“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” ~ Lao Tzu
I couldn’t agree more with this quote. Connecting to the very deepest part of yourself is what allows you to know what matters to you. People usually have quick answers for what matters to them—family, friends, pets, their home, what they enjoy doing, etc. But, what’s interesting is that when I ask my clients if it were truly safe to have what they really want, the response I get most often is, “I don’t think I know what I want or what really matters to me.” Does this ring a bell for you? Let’s look at why this happens.
When addressing any issue, what I always look for is not how to fix it, but rather what stands in the way of it fixing itself. In the case of knowing who you are or what you want, what disconnects you from the answer in your core is the feeling that it isn’t safe to matter. The feeling of “I matter” is fundamental to being human, so this is a serious disconnection! How does it occur?
Early in life, your sense of self is shaped by how those around you experience life. From conception until the age of 2 1/2, your brain is a sponge, absorbing how people around you feel about being human. Your sense of self automatically forms itself to fit well with how they feel.
One major negative feeling that gets put into place at that time is the feeling that “I don’t matter,” or, “It’s not safe for me to ask for what I want and need.” Either that’s how your parents felt about being themselves, and so you just absorbed that feeling as the way to be human, or they felt best when you were quiet, needed as little as possible, and stayed out of the way. Asking for what you needed might even have gotten a strong negative response, so, because you couldn’t rationally decide to put off that need for a later time, your brain just shut down the connection to the core part of you that communicates what you need or want.
And, because that little sponge-like brain couldn’t rationally process it, you also didn’t get to throw out that feeling of “not safe to matter” at a later date. The feeling that it isn’t safe to connect to what you want or need became part of how you survive on the planet, as crazy as that may seem. The negative feelings stored in your sense of self rarely make rational sense.
One of my clients was grappling with this the other day, realizing that her life had revolved entirely around taking care of others and making sure she provided what she thought they wanted. She has made tremendous change recently in feeling that she doesn’t have to do that anymore, but now she’s wondering what it is she really wants. So, she’s working on knowing that it’s safe for the first time to discover who she really is and what she really wants. I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges for her.
“It’s not safe to matter” is so common that people with many different personality types experience this feeling and the disconnection that it produces. Someone whose survival mechanism is to rebel against everyone is equally as cut off as the client I described above. Although the rebel may seem to be expressing what they really want all the time, they’re actually just expressing whatever is the opposite of the person they’re rebelling against. Whereas the client above responds to “I don’t matter” by trying to fit in with everyone around her, the rebel responds to “I don’t matter” by rebelling against everyone around them.
Another personality type is someone who survives by having a crisis now to prove that tomorrow will be better. Instead of feeling and expressing what they really want, these people express whatever will create a crisis. Yet another type is the person who relies on having everything some “ideal” way, which is often quite different from what actually would feel good to them. These survival mechanisms take over and cut us off from who we really are and what really matters to us.
It’s fun to see people peel away this part of their survival mechanism and discover who they really are. It’s like opening a present, because each of us is unique at our core. Often, people have had hints about what really mattered to them, but dismissed them, either as something that too trivial or was “selfish,” which is a word I hear a lot when I talk about this realm of change. But within uniqueness, there is no “selfish,” because the core part of ourselves is that which is connected to everyone else, and so when we connect with it, there is more good for everyone.
One of my clients had loved refurbishing her own thrift store finds for years, but as “it’s safe for me to matter” opened up for her, people started to appear in her life who suggested she make a business out of it, and the resources for that business started to appear, also. Another client realized that her favorite counseling clients were young women and ideas started to flow about how she could help them even more. Yet another client found herself able to leave a job where her entire task list and working environment was something she hated. She has since found a job she loves doing and where her talents are celebrated. So, connecting to this deepest part of ourselves not only allows us to know what matters to us, but also starts the ball rolling towards having it.
Have you ever struggled with knowing who you really are or what you really want? I hope you’ll share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.