and deciding to remove the cycle can occur through active choice to do so.

You only lose what you cling to. — Buddha

Originally published at on October 19, 2017.




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Stories by Trinh

Stories by Trinh

A digital collection of stories about self-empowerment, psychology and careers. Stories rooted deep in connection. Stories that remain ingrained in our hearts.

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