Category Archives: relationships

Can therapy really help to change your life? For anyone out there who is suffering and feeling hopeless

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In my previous blog I spoke about our deep-seated fear of change. Change, in many ways, is akin to dying since it entails ‘dying’ to our old beliefs, our old ideas and ways of being. But change is also about rebirth. Just as in fairy-tales and myths, where frightening monsters are faced and conquered, the descent into our own underworld equips us with the special powers, skills and knowledge needed to make changes in our everyday life.

Most people who decide to try counselling and psychotherapy (or EFT and other forms of therapy) express their doubts as to whether this would work for them. These doubts and scepticism are very natural, normal and healthy. Indeed, how would you know if therapy can really help to change your life? If you have been struggling with depression, anxiety, lack of confidence and relationship issues for a long time it may be difficult to imagine (even if this is what you want) how they can metamorphose into joy, contentment and fulfilment.

Embarking on a therapy journey does require a leap of faith and commitment. It is similar to growing a flower: it takes time, nurturing care, and patience for the seeds that you’ve planted in the earth to bring forth their shoots and eventually blossom. This growing process is subtle and changes can be almost imperceptible until they become visible.

Therapy is not an exact science. Its effectiveness is evidence-based, and from there you can take your faith: if it worked for other people it may work for you. Below I share a ‘real-life’ story told by a client of mine, a young professional woman, with whom I have worked for over two years. It just shows how much things can change, how one’s life can heal and unfold in wonderful ways. I hope you find it as encouraging and inspirational as I do.

For anyone else out there who is suffering and feels hopeless…

My journey in self discovery and healing started almost four years ago when I felt I had reached rock bottom and had almost become unable to do the most simplest of tasks let alone run a business or deal with the family and relationship issues that I was faced with.

I had trapped myself in such negative situations, thought processes and beliefs after suffering great losses, hurt and betrayal, that it felt like I was in a prison I’d never be able to escape from. I was no longer able to trust in the world and people, and had lost considerable hope and belief in myself. I couldn’t see a solution, yet was continually trying so many things to ‘improve myself’. My physical and mental health had become so weak and fragile I felt it would be next to impossible to feel ‘normal’ again and have ‘normal’ friendships and be able to cope with the challenges of life and a demanding career.

This is where I turned to therapy as my last resort. After an incredibly challenging year of conventional counselling I sought out Ludmila because I have heard that EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) was very efficient in helping people recover from trauma.  I will admit it took a tremendous amount of effort, dedication and perseverance on both my and Ludmila’s part but, as with most things in life, the hard work eventually started to pay off and I slowly began to heal from my mental anguish, fear and trauma. And little by little, small, almost imperceptible changes have lead to several major breakthroughs in my life, which I can only fully appreciate now, looking back to where I started…

The biggest breakthrough but also challenge was accepting and forgiving my mother. It was very painful to acknowledge through therapy that my mother was actually a very damaged person. She loved her children very much but was, unfortunately, unable to give us nurturing care because of her own traumatic childhood experiences.

I was always so conflicted about my mother… On the one hand, I knew she loved me and my brother, and she tried her best encouraging our education and cultural development, acquainting us with film, art and performance, ensuring that we got to a good school and later supporting financially my university studies… After the divorce from my father she has been on her own and also juggling a full time job. I appreciate all that very much and I don’t want to wrong her and do her injustice by focusing on the negative things, and yet sometimes it was more than often unbearable growing up with her.

I was living in constant fear that she would blow any second at the smallest thing and scream and shout at me. I became an emotional punch-bag for her unresolved pain which had effectively formed into a severe mental illness. This manifested in constant criticism and resentment towards me, as well as extreme negativity and distrust of life and most of the people she knew or met. Constant mental instability, switching from a seemingly rational and wonderful person to a completely irrational, made her very frightening.

Growing up I was unable to fully understand this, I just tried to keep safe within the emotional war-zone my brother and I lived in by forming effective coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms consisted of continually ensuring my mother’s needs were met, however irrational or unfair they were. I placed them before my own in order to keep the peace and try to manage her behaviour as much as possible. I effectively looked after her emotionally in exchange for a home, food and education.  I was unaware at the time that this was abnormal, that I was just surviving and not really coping at all…

It only started to become apparent for me years later when all the trauma of those years and subsequent experiences just became too much to bear. Those learnt coping mechanisms no longer protected me, instead they became undermining. I had been living a life driven by the need to please others and putting others’ needs before my own to severe detrimental effect. I didn’t know how to enforce healthy boundaries and was almost unaware of my own feelings and needs, allowing myself to be exploited and never feeling happy or fulfilled.

Acknowledging and confronting this was painful, but also empowering. It has been essential in re-establishing a new healthier relationship with my mother and other demanding characters in my life. Coming to terms with the fact that I am not the cause of their mental anguish, and that it is not something that I am able to resolve for them, was very healing.

I learned to assert my newly-found boundaries and realized that it could be done in a non-aggressive manner. The wonderful outcome has been that my mother and other similar characters in my life now treat me with more respect and no longer seem to unleash their demons on me as much. Or – more importantly – if they do, I no longer feel responsible for their irrational behaviour.

It was very difficult for my mum initially but over time she has adjusted and it has actually brought us closer together although, sadly, we will never be really close and I will always remain on guard in order to protect myself. Nonetheless are relationship is healthier than it has been since I was a teenager, which has benefited every aspect of my life.

I came to forgive my first love for his betrayal and abandonment. Hard as it was, I came to terms with the devastating illness of my father. I also succeeded in reconnecting and repairing my relationship with my partner and learned to stand up to bullies in my professional life.  Even though it seemed almost impossible to achieve, I managed to overcome my huge fears of exam failure, shame, ridicule, exposure and guilt in order to complete my education and become a fully qualified professional in my field.

But, most importantly, I came to forgive myself for all the criticism I constantly gave myself, for not being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, cool enough… the list goes on… I began to acknowledge that I am not a bad person but am worthy of love and goodness in my life.

Looking back at my life four years ago, I have come such a long way, and it’s sometimes incredible to believe the changes I have made in both my personal and professional life. I don’t believe I would have made it without Ludmila’s help, for which I am so grateful. Her strength, conviction and dedication, her compassion, encouragement and faith in me have been truly transformational.

I haven’t by any means come to the end of my journey, but I am now on the right path and feel able to trust in life again and feel secure acknowledging and accepting my hurt and emotions. For anyone else out there who is suffering and feels hopeless, as painful and difficult as it might be, try not to give up on therapy. It can sometimes feel impossible to ever recover from great trauma and despair, but I truly believe we are all capable of healing and great change with hope, dedication and perseverance – together with a therapist you trust.

Nonviolent Communication: How to get your needs met

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What is your habitual response to being hurt, annoyed or irritated by another person? Do you swear? Do you smash plates? Do you withdraw within yourself? Do you tell that person how wrong (insensitive, selfish, etc.) she or he is?

And now think of the habitual reaction that you get from that person, in response to your response. Most probably they will try to argue back to defend their cause or pull away and withdraw, too.

Too often, unfortunately, in our communication with each other we get trapped in the vicious circle of attack and defence, which often takes a form of a counter-attack and generates more violence. And here I am not speaking about physical violence (although situations can escalate to it), but about emotional violence. This type of violence permeates our daily life to such an extent that we tend to take it for a norm and may not be able straight away to identify it as violence.

Marshall Rosenberg explains that this is because we all have been educated in a ‘school of jackals’ where violence is the norm.

I have first heard about Marshall Rosenberg and nonviolent communication (NVC) from a friend several years ago. I bought his book and it really resonated with me, so since then I have been learning to practise NVC and also passing it on to my clients, who also found it very useful.

In this blog I want to introduce you to a few fundamental principles of NVC, which is designed to help you being heard and have your needs met while maintaining good healthy relationships.

 

  1. Differentiate between feelings and interpretations

How our message will be received depends a lot on how we convey it. The words in which we package our message may either help or prevent it from being adequately understood.

For example, let us say that at a party your partner has been speaking to other people and did not pay much attention to you. As a result you are being hurt and upset. Yet when you finally get to talk to your partner and let him or her know how you feel you say “I felt ignored by you!”

Now ‘hurt’ and ‘upset’ are feelings, while ‘ignored’ is an interpretation that entails an assumption about your partner’s behaviour or intention. If their intention was not to ignore you they will understandably respond to you in a defensive way, denying that what you said is correct. Then you will feel even more hurt because your message hasn’t been heard. But it hasn’t been heard because you used the wrong words! If you say “I am feeling hurt” your language is matching your emotions and your partner will be more likely to hear it and less likely to get on defensive.

Marshall Rosenberg suggests that it is very important that in expressing ourselves we differentiate between feelings/emotions and interpretations or assumptions that we make about another person. It doesn’t mean that we cannot make an assumption, but we have to clearly identify it as our assumption (e.g. “I began to think you were ignoring me”).

 

  1. Stick to the facts, focus on yourself and give the reason

Very often when instead of stating our feelings we jump to interpretations, we also omit mentioning the exact thing that caused us distress. Furthermore, we formulate our message in a form of an attack (blame or accusation) on another person. Thus, continuing with the same example of the party, we may express our feelings in the following way: “You ignored me the whole evening!”

From the point of NVC, this sentence contains three communication mistakes:

  • It substitutes feeling/emotion (‘hurt’ or ‘upset’) by interpretation (‘ignored’);
  • It contains an accusation (“you ignored me”);
  • It doesn’t explain what your partner actually did that has upset you.

The example of a correct statement may be as follows:

“I am feeling upset because you talked to all other people at that party for the whole evening and haven’t said a word to me!”

In this sentence you keep the focus on you and your feelings. The explanatory statement, of which your partner is a subject, describes what exactly about his or her actions you found upsetting. When you express yourself in this way your partner won’t feel the target of an accusation or the blame. They won’t feel the need to defend themselves from an imposed interpretation and will learn what to do and what not to do in the future so that not to hurt you again.

 

  1. Express your needs clearly

 More often than we realize we expect another person to intuit our needs. When they fail to do so we get disappointed and upset. A vivid illustration is a story my mother told me about a falling out she had with my father during the early months of their marriage. She had a bad toothache and needed to see a dentist. She was anxious and wanted my father’s support. However, she didn’t ask him to come with her; she expected him to guess that this was what she needed from him. You can imagine how disappointed and upset she was when instead of offering to come with her he went to play football with his friends!

I am quite similar, in some ways, to my mother and share a number of her inhibitions and defence mechanisms (including withdrawal). So I know how difficult it is to bring yourself to articulate what seems to you plainly obvious! Yet it is plainly obvious only within your own emotional system of references. Alas! Sometimes it is healthier and helps create happier relationship when we treat another person a bit as an alien. If they don’t guess our needs it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t love us. It may simply mean that on their planet 2 + 2 doesn’t make 4!

 

  1. Listen to the message behind the words

The counterpart to Marshall Rosenberg’s character of ‘jackal’ is ‘giraffe.’ I believe he says somewhere that he has picked up giraffe because giraffe has the biggest heart of all mammals. (This assumption is erroneous by the way… Do you know which mammal has the biggest heart?) In contrast to ‘jackal,’ ‘giraffe’ speaks from its heart and listens with its heart. It means that ‘giraffe’ listens to feelings behind the words and not just to the words as such.

Consider this conversation between the ‘jackal’ and the ‘giraffe’:

Jackal. You ignored me the whole evening!

Giraffe. Are you saying that I have hurt you?

Jackal.   Yes! I am very hurt.

Giraffe. Oh… Is it because I haven’t spent much time with you?..

Jackal.   You haven’t spent any time with me at all! You were busy talking to all these other people.

Giraffe. And you thought I was ignoring you…

Jackal.   Yes! And I am very upset.

Giraffe. Of course, you would be upset. I am very sorry.

When your child screams at you “I hate you!” you know that it doesn’t mean she or he hates you, but that they want your attention (or something you are not giving them). In the same way we can practise understanding emotional needs behind the words and the behaviour of other people. It is not easy – but it is possible!

 

Video of Marshall Rosenberg’s workshop

Well, this turned out to be quite a lengthy article and we have only covered the basics!

If you are interested, you can learn more by watching this video. Enjoy and have a good laugh!

www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBGlF7-MPFI

 

Homelessness and homecoming

Have you ever felt homeless? I don’t mean trying to imagine yourself living on the street, without a roof over your head, but the inarticulate feeling inside you that would resonate with the word “homeless”?

For many years – night in and night out – this has been a recurrent motif of my dreams. However their main plot had varied, that motif remained constant: in every dream I wouldn’t have a home of my own. I would stay at an hotel, perch in a corner of somebody’s sitting room among their busy life, sleep in half-deserted dormitories… It was the resonance with this feeling that drew me to take part in Crisis at Christmas when a friend told me about this large-scale volunteering initiative in the UK.

Crisis at Christmas

During the Christmas week the organization called Crisis (www.crisis.org.uk) hires empty schools and colleges and turns them into the residential and day-centres for people who are homeless. Some of them sleep rough, others live at squats or manage by the so-called “sofa-surfing” at their friends’ or acquaintances. At Crisis’ centres the guests receive three home-cooked meals a day and have an access to a wide variety of free services: medical checks, dentist treatments, haircut, clothes alterations, legal advice, massage, reflexology, Reiki, meditation, arts and crafts, drama classes, creative writing – you name it. And just having a chat with some friendly people also means a lot! During last Christmas (2014) 10 centres in London welcomed over 3,600 guests. More than 10,000 volunteers took part in the event, and I had a privilege to be one of them. It was my second time at Crisis at Christmas and, as the year before, it was a very profound and intense experience, which shook me and stirred many feelings and thoughts. I’d like to try and share some of them here.

What is homelessness?

What does it mean to be homeless? Is it a social phenomenon, psychological conundrum or existential condition? Or perhaps – all of those. On my way back to Cambridge I had a chat over a cup of coffee with a friend who teaches philosophy. He evoked Heidegger, the German existential philosopher who spoke of our “thrownness”: we are being “thrown” into this world, without asking for it, without choosing the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, isolated in our uniqueness, struggling to make some sense of all this.

There are levels – and layers – of homelessness. Heidegger’s is the most basic – existential level – a human condition that we all share. Some of us may experience it sharper than others, but we all experience it at some point and have to come to terms with it. Interwoven with it and, partly, evolving from it is the next level: psychological homelessness. By this I mean our needs and feelings of belonging, of being appreciated and needed, of being accepted for who we are.

From the chats that I had with the guests at Crisis I formed an impression that it is when things go badly wrong at this level that leads to the actualized homelessness when a person has no safe place of their own, neither physical nor social. They are literally thrown out: of their homes and of other people’s lives. These are people whose families rejected them, who lost their jobs, their homes, their faith in themselves and in others – and found themselves in emotional and social isolation.

Where does it begin?

As I am writing this, letting my thoughts spin, I am beginning to see the basic experiences of family and social bonding as a buffer that stops the fathomless waters of existential thrownness from crushing through the walls of human psyche and swamping it. I spoke to a young man who grew up in an orphanage; a couple of years ago he managed to track down his mother. She was now living with a young daughter, married to a wealthy man and didn’t want to know of him… I encountered a man in his sixties, who attempted suicide twice, and he has grown up children who hold good jobs and earn decent money… I can’t stop wondering what will become of these people – will they make it through this winter? And the following one?..

My initiation into Crisis has endowed me with a “survivor’s guilt” that I have to learn to accept and embrace. Yet this guilt comes together with the gift. It is a gift of hope. The hope that healing is possible. Of course, it is my own healing too that I’ve been seeking when volunteering at Crisis at Christmas. And I believe I have found some answers – at least for myself…

Naked humanness

One of the most remarkable things about Crisis at Christmas is that it is a place where people (even volunteers between themselves) don’t ask each other about what they do in the “outer” life. The usual questions that dominate most social gatherings, implicitly or explicitly, are rendered irrelevant in this context. Suddenly it doesn’t matter what your job is, how much you earn, what car you drive, what are your degrees, position, status, and so on. People get to know you from an immediate experience of you – through what you give and how you give, through how you interact with others. They get to know you by your smile, by the tone of your voice, by how you listen and how you share. It is the essential qualities that matter and on this level one is able to experience the rare moments of true equality: because even the most deprived person, outside of the very margins of society, still carries the light of his or her personality within them.

We hold on so tightly to external attributes which we believe add to our value. When we lose these attributes (even just some of them) we suffer and feel worthless. But it is when we are stripped naked of all our decorations that our humanness comes forth, shining in its vulnerable beauty. I have already discovered this simple truth through my personal journey as well as my work as a therapist, but it was my experience at Crisis that really helped it sink in.

Giving and receiving

It is very important though that in such critical moments of your life someone will be with you who can appreciate this beauty and reflect it back to you, so you can begin to appreciate it for yourself. And here I come to another crucial notion: the openness of heart. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a person who had been deprived of love and caring is that they deem themselves beyond hope and turn away from help that is being offered. Kierkegaard (to mention yet another existential philosopher) called it “shutupness or “in-closure” (Indeslutte) and deemed it the worst kind of despair.

In order to heal one has to be able to receive. And in order to receive one has to have courage to give their trust to somebody who offers them compassion and a helping hand. So the giving and the receiving are really the one thing – like yin and yang – flowing one into the other and engendering one another. I have fully experienced it at Crisis.

This year as well as the last year I have being working alongside massage and yoga practitioners, giving Reiki. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Reiki comes from an ancient tradition of healing by laying on hands. It is a very simple pure kind of touch (although some practitioners do it without physical contact) that promotes a deep sense of relaxation and helps rebalance emotions and restore physical health. It was truly amazing and infinitely moving to witness how people who sleep on the street could so totally entrust themselves to your hands, how they allowed themselves to be held and attended to. What beautiful, slightly shy smiles I’ve been greeted with when they opened their eyes re-emerging from a few moments of peace and calmness! The gift of warm-hearted child-like gratefulness generously offered. It was a healing gift for me too for at these moments I transcended my own existential homelessness and experienced a profound sense of connectedness – from heart to heart. I wasn’t alone any more, the world had meaning and my life had meaning.

Homecoming

After so many dark nights of the soul, after all my wanderings through the endless tunnels I feel that I came to be more rooted in my heart, feeling safe and comfortable there and happy to open it to others and to life. It is a wonderful and joyful experience of Homecoming.

And, in conclusion, I want to share with you a song performed by The Choir with No Name – a choir of homeless people. One of the guests at Crisis told me about them and said that singing at the choir is what kept him going. Please listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJjTe5DmGso

Whom can I trust?

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Once a month I run a personal growth group that meets at my home. Every meeting centres on a theme that we choose in advance and participants share their life experiences that relate to the theme. One of our meetings had been on the theme of trust and reflecting on it afterwards, I had been struck how everybody spoke about a situation that involved broken trust. Although we all, hopefully, have had experiences in life when our trust was reaffirmed, instances of broken trust are so painful and leave such a deep wound they come to the fore when the topic of trust is raised.

Like everybody else, in my own life I have had situations when I felt badly let down by people I put my trust in. In my therapy work too, broken trust is a recurrent theme and sometimes I hear a cry of a near despair: “Whom can I trust then?” When we have been hurt very deeply it may sometimes seem that to keep safe it might be better not to trust anybody ever again. Yet by adopting this strategy we would stop ourselves from experiencing the joy of intimate connectedness and may suffer from loneliness and isolation. So is there a way out from this conundrum? How can we trust people and keep ourselves safe?

Expectations, awareness and reality check

Broken trust always involves the fissure between our expectations of another person and their ability (or rather inability) to meet these expectations. Thus the first thing to become aware of is that we do have certain expectations. Next, we need to enquire how realistic our expectations are: whether or not the person in question can possibly meet them.

Our expectations always spring from sets of values and beliefs which may or may not correspond to that of the other person. This takes time to find out, but it is also important to keep in mind that our values and beliefs are not fixed once and for all. They change as we change while journeying through life and what we believed to be unshakable truth when we were 16 may not be the same for us when we are 30.

These changes often happen gradually and imperceptibly and may not synchronize with the changes in our friends, partners, parents or siblings. When we are unaware of this ongoing process of change (within ourselves as well as within others) we are more likely to miss the signals that inform us that we are no longer in alignment with another person. Then the risk of suffering a disappointment is higher. It also often happens that when we come under pressure or when our priorities change as a result of changing circumstances we may not be able to be there for our friends in the same way we used to.

One of the most painful losses of friendship in my life happened through my inability to appreciate the change that was taking place in my friend’s life. For several years we have been very close, shared with each other intimate concerns and helped each other through the times of emotional turmoil. Then my friend got married and the joys and challenges of her new married life have naturally become a priority to her. I, however, haven’t been able to recognize that and continued demanding that she remains engaged with me with the same intensity as before. This placed too much burden on our relationship and eventually the connection has snapped. Had I been able to understand and accept my friends’ changing needs and emotional resources we could have kept the friendship going. Yet I couldn’t… At that time I had been struggling, feeling lonely and wanting emotional support, which I used to receive from my friend, and when she distanced herself I felt abandoned.

Taking care of ourselves

It is most important to realize that no single person in this world can possibly take care of all our emotional (and/or practical) needs. Not even the best ever parents are able to meet all the needs of their children because we are such complex beings and our needs are so many and varied. Thus it is essential to become aware of the needs we have and to find ways of meeting them through different sources. Consider questions like these : What is it that makes me happy and what I can do to give it to myself? What is it I am struggling with and where I can find help?

For example, if we want companionship we can think of activities we can do with other people who share similar interests. We can’t demand or expect the satisfaction of this need solely from our partner. Similarly, when we are going through difficult times. One person – be it the most loving partner or friend – can only support us thus far, as we all have limited resources and a lot of personal challenges to deal with. So we need to seek help from a different source, such as therapy, for instance, otherwise the relationship may suffer under too much burden.

It is also important to develop an ability to be on our own. I want to avoid being misunderstood on this point. I am not trying to advocate the idea of total self-reliance. I believe this is neither realistic nor healthy. After all we are communal beings. Rather what I am trying to say is that when we are able to stay quietly with ourselves in a moment of distress we begin to hear better our inner voice that would offer us insights and guidance that we need. We become stronger and more independent, in a sense that we learn to be a source of support to ourselves.

Renewing trust

However much awareness we have it is nigh impossible to altogether avoid the situations when we feel badly disappointed and let down by others. From my own experience and through talking and working with people I came to think that, in addition to hurt, we also suffer in such instances from a sense of confusion. We momentarily lose faith in our ability to make a sound judgement about other people and situations. We feel disoriented and helpless. And then we ask the question: Whom can I trust?

Basically, what we are asking is this: Can I trust myself? Can I trust my own intuition, knowledge, perception?

In recovering trust and faith in ourselves it helps to look at the factors that contributed to us misjudging the situation or overlooking the signs of a possible fracture. These can be our beliefs, fears, past hurts or desire to see what we want to see… Alas! We are only human! When we claim responsibility for our part in the situation we reclaim our power back. We don’t any longer feel like a victim of a blind force, but feel more in control and better equipped for handling similar situations in the future.

Forgiveness

In conclusion to this rather long and very incomprehensive blog I want to say a few words about forgiveness. If you have felt unexpectedly let down by somebody whom you have known to be very trustworthy, please consider giving this person another chance. This is different from giving our trust blindly to somebody whom we don’t know that well or who consistently proved to be unreliable. Rather it is about acknowledging that we are subject to many different forces – often subconscious and very strong – that can overpower us at times and make us act out of character.

It might be sad to think that complete, 100% trust, just as an eternal love, is not really possible. Yet in this sadness we may also find greater kindness towards ourselves and towards others. And by renewing our trust we help our life and the lives of others unfold.

Intimacy and vulnerability

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Every person has a theme running – like a leitmotif in music – throughout their whole life. For me that theme is connectedness. As a child and adolescent I spent a lot of time secluded in my inner world, dreaming that one day I would meet like-minded people with whom I can share my thoughts and feelings. As I journeyed through life it became stronger and more pronounced, and my work as a therapist has much to do with it.

We need to be careful in assuming that what is true for us would be the same for other people. Yet some things are universal – things we all share as human beings. And I believe the desire for an intimate connection with another soul is one of them. This desire to experience intimacy at a deeper level – and to help others experience it in their lives – led me to practising therapy, for it can be experienced not only with close friends and loved ones, but with somebody you barely know, even with a complete stranger. For me – and I think many of you will join me here – these are truly moments worth living for. Why, then, do we so often feel lonely and cut off, very often from the very people we most want to be close to?

Dragon with many heads

The main reason for this is a dragon with many heads: FEAR. What are we afraid of? First of all, of course, we are afraid of being hurt. This is the chief head of the dragon, a natural fear linked to the self-preservation instinct. If we expose our inner being, we make ourselves vulnerable and it is easier to hurt us through either intention or omission. And there are so many ways in which we can get hurt! So we learn to protect ourselves by donning armour over our sensitive inner being. And there are so many ways to wear this armour! By pretending we don’t care. By criticizing another person. By playing silent games and withdrawing within ourselves (my default defence reaction). You name it!

We do it and all other people do it too. So what happens? We end up walking around presenting to each other our either polished or bristly armour and thus we begin to forget (because we cannot see it) that within each person we meet in our daily life, there is this vulnerable being that yearns for genuine human contact. We also begin to believe that people who come across as strong and self-confident will only accept us and want to socialise with us if we project a similar impression. So we create a persona according to the likeness of this ‘idol’. We may go to terrible pains to maintain this persona and also suffer from a lot of fear like a charlatan waiting to be disclosed.

Fear, however, engenders fear, and going along with it we perpetuate the vicious circle. Yet the truth lays in exactly the opposite direction. The truth is, it is precisely our vulnerability – our humanness (that we often come to despise) – that attracts people and makes them want to connect with us! It is such a simple truth, but sometimes it is so hard to really believe it in our heart! As I have been thinking about writing this blog I have been observing myself more closely and noticing how much I am still infected by this fear – or fears. Fear of being judged, rejected, looked down at. Yet I have countless examples of absolutely wonderful transformations that happen to people and their relationships when the fear is discarded and you reach out to someone heart to heart. I can tell you one such story.

Shedding our armour

When I was doing my PhD, I often came to work in the reading room of the University Library. And for two years there was a man who also came to work there nearly every day, yet we never said hello to each other. I felt uncomfortable with that because it felt unnatural: here is somebody that you know – somebody like your neighbour – yet you pretend that you don’t know each other. This uncomfortable feeling began really to bother me and so one day I put aside my reservations (like what if he thinks I am crazy) and judgements (like he is an arrogant and unfriendly snob) and stopped him as we were passing each other in the library corridor. I said: ‘Hello! I have been seeing you there in the reading room for a long time and we never said hello. My name is Ludmila.’ Guess what happened? He absolutely beamed, said his name was Jack and right there on the spot started telling me all about his research and his work. He was not arrogant or unfriendly – he was just shy! Since then we would sometimes meet for coffee in the canteen and have nice chats. We didn’t become close friends, but it was a genuine human connection – from the heart.

I also remember a story my father told me when I was in my late teens. He was attending a work function and there was one colleague whom for no apparent reason he took to dislike. And he had expressed his dislike by being mean to that person in some small ways. But then at some point during the party, the man came over to him and asked: ‘Victor, why are you treating me like this? What have I done to you?’ Hearing that, my father’s heart turned within him. All his hostility vanished in an instant, he felt remorse and a wave of warmth towards his colleague.

Expressing our hurt directly instead of acting it out means letting go of the armour – and it usually helps to disarm the other person too. Yet it is so difficult to do it! I am personally still struggling with it as one of the pillars of my ideal self-image is ‘being strong’ (understood wrongly – hence quote marks). So it’s not only the fear of being made vulnerable to the other, but also the fear of disappointment with oneself – if we admit that we fall short of what we expect from ourselves.

Well, I have written a very long blog already and have barely begun to scratch the surface of the topic! Please write to me your thoughts and stories – I would love to hear from you and to continue the discussion below.