Toxic Relationships and Deprogramming

Toxic Relationships and Deprogramming


I want to speak a little bit about a concept known as deprogramming. This is a phrase you hear often in connection to those who have been excommunicated from a particular branch of belief. It has also been used in a very forceful way against those who have entered New Religious Movements, often times where a person is abducted and put through a resocialization process until they agree to leave their group. Now there is a whole world of things that are fascinating and horrifying about that concept but I will leave that for another article. I would like to use this space to talk at length about a mental technique which I find to be quite valuable when one finds themselves having left an unhealthy situation. As some of you may be aware, I was previously a member of a cult. This experience influenced many facets of my thoughts and systems of belief. But I am not here to tell you gooey details of a very interesting period of my life, those truly are a story for another time. I am here to speak about a method which helped me begin to sort through the nonsense of someone elses paradigms and assisted me in the reconstruction of my own views. The wonderful thing about these methods is their usefulness is a wide variety of situations.This is a mental exercise of decluttering and organizing which can be used for anything from a break up, shifting your attitude toward a work situation, or even just a yearly practice of internal house keeping. So for the purposes of this piece we define deprogramming as a mental exercise to first identify thoughts and practices which no longer serve the individual on their journey toward a productive existence and second to find practices which serve the best version of you.

Step one: Deconstruct

The deconstruction of our thoughts can be a very positive and liberating exercise. And you do not have to be running away from an oppressive dogma to find benefit from the practice of beginning to take notice of how our thoughts and behavior serve us. No matter who we are from, whatever place our experience has taken us, eventually we will find that we are carrying around thoughts, beliefs and assumptions that do not serve us in our quest for higher understanding. This may manifest after a romantic interaction comes to a close and your find yourself thinking that other person’s thoughts, or hearing their commentary in your mind, even though those ideas do not resonate with you. Or perhaps you have recently found yourself in a new city with no close friends after moving away from your college town for a job opportunity, you may find that there are modes of thinking which are holding you back in some way. Or like myself, maybe one day you leave an organization which was becoming destructive and you feel lost suddenly without that reaffirming and charismatic leader to tell you what to think or who you are in the cosmic scheme of things. My suggestion is to always begin small and work your way up. Begin in a quiet place for a set amount of time. Ten minutes a day would work perfectly as a starting point. I want you to use these ten minutes to examine what sort of thoughts come to your mind. As each thought arises mentally examine it in great detail, as though you are a jeweler inspecting a gem for flaws. Some questions you may ask yourself may be:

How does this belief affect my behavior?
Where did this belief originate?
How does this thought move me toward my ideal future?

Each time you run into an idea that is not contributing to the person you want to be, mentally set that belief to the side. And when that thought or pattern of behavior returns(and they often do) simply take a moment set it aside. You are not judging the behavior or yourself for having the thought, simply stopping the destructive thought as you notice it. Continue to practice this deconstruction in various situations. Do you notice a pattern when the thoughts seem to be particularly invasive? What are the most common ones you notice? Make time for chipping away at your thoughts each day, especially those you find particularly invasive. The bottom line here is this: If a paradigm is no longer useful to propelling you forward then lie it down. Even if you must do so a hundred times a day, each time you notice the thought pattern sneaking in to shift your behavior, stop for a moment and put it down.

Step Two: Rebuild

As you become more comfortable with the deconstruction exercise, then comes the process of finding ideas which serve you best. I find this section particularly exciting! Your mindset is always in flux and by bringing awareness to the parts which are not functioning the most efficiently, or simply harbor an old world thinking pattern we wish to re-frame, we allow for growth. With these exercises I found it helpful to imagine I was taking apart a large structure I have built over time with my thoughts. And in the reconstruction stage I liked to think of it as building of book shelf. As you become used to placing your unhelpful thoughts in time out, spend some time thinking about what sort of thoughts would best serve your ideal self. Think of this as the skeleton or frame of your bookshelf. When you are in the process of rebuilding take some time to observe those who have a positive influence on your life. Observe those people who you perceive to be successful, read biographies, or if you are up for an adventure; go to a public place and observe the strangers you encounter. What are some of the characteristics of successful people? Describe the behavior and mannerisms of different types of people: happy, powerful, etc. And most importantly I want you to ask yourself what sort of person your ideal self would be. What would that person act like? What does the ideal self enjoy doing? How does your life look different when you are operating in that mindset?

Step Three: Make a commitment to seeking and speaking truth.

The most important part of my transition out of the group had to do with finding a voice. There was a huge focus on keeping secrets and information being wielded as power. There were countless situations in which we were encouraged to never reveal to anyone, especially to people who were outside the group. So as I began the process of putting my head on straight again my first step was to find situations in which I could tell the story. There is something cathartic about telling a story. Build a practice of seeking out the truth and speaking about it. Within unhealthy situations it is common that we become used to keeping secrets or diluting truths. In this stage I found a profound curiosity has served me in my quest for truth. Find something that arouses your passions and follow the threads of that to the truth. And along the way as you gain understanding begin to vocalize little truths. Even if it is something as simple as answering a stranger who asks “How are you?”
Our tendency would be respond immediately “I am fine.” or something similar. But I encourage you to take a moment and consider what is actually true within your thoughts. Do you feel a bit sickly at that moment? Are you enthusiastic about something fantastic that happened at work? You do not have to tell your life story to a total stranger, but the exercise of examining what the truth is a fantastic beginning. A journal of your daily truths is a very helpful tool in this stage. I encourage you to find the opportunities to speak truths you are finding for practice. Keep in mind at this point, we have just deconstructed a system you found to be unhealthy so I caution you not to rush to rebuild another system. Allow the truth to be fluid for now.

Step Four:Observe your Language

Whenever a significant shift happens in our life we often begin to notice forms and patterns of language that do not serve us. This step goes very well with the previous commitment of seeking truth. Find that within yourself that is holding you back. Find the words that make you feel trapped or as though you are functioning withing old world paradigms. Some words to be aware of are:


Ought to

Supposed to




Consider these automatic phrases, what they mean and where they fit in to your previous world view. How do these words serve the current view you are seeking to build currently? What phrases or words could you use in their place to create more empowering interaction?

What now you ask? I have been working on the steps above, and i am not sure if i am doing everything right? What should i do now? Simply put: Give yourself a break.
Take each of these exercises slowly and deliberately, and do try to keep judgement of the self out. This is not a competition or a race, this is just you building a bookshelf. Create a strong frame to rest your shelves upon and over time your will find ideas which serve the person you want to be. I suspect this article will soon have a companion piece about the further steps and exercises i found useful during my journey. In the mean time I encourage you to continue to seek the truth within any situation and to find the voice learning to speak those truths.

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