Growing up and through my 20s, I was the kind of person who liked to give. . .a lot. In fact, I often gave so much that my parents, teachers, and friends would really question me on it or even get mad at me. And, I was often giving to people who didn’t reciprocate at the same level. In the back of my head, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t really know what it was yet.

Then I learned that for me, giving was a survival mechanism. I didn’t feel capable of doing things all on my own, so I felt dependent on others for help. I gave to them in hopes of getting back whatever I needed. Traditionally, this is called co-dependence, and while that label absolutely fits, what really helped me was to understand that I felt giving was the only way to survive, even when it started to feel bad. (Find out what your survival mechanism is by taking this personality pattern test.)

Others give from survival-based places, also. For some, survival depends on doing what they “should” or on trying to make everything and everyone around them OK. If you’re not one of these people, you probably know someone who is. They might say things like:

“It’s not about ME. I just want whatever YOU want.”

“Oh, I don’t need anything. As long as my family (or significant other or friend) has what they need, I’m fine.”

“I don’t even have time to think about what I need. I have to take care of all the people who will fall apart unless I help them.”

All of these survival mechanisms are based on burying one’s own wants and needs. But, wait? Is that a bad thing? It’s better to give than receive, selflessness is a virtue. . . right? These are nice ideas, but when giving is based on denying one’s own wants and even their most basic needs, it ultimately falls apart.

A tree is a great example of what I’m talking about. Trees give oxygen, shade, beauty. But they can only do so when they sustain themselves first. And, they have everything they need within them to do that. They draw what they need from their own roots and leaves. They’re not grabbing onto the leaf of another tree to get what they need or tending to all the other trees in the forest, instead of themselves. That would be ridiculous, but it is exactly what so many of us have tried to do.

We, too, have our own roots and leaves, and they draw from our well-being and uniqueness, the energy that can sustain us and provide what we’re here to share with the world. But, our access to well-being gets cut off. Early in life, we absorb the feeling that there is something wrong with us. As this negative feeling, called Learned Distress®, becomes embedded in our sense of how it is to be human, we feel that we need something outside of ourselves in order to survive.

So, we feel dependent on getting other people’s help, or on making everything the way it “should be,” or on everyone around us being OK. We operate that way as long as we can, but at some point, our energy gets depleted and that survival mechanism stops working. Our leaves shrivel up and turn brown, and we have no oxygen or shade left to give.

When I begin to talk with clients about removing layers of this Learned Distress, they’re sometimes afraid that they’ll lose their generous nature. But that isn’t the case at all. When your roots and leaves tap into your well-being, you have a much more abundant place from which to give. Generosity feels completely different. . .freer, easier, more joyous, and completely sustainable. Your natural well-being is a bottomless well, so your ability to give in a way that nourishes you and benefits others just keeps flowing.

Sara Avery is the Executive Director of Quanta Change, and she’s been guiding people through this process for the past 16 years. Click to get your free, personalized SQ report and to sign up for a free, 30-minute call with her to understand how your generosity might be sabotaging you.