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What scripts are running us? Reprogramming your mind


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!



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


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…


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!”



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.

Loss and grieving: Descending into the underworld

The way ahead


One of the fundamental things I learned as a therapist is to avoid (as much as possible) saying “I know how you feel.” Because we never do. Not really. Even if we have lived through apparently similar events, we would have experienced them differently and invested them with different meanings, unique for us. More and more, I think that each person is like an entire world on their own. Through empathy and love we can glimpse something of that world but never fully inhabit it.

Yet in our daily interactions we constantly brush away the attempts of another person to share with us what is happening in her or his inner world. Instead of staying with that person and inviting them to tell us more we tend to respond ‘Oh yes, such and such thing has happened to me (or to my friend/colleague/relative).’

This especially applies to situations when somebody shares with us their distress. It is very difficult for us to stay with the other’s discomfort because of the uncomfortable feelings it induces in us. So we feel the urge to get rid of our discomfort by ‘fixing’ it for the other person. And ‘fixing’ may involve advice, generalization, switching the subject or issuing a statement on how we should or shouldn’t feel in certain types of situation.

Grid on grief

While these kinds of interventions and responses are unhelpful in all situations, they are particularly hurtful and even harmful when it comes to grief. As a therapist, I also work with people who have suffered bereavement of some kind. For most of them, their recovery was impeded by the externally (or internally) imposed assumptions on how the process of grieving is supposed to unfold. These assumptions included specific time limits as well as the hierarchy of losses, for example: grieving over a grandparent ‘should’ take less time than grieving over a parent; and grieving over a pet for more than a couple of weeks is ridiculous.

Entertaining such assumptions results in us getting stuck and locked in pain. We try to fight it, to suppress it, to ignore it, and all these efforts drain our energy while the pain is still there, not moving anywhere and we are not moving anywhere. And then it begins to get worse as we begin to feel frustrated with ourselves, powerless and hopeless of finding the way forward.

What we need to do in order to get unstuck and move forward is to acknowledge the pain and allow ourselves to experience it and process it in the way that is natural to us. To allow it to flow and to go with the flow. It sounds very simple, but is much easier said than done. There are many things that get in the way. One of them is that we may be afraid of the pain, afraid that it will engulf us and we will drown in it. Another is what I have already mentioned: that we have many preconceived ideas about grieving and how we ‘should’ deal with it. (I put ‘should’ in quote marks because really there are not and cannot be any ‘shoulds’ with regard to feelings.)

Universal within personal

There are many books and articles written on grief. Some authors, like Kübler-Ross, identify distinct stages of grief (such as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). It is not my purpose to try and replicate their efforts here or summarize their work. What I want to do is to share with you my personal meaning of grief. How I came to make sense of it for myself.

I said in the beginning that nobody can understand completely what the other person is going through, yet there is also an element of the universal in our individual experiences as human beings. Without that universal dimension, empathy wouldn’t be possible and we wouldn’t be able to respond to poetry, literature, music. So I hope that perhaps what I’ve got to say will resonate with you in some way, maybe stir some thoughts and invite a reflection that will help to unlock new personal meanings for you.

The loss

Grief and grieving are the names to describe an internal experience that accompanies a loss. Any loss. It could be a loss of a person who has been close to us and died. It could be a loss of a person who has been close to us and the relationship broke down. It could be a loss of a cat, a dog, a bird. A favourite toy (for children). An object of sentimental value. It could be a loss of a part of our body or bodily function through an accident or illness.

It could also be a loss of a hope, of possibilities (past and future), a loss of a fantasy or a dream or a loss of self-identity. These latter types of loss are rarely considered compared to losses through death or separation, yet they are as real and can be as painful as the former.

What is common to all type of loss is that we lose something that has been an integral part of us, of our being. Whether losing it and letting go of it may help us grow and develop in new ways is a different question. The process is painful and, as I came to perceive it, it is an experience of a partial dying. It is as if a part of our soul (or heart) dies within us. And so we are split. Part of us remains in the realm of living while another part has passed away to the world behind the veil.

How can we live with this split? How can we get on with the daily tasks when our being has literally been torn apart? We want to follow our lost part, to find it, to bring it back.

Descending into the underworld

For me, the ancient Greek myth about Orpheus expresses this anguish and the longing to be reunited with our lost part most evocatively. When his beloved wife Eurydice died after being bitten by a viper, Orpheus followed her into the underworld. He poured his grief into music and song with such penetrating power that it has touched the hearts of the very rulers of the realm of shadows and they agreed to let him take Eurydice back…

What happened in the second half of the story is a metaphor for another kind of challenge and I may write about it some other time. What I am trying to express here is that it is both normal and natural to undertake Orpheus’s journey into the underworld. In fact, I find it necessary. It is a way of paying a tribute to and honoring that person, or pet, or dream that used to be an intrinsic part of our being. And also honoring that part of us that has died with their departure. It is a way of saying how much it meant to us, how much we value it. It is an equivalent to mourning ceremonies, but performed internally. And they have very profound meaning.

As I said in the beginning, there are no set rules on how one grieves. Very often grief comes and goes in waves and we may undertake Orpheus’s journey more than once. It’s okay. It brings solace to one’s soul as there – in the underworld – it is temporarily reunited with the lost beloved.


“I want to be heard!” The art and power of empathic listening

In an old Russian film about schoolchildren, 14-year-olds are being asked to write an essay about happiness. One boy scandalizes all the teachers by writing only one sentence: “Happiness is when you are being understood.” This phrase stayed with me since I have first watched the film as a teenager, and later on. It resonated with me. I too dreamed of being understood. My inner life was so intense that I felt an overwhelming need to share it, to show somebody my world…

But what does it mean to be understood? Can we ever fully understand another person? Can we really step into their shoes and experience their world – colours, sounds, pain and joy – as they experience it? This would mean becoming the other person, and although such a fusion of minds could perhaps be experienced in occasional exalted moments, this is an exception rather than the everyday reality. In reality, I believe, the closest to understanding the other would be hearing the other. Hearing with full presence and desire to understand as closely as you can what is it the person is trying to communicate to you. The message may be – and often is – hidden in-between the words, in a tone of a voice, in a twinkle of the eyes, in the posture of a person, so you need to listen very intently and closely.

Such type of listening is extremely rare. Think about conversations with your friends. Most often we talk over each other. The moment a friend mentions something that happened to him or her our associative memory links it to a similar event that happened to us and we get impatient to talk about it, so we don’t register much of what our friend is saying any more. Or we intercept and start speaking of ourselves. So many of our conversations resemble this:

“You know, I had an accident last week – I slipped when running after a bus and broke my wrist.”
“Oh, no, how awful!”
“Yes, I didn’t think it was something serious at first and didn’t go straight to the hospital, and by night my arm was swollen and terribly painful.”
“Yes, this happened to me when I was 12: I broke my leg falling from a bike and we only went to the hospital the following day. I spent the whole night nursing my leg and trying not to cry. But I did cry when they put cast on my leg! It was during summer holidays, by the seaside, and I was totally devastated that I had to lounge on the beach, bored, while all other kids were swimming and having fun.”

This is the story I used to tell when people spoke to me about their broken limbs. But haven’t we all been on both sides of such a conversation? It is almost as if we are being perpetually trapped in the vicious circle of impatience to talk and the frustration of not being listened to and heard. Then how do we break this cycle? I believe it can only happen intentionally and when we become aware of what is going on for us in a conversation. To listen empathically we need to be able to suspend our desire to express ourselves and give our full attention to another person. As a counsellor I can testify that it is not as difficult as it seems. Counsellors are not different from other people, but when you enter a therapy room you bracket out – intentionally and as far as you can – your own stuff and dedicate your attention to the person you are working with. Once the decision is made that you are not going to use this space for talking about yourself, it becomes reasonably easy to focus on your conversation partner.

Another common challenge on the way of empathic listening is the urge to give advice trying to “fix” either our friends or their situation. Although, very occasionally, our constructive suggestions may be taken onboard, most usually unsolicited advice elicits resistance or even offence. Even though I have already been working as a therapist and have been aware of the importance of non-judgemental listening I have still done the same “fixing” mistake when talking with my friends. I would try to show them their patterns of behaviour that were not helpful or try to explain the psychology of interpersonal situations. And one day a friend, having lost her patience in a telephone conversation, has screamed at me: “Can’t you just listen? I just want to talk and get it out of my chest! I want to be heard – I don’t want to be fixed!”

Although it seems to us that our intention in giving advice is to help our loved ones, more often than not the true reason for this urge to come up with a solution is our own discomfort at staying with difficult emotions. We may feel helpless, concerned, anxious. And we are trying to alleviate this discomfort of ours by “fixing” them. As one of my clients said, when we explored the sources of miscommunication with his wife: “I got it, it is really true: when my wife is trying to talk to me about her concerns and I am telling her ‘don’t worry!’ I am actually saying ‘don’t worry me with it’!”

Advice always presupposes evaluation or judgment (even if positive), and haven’t we all had enough of that? Can I be let simply be, imperfect as I am, in joy and foolishness and sadness? In myself, in my clients and in people with whom I hold emotional conversations I recognize this longing… The longing to be accepted just as we are. Yet it is difficult to withhold our judgements and opinions when listening to a person in distress. We want to do something, we want to be able to help, not to remain passive. Well – to this I may say that we tend to greatly underestimate the power of empathic listening. This kind of listening is not a passive act, for you need to listen with your whole being, to immerse yourself in the process.

Carl Rogers, one of the pioneers of Humanistic psychology and a founder of person-centred therapy wrote that when a person “finds someone else listening acceptantly to his feelings, he little by little becomes able to listen to himself” (On Becoming a Person). When we are being listened to in this particular way, when we feel accepted as we are, we begin to get in touch with our inner being, our own inner guide that will unlock hidden resources for healing and growth.