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Hidden programs and how we use them

We all know someone (at least one 😉) who always has something to say about every subject of discussion? They are the “experts” in everything - politics, economic issues, health, raising kids, etc. Each time one engages such a person in a discussion, it feels like a lecture. They always like to be the ‘shining star’ in all conversations.

In the way we communicate, there could be a hidden program (whether we acknowledge it or not). The actual ‘goal’ of hidden programs employed by the hypothetical ‘person’ in the scenario illustrated above is for him/her to brag about how good and intelligent he/she is. He/she therefore puts in a copious amount of effort in trying to prove that his/her level of intelligence and a ‘know-it-all’ acumen in all discussions.

Hidden programs have another ‘layer’, which kills connections and intimacy. When ‘switched on’, others are unable to see who you really are. The audience during such conversations receive a version of a well-crafted ‘story’ without realising this comes out of a ‘hidden program’.

You might be asking yourself if you are using any of these programs? Hidden programs are easy to spot. When you listen to yourself just pay attention to the actual goal of your communication. Do you feel like you constantly need to prove something to others?

8 hidden programs

1) I’m good

Check if you are the “hero” of your stories. Do you always show yourself only in a positive light, i.e. in the positive light that you want everyone to see you? You use this program if you find yourself always telling others how fit or wealthy you are. Another variant of the ‘I am good’ program is referred to as “I am sensitive and carrying”. This is where a person continuously play a role as he/she was on a stage or in a movie… But… This is not one’s authentic self. This behaviour forces one to be constantly alert and trying hard to prove to others that this is who one really is.

How to catch that in the conversation? Below are some examples.

I am honest I am ambitious

I am hardworking I am successful

I am brave I am powerful

I am loyal I am strong

I am generous I am wealthy

Let’s face the fact that we all put a ‘mask’ on from time to time - we pretend to be someone else. However in the program ‘I am good’, there is something more important at stake and it is full-time (and whole life) work. This is to show others only those aspects of our lives that we want to show. We don’t trust anyone and therefore we can afford to show only those parts of us we feel are “worthy” enough.

The biggest challenge of using that program is that it makes it harder for others to make a true connection with us. It can also make them be bored of us - listening to someone saying the same thing over and over again will inevitably lead to irritability and boredom.

2) I am good (and you’re not)

This program is inherently meant to paint others as bad and you as good. “Everyone beside me is stupid, incompetent, self-centered, unreasonable, lazy, scared and insensitive”. Every story that you tell others is just another version of the same topic which is that you are right, think clearly and you really care. A mother who has matured children might say: “I’m always ready to help my children with absolutely everything. Even when I don’t have the resources myself. Do you think they say thank you? Never!”

There is a few variations of this program. One is a hidden ‘critique’ - the mother highlights how she works so hard or how much she needs to sacrifice, which suggests that the other person(s) (her children, in this example) are lazy and d not care.

Another version is called ‘courtroom’ (as per Eric Berne). The setup of the courtroom usually involve married couples, where a partner is trying to prove how bad their spouse is. The role of the judge is usually assigned to a neighbour, therapist or a child. Different variant of this program is described by Berne as “If not you” where a married couple blame their spouse for a boring and stagnant life.

‘I am good (and you’re not)’ program can really boost our self-esteem. The setback is the price we might need to pay for it. Eventually friends and family can be overwhelmed by that situation and they can start their own coping interventions.

3) You are good (and I am not)

The simplest version of this program is ‘over-complimenting’. The more complex version is admiring only people who are smart, beautiful or strong. We can perceive these people as shiny examples, idolise and put them on a pedestal. As a result, we belittle ourselves and our own achievements. These are typical phrases: “You’re doing it so well. There is no way I can do that” or “I wish I could be as smart as you are but I’m afraid I can’t be as good as you”. Taking over the role of the ‘worse’ one could be a form of an invitation to provide a favour or to give a compliment by the other side in the conversation. It can also be used as a base for building “cheap” relationships. In other times it can provide a protection against someone’s anger and/or rejection.

‘You are good (and I’m not)’ is a program of a person who has a tendency to depression. The main beliefs for them are: “There is something wrong with me, I’m a bad person, broken, stupid, and just unloveable”. It is also “the most favourite” program used by an alcoholic, gambler or unfaithful husband. Taking over that role is a way to avoid rejection and a great excuse for not changing.

4) I’m helpless, I suffer

In a simplistic way this is a program ‘victims’. The stories provided by that person contain a big dose of misery, injustice and abuse. These people constantly show others that they are unable to resolve their own issues, they constantly run away from something or they wait for a change which never comes (because there is no hope).

Berne described a few examples of this program (in the book “Games People Play”).

  • Ain't it awful - where a married couple constantly complains about their spouse. There is no “solution” to their problems.

  • Why don’t you - Yes, But. - it’s a game for two people. One person provides suggestions while the other constantly rejects them. In the end the “helpless” proves that none of the methods were good enough and nothing can get them out of the suffering.

  • Why is it always happening to me - it usually starts with “when finally things were going right for me then this nightmare started”. This type of program is ideal to avoid new solutions which are too scary for us. It is also a way to accept some pain which really should be taken as a signal for making some life decisions. The statement “I’m ugly, sick or too stressed” helps to delay decision making indefinitely.

A version of this can be observed when someone, on a first date, starts talking about their “monstrous” ex partner desperately trying to pain their partner as the most evil person on earth. A relationship formed by that is based on old wounds, years of stagnation and suffering.

5) I’m innocent

This program is often used when something does not go according to plan. People who employ this hidden program start looking for excuses and someone to blame whilst justifying their failures.

The variation of this hidden program is “See what you made me do”. It initially starts out as though the person is looking for a suggestion, opinion or advice but when things do not go to plan or doesn’t work out, they blame someone else for that decision.

6) I’m weak

The most basic communication coming out of this program is “Don’t hurt me”. The story is laid out with how one was betrayed and hurt in the past. One is then so focused on ‘protection’ to such an extent that one can’t hear the entire truth or one becomes unwilling to explore opportunities. An example of the manipulation that can be used by a weak person is “Please don’t cry. You know how it makes me feel”.

7) I’m tough

This person appears to be up for any challenge in life - mental and/or physical. It could be a student that takes the most subjects in the first year and still works full time. It’s that superwoman who is working 40 hours a week, raising 4 children, baking her own bread, whose house is spotless (and she is the only one who does all the chores in the house), she cooks all the meals and organises charity events.

When this person is telling their stories, they will always mention their schedule, the places they’ve visited and the things they still need to do (all in one breathe). The advancement of that type of a program is a guarantee to be constantly admired and not to draw any form of criticism. No one is going to ask them to do anything for them because they are so busy. They are therefore in control and they come across as the only responsible person. Such a person never slow down at work - they work until they drop… (dead 💀).

There is a danger in that program too. This person is regimented in their views, and sometimes, may resort to using abusive tactics to get what they want. They may be prone to showing others “You better not attack me or else I’ll destroy you”. The basic goal of this program is to not get hurt because the person who uses it has very low self esteem. Somewhere behind all the walls there is a person who is scared to be rejected and not sure about their worthiness.

8) I know everything

This is a program reminiscent of the hypothetical ‘person’ we mentioned at the beginning of this blog post.The aim of the program is not to provide useful information or to entertain one’s audience but to prove to others that one knows a lot. This can take the form of moralizing others and telling them what’s right. People who employ this program try to avoid shame (or any resemblance thereof, whether real or imagined) from not knowing something or inability to perform tasks.

If you recognise yourself in any of the above programs - don’t panic! There is a chance for you to override them. In my next blog post I will provide you with some tips on how to change your mindset and experience new life quality.

(More can be found in book "Messages: The Communication Skills Book" by by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Patrick Fanning)

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