Connecting to what you really want—to what really matters to you—is vital. It is what allows you to discover your uniqueness, so that you can make the world a better place. So, it’s a bit alarming to me that one of the most common things I hear from clients is, “I don’t know what I really want.” They usually say it when we’ve started to dig into their feeling that they don’t deserve to have what matters to them. We often have to back up a step when they realize that they don’t even know what matters to them in the first place. Then, there are people who are pretty clear on what they want, but as we work together, that shifts pretty dramatically.

Both kinds of people are cut off from the core part of themselves that would inform them on what really matters. So, the first kind of person really doesn’t know what they want. They just can’t connect with it at all. The second kind of person seems to know what they want pretty clearly, but as we work together, it becomes obvious that their desires are really based on their survival mechanisms, not their deepest core self.

In both cases, it’s this survival mechanism that is blocking them from connecting with their core. But, what is it that they need to survive with in the first place? It’s a feeling that we all absorb early in life that there is something wrong with us being just the way that we are. This Learned Distress becomes embedded in our sense of self, which becomes the automatic, generating force behind every moment of our lives. Because it’s pretty awful to go through life with the feeling that there’s something wrong with us, our brains develop a survival mechanism that allows us to fit in the world and move through life, despite the Learned Distress.

For many of us, that survival mechanism is built on burying our Learned Distress. It doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. If we have to store this feeling that there is something wrong with us, it seems like not letting ourselves feel it might work pretty well—at least we’re not immersed in it all day long, then. But, burying our Learned Distress cuts us off from the core of who we are, also. I call this core “natural well-being,” and it’s the feeling that we’re just fine exactly as we are. Since there is only one pipe through which all of our feelings flow, when we turn off the Learned Distress, the well-being gets turned off, too.

Natural well-being is the source of our creativity and uniqueness. So, when we’re cut off from that, we just have nothing to tell us what really matters to us or what we really want. And, as I said earlier, some people’s survival mechanisms will step in and try to tell them what they want—the ideal marriage or job, to always be in charge, to have everyone like them, or even just to have everyone go away. These wants are based on Learned Distress—”there’s something wrong with me, but if I only have ________, I’ll be OK.” These are the people who often have a pretty big shift in what they want when we start peeling away layers of their survival mechanism.

Since we are opening up someone’s uniqueness with this realm of change, the results in my clients have been diverse. One client recently found tremendous relief and joy in discovering that she really doesn’t want to pursue any new romantic relationships. She is enjoying having her time and space to herself in a way she never imagined possible while she was pursuing the relationship that her survival mechanism demanded that she needed. Another client’s perspective on her career is changing in a huge way, as the survival mechanism pressure to have the “perfect job” falls away. She feels for the first time that her life is about enjoying what she loves, instead of constantly pursuing the better career move.

Take a deep breath and ask yourself the question—what do I really want? Did you get an answer? Is it based on what you really love or on the fear that you’re not good enough in some way? That will help you understand if your Learned Distress is blocking you from connecting with what really matters to you.