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From the therapy room: Asking for help

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Are you feeling more comfortable giving or receiving? Can you ask for help when you are struggling to complete a task by yourself or need support?

In these reflections shared by one of my clients she considers the inner obstacles that may prevent us from asking help and suggests some ways of overcoming them.

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Asking for help

So many people find it hard to ask for help, whether it be at home, at work or to do with their physical and emotional wellbeing. We seem so worried about what other people might think: maybe we aren’t capable; maybe we can’t cope. What if they see that we aren’t as good as they thought or what if we see that we aren’t as good as we thought.

Recently I had a conversation about asking others for help. The overriding question that came out of that conversation was ‘Why do we find it so hard to ask?’ It got me thinking… I asked somebody to help me decorate my flat earlier this year, but it was several weeks after realising that I was not going to be able to do it on my own. Why did I wait so long? Maybe I was afraid to admit that I couldn’t do it on my own, maybe I was afraid to admit that I wasn’t good enough. I was afraid to ask.

Perhaps we all have areas of our lives where we find it easier to ask for help and areas where we are afraid to ask for help. Even though it took a while for me to ask for help it was important that I did because I didn’t have all the skills necessary to complete the work. Maybe I was afraid to admit that to myself and so I remained unhappy with where I was living for longer than I needed to and that affected my mood. I was living with a negative feeling for a long time and it led to other behaviours that caused pain, impacted on my productivity and prevented me from being happy.

How can we get out of this vicious circle?

Maybe asking for help isn’t just about us. Could we think more about the person we ask? Think about what happens when someone asks you for help. Do you think “Why are they asking me for help?  They are so useless anyone could do that” or do you think “They have asked for help, this is obviously important to them and they think I can help, I must do all that I can to help”.

How do we feel when someone asks us for help and what goes through our heads? I think the first thing that happens is that is makes us feel good. We often feel flattered because the person who asks for help obviously sees us as someone who is capable of helping. Whether it be our skills, our encouragement or/and our enthusiasm. Secondly we want to do all that we can, we want to do a good job and we want to live up to expectations. Lastly, it reminds us that it is ok to ask for help.

It takes a lot of courage to admit that you need help but, instead of thinking just about how you feel, think about how you can make that other person feel. The good feelings are contagious and maybe you can learn a new skill, so why not ask for help today. It will be worth it for both you and the person you ask.

Fear of change or dying to oneself

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‘Ella’

On one occasion I was working with a young woman (I will call her ‘Ella’) who was struggling with a lack of assertiveness. She found it very difficult to say ‘no’ to people and to stand up for herself. Consequently, she very often felt pushed around and not treated with respect.

Ella was very distressed about it, to the extent that her whole body felt infused with a damp, murky feeling of impotence and hopelessness. I asked her what would happen if she could let these feelings go. She felt she would feel brighter and lighter, more energized and alive. However, when I suggested that she went ahead and released that dreary fog from her body she was not prepared to do so. She voiced her concern thus: ‘What if I then become a rude person and people don’t like me?’

You may find Ella’s response surprising, yet it is very common. We are paradoxical creatures for while with our conscious mind we may want one thing, at a deeper level we are often not ready to embrace the change. This happens even when we are suffering from physical pain.

‘Jeff’

Another of my clients (‘Jeff’) had been plagued by debilitating headaches that had severely impaired his life for a very long time. The headaches were a symptom of a deep trauma and its ensuing acute inner conflict – on multiple levels. When, after some months of work, the past wounds began to heal and Jeff began to feel the desire to engage more with the world around him, the headaches became less gripping in their quality and ‘almost ready to go.’ However, when we asked his ‘subconscious mind’ whether it was OK to release the headaches completely, his body responded with a strong panicky sensation, bubbling in his chest, stomach and arms, like a stormy sea threatening to sweep him away. “I guess I am scared to let go of headaches completely because then I won’t know what to do with my life.”

 

Familiar is safe

I have pondered a lot over the phenomenon of our deeply rooted fear of change. It seems to have neurological, psychological/cognitive as well as spiritual dimensions.

To begin with, our brain, just like the animal’s brain, is wired for safety. In order to feel safe we need to know the territory in which we operate, to know what to expect from it, to be familiar with the possible traps and emergency exits. We associate safety with the familiar, and therefore any encounter with the new and the unknown naturally brings about a certain amount of anxiety.

The instinct of self-preservation does not concern just our physical survival. As can be seen from the examples above, psychological changes may present just as big a challenge, if not an even bigger one.

Even though Ella suffered from being pushed around and ‘trampled upon’ by other people, her situation felt safe because it was familiar. She knew what to anticipate and was used to her pain. Although uncomfortable, it didn’t scare her as much as the unpredictable reactions from the part of others (friends, colleagues, managers) had she dared to assert herself.

Similarly, Jeff was used to his headaches. While they stopped him from doing things he might have enjoyed, they also shielded him from facing life’s challenges and assuming greater responsibility for his way of being. For both Ella and Jeff, the anxiety associated with stepping into the unknown was overriding their desire to heal, and it took a long time to shift that.

Self-identity

All of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, have in our minds a certain picture of ourselves. What we believe about ourselves becomes an integral part of our self-identity, which gives us a sense of presence in the world and helps to define our boundaries and our position vis-à-vis other people and events. When our self-perception is challenged we can be plunged into a state of uncertainty. We feel lost, unsure of who we are and how to relate to others. It is a very uncomfortable state to endure, and we instinctively avoid entering it, even if the change would be beneficial for our growth.

Ella feared that becoming more assertive might come at the expense of losing her gentleness and sensitivity. She was concerned that people would perceive her as ‘rude’ and would not like her anymore. It is certainly true that when we leave behind our old ‘skin’ and develop new qualities, some who were used to our old ways will not welcome the change. This is a risk to consider. But the question really to ask is whether these people truly cared for us in the first place? Did they genuinely want the best for us or did they find our meekness and inability to say ‘no’ convenient for them?

These fears are real and facing them requires a lot of courage. The first step is to admit that we have these fears. Then we can explore them, weigh the risks, assess our strength and find the support that we need to help us make changes.

Dying to one’s self

At the bottom of it, our fear of change is very much akin to the fear of dying. Indeed if we think about it, dying signifies the most final and permanent form of change. Even if we believe in reincarnation or some other form of the afterlife, our existence as we know it is going to change forever once we cross the threshold we call ‘death.’

And sometimes it can be easier to accept physical death than to give up our beliefs, e.g. when people say they are ready to die for the sake of an idea. This also explains why people who were fearless in battle can mentally crumble when the ‘gods’ who led them into that battle are revealed as hypocrites and tyrants. That happened to many a bona fide communist when the atrocities of Stalin’s regime were brought to light.

As I wrote above, we derive our sense of who we are from our self-identification with our beliefs (about ourselves and about the world and life in general). Thus we may resist acknowledging the betrayal of our partner, or the abusive behavior of our parents towards us as children. We may also avoid being exposed to new ideas through reading or listening to the members of a different faith community, or social group.

Letting go of our beliefs is the same as dying to our selves: our former ‘selves’, the ‘selves’ as we know them. The ‘selfies’. The challenge of this act cannot be overemphasized. Yet in dying there is a rebirth. As it is written in the Gospel of Matthew: he that loseth his life … shall find it.” I am not a Christian believer, but I find that this saying contains profound truth about our psychological and spiritual predicament. If we resist this change we will never evolve. We will just stagnate and continue to exist while not being truly alive.

For me, personal growth is about learning to see more clearly what I am grasping at and why, and learning to embrace change by letting go of the old props. I must admit to being a rather heavy-going student and appreciate that this is a life-long class. But I draw much inspiration from the people I work with and their admirable courage. I challenge them, they challenge me, and together we walk the path.

 

What scripts are running us? Reprogramming your mind

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Do you sometimes wonder, like I do, if one day our world will be run by smart robots? Developments in Artificial Intelligence increasingly endeavor to decipher the governing properties of the human mind and create machines in the image of humans.

I hope that these machines won’t be as evil as presented in some science-fiction. What alarms me more is to what extent we, humans, resemble computers. Just like computers we are being run by the scripts encoded into us. Wars, social injustice and much of our collective and individual misery results from the fact that we are being programmed a certain way and we don’t even realize that.

So today I would like to invite you to contemplate together our computerized ‘condition’ and what we can do about it.

The matrix  

Our programming begins even before we are born. And here genetic codes play a significantly smaller role than psychological and emotional algorithms. The matrix is provided by our parents and grandparents, as well as society at large. Without consciously knowing it we inherit their anxieties, preconceptions, taboos and values.

Furthermore our early interaction with the world serves as a mirror through which our self-perception is formed. And if the mirror is distorted (as unfortunately is often the case) we end up with all kinds of insecurities and misconceptions about ourselves. They generate fear and mistrust. They stop us from opening up and reaching out. They inhibit our growth and limit our self-fulfillment in life.

So what can we do?

Opening to change

I would say we need to rebel! Like ‘Neo,’ the protagonist of The Matrix film, we can try and undo the programming that keeps us under control. But first we need to realize that our reality is not the actual reality, but in many ways is an illusion created by the innumerous complex scripts. We need to really see it.

Awareness is the key to success in this process. We need to become aware of what scripts are running us and how they operate. Only then can we stand a chance to break free from them and move forward.

Of course, if we continue the computer analogy, we may say that what we are doing is just a re-programming: replacing the old script with the new one. But this is not entirely so because in the process we learn to be open to change. And such an ability of continuous self-evolvement from within is something that computers don’t possess.

Opening to change may be unnerving and one has to be motivated enough to face the challenge… But if there is a part of you that feels curious please read on and see how the free spirit within you responds to it.

Safety maps

We are hardwired for safety. The need to be safe is linked directly with the survival instinct and is, of course, very important. However, there is a catch as we tend to associate the safe with the familiar – even when the familiar is not really safe, if we look at it objectively.

It may sound like a paradox, but consider, for example, this pattern. Why do so often people who have been abused (emotionally or physically) as children end up in a relationship with somebody who continues to abuse them in a similar way?

I don’t believe that these people consciously or subconsciously ‘attract’ such partners. They don’t want to be abused again! But their ‘alarm system’ is impaired because they have been used to certain types of behavior that other people won’t tolerate. So they miss the first warning signals and go headlong into the trap. Thus for some people a person with unstable moods and a tendency to ‘flip’ will be a definite ‘no-no’ while others will just take it as something they can manage because their father or mother were like that.

The misleading subconscious association of the safe with the familiar can also prevent us from speaking up for ourselves, having fulfilling relationships or getting a dream job.

If someone grew up in a house where emotional expression was not encouraged he or she will later have difficulties emotionally connecting with other people. It won’t feel safe.

Or if one’s parent had been prone to outbursts of anger the child would often adopt a strategy of being quiet to keep out of trouble. And that would be just the right strategy for the child. But then the child becomes an adult who cannot face conflict situations or express his or her needs for the fear of provoking anger.

Safety maps, as with all maps, need to be constantly revised because the territory is changing continuously. What has been a desert yesterday may be a rapid stream today and we need to be able to recognize the change and to find a new strategy for navigating it.

Inherited beliefs

To a greater extent than we realize we are prisoners to the ideas handed down to us by parents, teachers, media, magazines or books. For the most part, we didn’t consciously choose our values – we have inherited them and adopted them for our own. And we rarely question them until we face some deep crisis that turns our world upside down.

One of the great “bookish” beliefs that I held on to for a long time was an idea that “true love” can only happen once and it lasts forever. Because of that belief I used to have a great difficulty of letting go (within myself) of relationships that have already ended. I felt that by doing so I would be betraying myself and my ‘everlasting love.’

Our inherited ideas are usually very rigid and black and white. There is ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and very little gray area. This dualism is also linked to safety because we derive comfort from sorting things neatly and clearly into fixed little boxes. This is how we deal with the anxiety of uncertainty and the pain of impermanence.

Where to start?

It may be a good idea to start questioning our everyday behaviour, our ideals, common truths — everything. Imagine that you are an alien who has landed on this planet and is trying to make sense of what is going on, not take anything for granted. What do you do? Why do you do it this way and not another? Why do you believe certain things to be good or positive and other things to be bad or negative?

Turn it upside down, give it a shake and take a fresh look. Reawaken the inquisitive child within you and learn anew to ask questions, even about the simplest and seemingly obvious things. Don’t be afraid! At this point you don’t need to change anything in your beliefs or in your ways. Simply become open to the idea that different perspectives are possible.

It can be immensely helpful to talk things through with a person who is not afraid of asking difficult questions and doesn’t leap up with ready-to-hand advice. Psychotherapy or counselling provides a safe space for such an exploration. And if you have friends who can become your companions on the journey by all means do engage their support.

It may also be useful to keep a diary of recurring thoughts and emotions. I have created a simple Word template for this purpose which many of my clients have found helpful. If you are interested please feel free to send me a request and I will email it to you.

Success with your journey!

Ludmila

 

Emotional co-dependency: Why do we get stuck in dysfunctional relationships

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What makes people stay in a dysfunctional relationship where they don’t feel appreciated and cared for? Why continue in a relationship where there is no joy, laughter, fun, trust and real intimacy – a relationship that has run its course and cannot be revived?

Sometimes people say that they are staying together because of the children. Yet there are also couples who do not have children and even they are not able to bring an end to their unhappy relationship and go separate ways. Children’s wellbeing is of course a very important factor, but usually it is not the only reason. And neither is the financial factor.

There is special glue that keeps people stuck together. And this glue is emotional co-dependency.

The underlying reason for emotional co-dependency

A degree of co-dependency is present, of course, in all relationships and in life, in general, as there are very few people who would live completely autonomously, in solitude. We depend on bakers to eat bread and on teachers to have our kids educated. So also within a couple one comes to rely on the other for certain skills and knowledge, as well as for support and encouragement in a moment of difficulty.

What I am speaking about is a particular type of co-dependency that springs out of deep insecurity. It springs from self-doubt that we have about being worthy, lovable and deserving attention. We also doubt our right to express our individual needs. It springs from the fear of being alone, of not being able to cope on our own. Usually this insecurity is the inheritance from our childhood that may have been further ingrained by later events in our life.

When we are emotionally insecure we may hang on to a relationship that is not working because we believe (often unconsciously) that we don’t deserve anything better or because we fear that nobody else would want to be with us. Thus we compromise and settle for less, accepting that the crumbs of affection and the illusion of a partnership is better than nothing.

Below I outline a few common patterns of co-dependency and discuss briefly how we get trapped in the loop.

Co-dependency in abusive relationships

One of the particularly destructive types of co-dependent relationship is abusive relationship. It may or may not involve physical violence, but always involves emotional violence. If your partner regularly puts you down, tells you that you are good for nothing, that you can’t get anything right, that you are messed up, that nobody else will love you – these are the signs of emotional abuse. They are also the signs of emotional manipulation because they press your buttons, such as insecurity and fear, to make you do what your partner wants you to do.

It may seem that the abusive partner is in a stronger position, that he or she can do without us and we are at their mercy. This is an illusion as abusive behavior also arises from the same set of deep seated insecurities and is often a result of the earlier experienced abuse.

The frequent pattern within the cycle of abusive relationships is when you confront your partner and say you have had enough and you are leaving, they would turn around, be very apologetic and promise that this will never happen again. Yet their efforts do not endure for long because the inner foundation is lacking, and so they relapse and the cycle begins anew.

Pursuing unattainable love

This is a very common and very painful pattern of co-dependent relationships that may get one hooked for years. Usually it starts from somebody paying us attention in a way that elicits a hope of love and emotional intimacy. Then, when we begin to respond, that person withdraws, but comes back again just when we are ready to give it up. Our hopes get revived only to be disappointed again. It is tantalizing and confusing. It is there and not there, and we don’t know whether we can trust that person and whether we can trust our own senses. Yet the flickering promise of affection is too tempting to resist.

Anybody can fall into such a trap, yet for some people it takes significantly longer to break out of it. Usually these are people (and I too share the experience) for whom in their childhood the hope of emotional intimacy with their parents has been frustrated as their parents, for one reason or another, were emotionally unavailable for them. So as adults we continue to yearn for the consummation of this hope. If only we could attain what used to be unattainable – then we will finally find peace! Then our value and desirability will be confirmed. So we are replaying the same scenario over and over again, hoping that this time the ending will be different. Only it rarely happens so…

Over-giving

Co-dependency can also manifest itself through over-giving. This trend is not always easy to discern because it tends to camouflage itself as generosity, love or altruism. But let me ask you this question: do you lavish on your partner the super-abundance of caring and attention, while forgetting your own needs? Do you sometimes feel the stirring of suppressed resentment and the wish you had received more in return?

If you answer yes to these questions, the chances are that you are not getting the balance right. And this is not just out of love or because it is your nature to give. If we over-give at the expense of our own needs and well-being it is a sure sign that our insecurity plays a role here. Subconsciously we ‘think’ that if we give more we will be liked more and won’t be abandoned.

There is a subtle flavour of manipulation in it, even though we may not at all be conscious of it. Through extra giving and caring we attempt to habituate another person to depending on us thereby securing his or her attachment. I have been and still am, to some extent, liable to this form of co-dependency and am aware that it requires a considerable mental effort to recognize and counteract the inclination within oneself.

The way forward

Codependency may lead to very painful and harmful entangling. Fueled by fear and sealed by habit it can keep us trapped within an unhappy relationship for an indefinite time, undermining our self-esteem and our sense of power.

To break away from the tenets of co-dependency and build up a partnership based on mutual respect and appreciation we need first of all to become aware of what is going on. We need to face up to our insecurities and recognize how they play out in our relationships. It does take a lot of courage and we need to seek help through relationship counselling, if necessary, to deal with our past wounds.

And – however we pursue our way to freedom – we need to learn to BE KIND to ourselves and to give ourselves the understanding, appreciation and support that we require and deserve.

 

 

 

“I don’t want to blame my parents!”

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In my therapy work when I invite people to explore their childhood, I often hear this phrase: “Let’s leave the past to the past. I just want to move on. We cannot change what had happened and I don’t want to blame my parents.”

This idea – that acknowledging one’s hurt as a child involves blaming one’s parents – is very common. And it is very natural too: if I admit that I came to some harm (emotional or physical) through my parents’ action or lack of action, it implies they are at fault. In reality things are not as black and white as that and I will speak about it in the continuation of my article.

Whom or what do I protect?

People feel very protective about their parents and sometimes it takes a while until they are ready to see a connection between what their parents did or said and their emotional struggles later in life. But whom we are really protecting – our parents or ourselves?

The picture of our parents that we formed while growing up is intricately connected with our picture of the world and of our selves. Letting go of it means dismantling the established cognitive structure of our existence and this is very scary.

This picture, among other things, entails an idea (not always consciously recognized) that our parents are perfect. When we grow up our parents represent for us a supreme authority that has a power over our well-being. They protect us and they punish us. They instruct us on how we should live and what we should avoid to keep safe. Thus, in many ways, parents become to us like gods. We put them on a pedestal and even when we rebel against them, we still have a sense of rebelling against a higher authority.

The need for safety and the need for authority

Indeed, we have a need to have a higher authority. This need is wired within us very deeply as it is linked with the sense of safety. If there is no one above us then who will keep us safe in this world? I believe that resistance towards acknowledging our parents’ part in our “messed-upness” has its roots precisely in that fear of finding ourselves unprotected and alone in the tribulations of our existence. It is essentially a self-preservation response. We fight against being swung into an existential chaos where we fear we may lose ourselves.

Yet this existential fear has many guises. One of the common forms of these guises is moral reasoning where we speak from a perspective of an all-understanding and all-forgiving person. Thus I hear quite often: “My parents did their best in those circumstances, I cannot be angry with them.” Yet within a person uttering such a statement sits a raging child gagged and unable to express him- or herself.

The emotion – the hurt and the anger – is still there, but it is suppressed, pushed deep down, bottled up. And from that dark corner it poisons our existence through chipping at our self-esteem, through sudden outbursts of anger, through depression and the ongoing sense of frustration.

Parents with mental health problems

Sometimes the sense of parental authority has been instilled in a person through fear. I have been working with people whose parents were suffering from a mental illness and severe psychological distress. Growing up with such a parent never felt safe. It was not safe to make a mistake because you were punished and denounced for it. It was not safe to manifest your talents because your parent might have envied you and would try to put you down. It was not safe to make friends because the parent will try to undermine your relationship. It also was not safe to have your own opinion about anything (including your own feelings!) because the parent always knows better and “how dare you contradict me.” A great deal of emotional manipulation and blackmail goes on.

Growing up with such a parent is a highly traumatic experience. It is like being under an authority of an evil god or a witch that can flip at any point. And yet in my work I have witnessed people succeeding to break free from that dark spell and reclaim their life. This is immensely inspiring and I feel extremely privileged to be a companion to these people of incredible courage on their journey.

Beyond anger and blame

So what happens that allows people who have been very hurt and undermined by their parents or carers to move on and actually leave the past behind?

There are several stages in this journey. The first one is getting through the barrier of fear and various inhibitions that stop us from acknowledging the hurt that we suffered as children. It is when we get past this stage and become aware of the hurt that the anger kicks in. And together with it comes the blame. The anger and the blame are a necessary stage. But… it is not the final destination!

I spoke in the beginning about black and white perception of the world. Within such a frame only two perspectives on the situation are possible, and they boil down to the following:

(1) “I am good and my parents are bad” (“my parents did that to me wrongly” => “they are bad”)

(2) “I am bad and my parents are good” (“my parents did that to me rightly” => “I am bad”).

Reconciling these conflicting view points is nearly impossible. So there is a stage on the journey when a person fluctuates between them and either blames him/herself or their parents.

The breakthrough occurs when we move beyond the dualistic and evaluative thinking in terms of “good” and “bad.” It accompanies bringing down the image of our parents as gods and beginning to see them as humans. Here we are beginning to see and to accept that as humans they are capable of getting things wrong and of causing other humans (including their children) pain and distress. But… we are also beginning to see that this does not make them intrinsically evil. They are simply human, like us. And we are capable of hurting others sometimes, yet it does not make us “bad” persons.

Compassion and self-acceptance

This shift in emotional and cognitive perception takes us to a totally new stage where we are able to hold a double perspective so that the hurt and the suffering of both parties can be acknowledged. So we don’t have to wrong ourselves by denying our hurt and we don’t have to wrong our parents by blaming them. We can recognize their responsibility and at the same time have an understanding that they too were wounded people and acted out of their pain.

When we reach this stage we are able – finally – to let go of our pain (or at least of a big part of it). It is the stage of release and integration when the shards of the fragmented world begin to come together and make a whole. Our personality then is being transformed as we move towards greater acceptance and compassionate attitude – not only in relation to our parents but also in relation to our selves and others.