Psychology and literature, the connection

Blog Post No. 169

By Dr Jim Byrne

20th July 2018

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Dr Jim’s Blog: What are the linkages between psychology and psychotherapy, on the one hand, and literature, on the other…?

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, July 2018

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Introduction

Cover image of young O'BeeveI recently posted some comments on LinkedIn on the connections between psychology and literature, and the effects of literature upon my own therapeutic journey.

Sometimes my second thoughts are better than my first; and on this occasion I think there is certainly a need to clarify some of my positions:

Second thoughts

The good story, Kurtz and CoetzeeFirstly:  When I wrote that I had learned more from literature than I had ever learned from my academic studies, I think this was only true of my life in my twenties and up to the age of 33 years.

In my teens, I had looked at the tens of thousands of books that were stacked from floor to ceiling in some of the book shops along Aston Quay, in Dublin City, and I despaired of ever being able to read even a tiny fraction of that mountain of literary and pulp fiction wordage.  So I veered towards reading non-fiction for several years.  Indeed, in the main bookshop I used on the quays, I began to buy second-hand books that looked at psychology subjects, and I was very interested in hypnosis, and the inferiority complex.

From about the age of 22 years, I read a lot of economic and politics.

But, around that time, I did find some significant fiction books that had a huge effect upon my emotional development.  And, when I was 27 years old, i read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’.

Secondly: Beyond the age of 33 years, I began to take seriously the study of psychology, beginning with person-centred counselling; and then Transactional Analysis; and then Gestalt therapy. And eventually studied 13 different systems of counselling and psychotherapy.

Achieving-Emotional-LiteracyYears later I studied Claude Steiner’s ‘Achieving Emotional Literacy’, which I found to be very effective teaching of emotional intelligence, including the development of empathy.  However, nobody who has read any novels by Charles Dickens would try to deny that Dickens teaches empathy by evoking it, while Steiner teaches empathy by delineating it.

Carl Rogers’ writings call for empathy, but I learned how to feel it from reading Dickens, Donna Tartt, Ursula Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others; including Dostoevsky and Graham Green.

Thirdly: Here is the bit that I missed in my earlier posts.  The discipline of ‘literature creation’ is always informed (in my view) by the leakage of psychological theory into the public domain.

How can I support this claim?

sigmund-freud7.jpgOne way to do so is to look at D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Sons and Lovers, which suggested that the main character had an ‘Oedipus complex’ about his mother.  I wrote about this in my own semi-autobiographical novel like this:

‘When Sigmund Freud saw the play, Oedipus Rex, in Vienna, in the late 1890’s, he found himself believing that he, personally, had lusted after his own mother.  He then subsequently inferred that this must be a universal law of sexual development, which applies to all sons – which it is not.

‘Because D.H. Lawrence adopted this idea of Freud’s, in his semi-autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers, the idea has become generalized that young men commonly suffer from an Oedipus complex.  But Lawrence did not get this idea from reflecting upon his actual relationship with his mother.  He got it from his wife Frieda, who had got it from Otto Gross, “an early disciple of Freud’s”.[1]  And he misleadingly inserted it into the heads of his readers, thus distorting their understanding of the most fundamental relationship in human society.”

So let us wash this psychobabble out of English/Irish/World literature for all time.  A young boy is perfectly capable of pure feelings of love for his mother; and a mother is perfectly capable of feeling pure love for her son – provided she is emotionally well, with a secure attachment style.

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In this case, the psychologist – Freud – misleads us, because he was influenced by his misreading of *Greek Literature* into believing in the universal lusting of sons for their mothers. (The Greek myth does not claim that this is a universal tendency, but that it was a most unfortunate accident which befell Oedipus,which was facilitated because he had been misled by his servants into thinking his mother was dead).

Donna_Tartt_The_GoldfinchOn the other hand, I got a much better sense of guidance on healthy love between a mother and her son from Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch.  And, again, I wrote about this in my own semi-autobiographical novel (or story), like this:

‘The most extreme pain arising out of my (Jim’s) sense of loss of a loving connection to my mother came when I was reading The Goldfinch, an extraordinary novel by Donna Tart, just a few months ago.  Theo Decker, the main character, is a twelve year old boy, who is in trouble at school, for being associated with another boy who was caught smoking.  Theo and his mother have been called in for a meeting with the school staff.  It’s raining heavily as they leave their apartment building, in Manhattan, so they take a cab, but have to abandon it near the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), because the cab seats smell foul.  Then, because it is still raining hard, and they are running early for their school appointment, they decide to shelter in the MOMA, and look at some of Theo’s mothers’ (and his) favourite paintings.

‘Throughout this process, Theo describes how handsome/ beautiful his mother looks; her fashion sense; her art appreciation; and how she speaks to him – and has often spoken to him – respectfully, playfully, joyfully, artfully, maternally but also increasingly as though he were an equal adult; or an increasingly equal person. And he describes all the wonderful moments of shared experience they have had.  I begin to get the feeling of an intense sense of love for his mother – which is reciprocated – and which has nothing in common with Freud’s ‘Oedipus Complex’ twaddle.

‘This is just plain ordinary liking and loving of a type which I never experienced with my mother – (and not even with Ramira, my first wife, who hurt me and insulted and offended me for the six years of our marriage). Theo Decker loves his mother, and she loves him; and that was like a blow to my solar plexus, which brought tears to my eyes: the realization that my mother never showed any such love for me; and often treated me worse than I would treat a stray dog!’

Fourth: I suspect that most of the influences of psychology that seep into literature, and from literature, into the public imagination, are more positive than negative. Perhaps it would be correct, and helpful, to say that literature popularizes and humanizes psychological theories, but we do need psychology as a discipline to inform all of us. Common sense cannot substitute for psychological research.  But we should never forget that psychology owes its origins to *philosophers* like Plato, Aristotle, Locke and Hume; as well as Freud and Klein; Skinner and Watson; Ellis and Beck; John Bowlby; and today, Allan Schore, Daniel Siegel, and many others.

And psychological theory is just that: theory, which has to be applied and revised; over and over and over again; from generation to generation; and to be reformed and rejigged to take account of insights coming from other disciplines; like sport psychology; nutritional psychiatry; neuroscience; sleep science; and on and on.

Fifth: I did not invent the idea that there is a link or affinity between psychotherapy and fictional literature.  Indeed, Arabella Kurtz (a British psychotherapist) and J.M. Coetzee (a South African novelist) co-authored a book of exchanges, titled “The Good Story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychotherapy”, London: Harvill Secker: 2015.  Here is the briefest of extracts, to make an important point:

Arabella Kurtz: “The stories we tell about our lives may not be an accurate reflection of what really happened, indeed they may be more remarkable for their inaccuracies than anything else …” This truth applies as much to the stories our clients tell us (counsellors) as it does to the stories we make up about who we are, and what we do with our clients in sessions.  “But they (these stories) are simply all we have to work with, or all that we know we have; and we can do a great deal with these stories, particularly if we take the view that there are truths, of the subjective or intersubjective kind, to be revealed in the manner of telling”. (Page 63).

I believe we are story-tellers in a sea of stories.  We benefit, as humans, by reading the stories of our fellow humans, and telling our own stories; and not just by reading the theories that come out of the psychology lab, or the ‘sanitized reports’ that some therapists produce as ‘clinical research’!

Common sense cannot substitute for psychology and psychotherapy research and development; but neither can third-person, passive voice reports of abstract numerical quantification substitute for stories that warm and move the human heart!

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PS: If you want to see the kind of range of ideas that I write about, please go to Books about Emotive-Cognitive Therapy (E-CENT).***

That’s all for today.

Best wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

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[1] Dr Howard J. Booth, School of English, University of Kent.  In the Introduction to D.H. Lawrence (1913/1999) Sons and Lovers. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics.  Pages XII-XIII.

Reading, writing, literature and self-healing

Blog Post No. 168

By Dr Jim Byrne

15th July 2018

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Dr Jim’s Blog: Literature, personal writing of fiction, and therapeutic healing of the heart and mind

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, July 2018

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Introduction

Call out about LiteratureIndividual Life is a gift, bestowed by Collective Life, upon fragments of Living Stuff.  Life is a rolling floor-show of life living itself!

We come into existence knowing nothing; and guessing what life might be about.  We stumble through childhood, suffering the blows of negative treatment, and savouring the kiss of good fortune.  We float into adolescence with the naiveté of a baby encountering its first crocodile! And, if we are fortunate, we encounter love in our late twenties, or our early thirties, and feel the full range of emotions: from ecstatic and sweet joy, to fearful and angry insecurity.

Often, we need to encounter the possibility of love in more than one relationship before we can make sense of this ennobling and devastating emotion.  We seek words for our experiences of love and hate, joy and devastation, only to fall back again and again into the void of unknowing: the wordless pit of unconsciousness.

If we are fortunate, we will discover some aspects of the great literature of those who traversed these trackless voids of human beginnings and developments before us; and we may feel in our hearts and guts the pains and pleasures, the defeats and victories, that those who went before us felt and described.

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On being human

DrJimCounselling002The highest calling of a human being is to make sense of our own life, as moral beings, and to share that understanding with those who follow along behind us, so that they might avoid – or traverse more smoothly – the swamps and volcanoes that we had to endure.

Whether we are born in the smallest village in Ireland, or the largest suburb of the largest city in the United States of America; or somewhere in South America; or South Asia, or Central Africa; there is nothing to say that we may not have the latest parable of human suffering and divine love on the tip of our tongues!

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So speak to the world of your journey, that you might know where you have been; and that others might benefit from your journey!

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Regarding literature

Donna_Tartt_The_GoldfinchThe reading of good quality literature – from any and every era of the novel and the stage play – is emotionally educating, and healing of traumatic past experiences.  You can recover from sadness and depression; anger towards the world; and defeatist timidity: Just by exposing your mind and heart to the stories of others who went before you.

The writing of semi-autobiographical stories – with some, little emotional distance from direct, personal experience – is a great way to indirectly digest past traumatic or difficult experiences.

A good semi-autobiographical story, built on fragments learned from the insights of generations of novelists and other authors, is a great way to pass on personal healing examples and therapeutic gifts.  And that is what I have tried to do in my story about Daniel O’Beeve.***

I would like to encourage readers to begin to write short pieces, stories – in semi-autobiographical form – about their own difficulties in the past.  It will help you enormously to grow your emotional literacy (or EQ).

Please take a look at my story if you need a template, or some guidance on how to fictionalise a life story.  Link to Daniel O’Beeve’s story.***

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PS: About an hour after I posted this blog, Daniel’s story became available on Amazon, here: Daniel O’Beeve’s story at Amazon.co.uk.***

And here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1722816821/

And here: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1722816821/

For more links, please go here: https://abc-counselling.org/2018/07/15/reading-writing-literature-and-self-healing/

That’s all for the moment.  I hope you try this therapeutic writing approach, and gain enormously from using it!

Best wishes,

Jim

Dr Jim Byrne

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

jim.byrne@abc-counselling.com

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Stories and bodies in narrative therapy

Blog Post No. 163

By Dr Jim Byrne

29th March 2018

Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog:

Human stories are based in bodies…

The state of the body profoundly affects the story…

Copyright (c) Dr Jim Byrne, 29th March 2018

Image result for embodied storytellingFar too often, professional helpers relate to their clients as ‘free floating heads’ – or ‘belief machines’ – or ‘interpretation machines’.  However, human beings are ’emotive bodies’ first, and ‘socialized-cultural-beings’ second!

What do I mean?  Here’s an illustration from our (2018) book on Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching:

1.9 Narratives and stories

“(Counselling) Clients … come in and, one way or another, tell their story and discover or construct new stories to tell.  Therapists do not usually disclose stories of their own personal troubles, but instead offer their clients more general, almost mythic stories of how people change or what life can be like. Implicit in the therapist’s story is an image of the ‘good life’.” (McLeod, 1997/2006).

Image result for john mcleod on narrative therapyE-CENT counselling is interested in the stories of our clients, and we have helpful stories to share with them; and also ways of helping them to explore and re-write their stories. Some of this is described in Chapter 8, where I introduce the Jigsaw story model, which is a guide to focusing on the client’s stories, and to remember to relate the various bits of their stories to each other, and to look for patterns and inconsistencies.

But first, let us review the ‘narrative’ approach of E-CENT, by comparing and contrasting it to some of the more traditional approaches.

(i) Similarities: E-CENT accepts that human beings are immersed in social narratives, and that they apprehend their environments in terms of narrative elements of characters, plots, dramas, stories, cause and effect imputations, etc.  (See: Perry, 2012, pages 71-88.  And McLeod, 1997/2006). I believe humans function largely non-consciously, and view the world – non-consciously – through frames of reference derived (interpretively and automatically) from their past (social) experiences. And these narratives are emotive or feeling stories, which provide meaning and structure to the life of the social-individual.

Draft-cover-3(ii) Differences: E-CENT does not subscribe to the White and Epston (1990) strategy for dealing with narrative disturbances[i].  Instead I have created my own processes of narrative therapy.  I also avoid using McLeod’s commitment to postmodern perspectives.  The E-CENT perspective on narrative is grounded in our conception of the human being as a socialized body-mind-environment-whole.  So there is a real, physical ‘me’, and a real physical environment in which I am embedded.  We do not advocate the view which says “all there is is story!”  And the stories I tell myself are dependent upon not only my physical existence in a physical/social world, but also upon how well I slept last night; how well I have eaten today; how much physical exercise I have done recently; how hydrated my body-brain-mind is today; how well connected I am to people in significant relationships; how much pressure I am under (actually and experientially) – and what my coping resources are (or seem to me to be); and so on.

So E-CENT theory only deals with grounded narratives: or embodied-narratives.

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For more on this theme, please go to the page of information about Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching.***

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That’s all for today!

Best wishes,

Jim

 

Dr Jim Byrne

Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

01422 843 629

drjwbyrne@gmail.com

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[i] White, M. and Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.  New York: Norton.

Self-confidence through self-acceptance

Blog Post No. 44

17th March 2017

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2017

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: How to develop more self-confidence by accepting yourself exactly as you are

The Oxford dictionary definition of confidence is:

 “A feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgement”.

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Introduction

Confident-peopleMany of us would like to feel more self-confident than we are at the present moment, and in this blog I want to outline a simple technique which will increase your level of self-confidence, if you experiment with it.

What this technique will do is to bring about a change in your attitude towards yourself as you live your life, and as you perform all the necessary tasks that you have to do, in order to survive. Why don’t you give it a try and see if it changes your view of yourself?

The technique for greater self-confidence: ‘One conditional self-acceptance’

Ellis-video-imageIn the 1980’s, when I first came across Dr Albert Ellis’s concept of USA, (Unconditional Self-Acceptance), I thought that this was a very therapeutic way of helping people to stop giving themselves such a hard time when they failed or behaved poorly in work or in life. One of the ways in which people give themselves a hard time is this: They create lots of rules for themselves, like “I must achieve this goal!” Or “I must achieve highly in life!”  Or: “I must never fail in any way”.  And so on! In this kind of way, they can really upset themselves (and frequently do!) because they are not as rich/ talented/ skilled/ academically successful/perfect in all the areas that they want to be.

All around us we can see and hear people passing judgement on themselves, and this is an enormous waste of their vital life energy. (Except in one area, which is to do with morality.  It is important that we, and they, judge the quality of our moral actions, and refrain from harming others!)

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Here is an example of such negative self-judgements: Many people have problems accepting themselves when they remember mistakes they made in the past, (as if they should be able to perform skills really well, immediately, without any failures or slipping back.  And as if they should be able to be perfect).

Our judgemental attitudes begin in early childhood.  Although we accept ourselves when we fall down when learning to walk, we then, sometime later, begin to fault ourselves when we fail to do something which is new to us.

School experiences are a case in point.  We can all remember examples of not being able to perform as well as others, in classrooms, and this can start the formation of a sense of ourselves as failures; and our abilities as lacking; or our skills as being not as good as other people. And by the time we are teenagers our self-concept can get fixed and set in stone in our minds.  We have learned to rate ourselves on the basis of our failing attempts to learn.

Albert Ellis taught that we should not rate our selves, but rather our behaviours, and to distinguish between ourselves and our behaviours.  In this way, we can preserve our good judgement of our self, and only criticize our behaviour or performance.

Callout-2For example, “I am not my mathematics ability (or my skiing ability; or my socializing ability).  I am an error-prone human, like all other humans.  And I have some areas of high skill and some areas of low skill development.  But my high skills do not make me Great!  And my low skills do not make me a Worm!
Ellis called this ‘unconditional acceptance’ of ourselves (or other people, or the world).

So unconditional self-acceptance of ourselves, in the context of our mistakes and imperfections, seemed to me to be a great idea, when I came across it in the 1980s.

But I hadn’t taken into account human nature. I had assumed that people would mostly behave morally and ethically towards each other. Therefore, it seemed to me to be okay to address a class of 15 or 20 individuals and tell them it was okay to accept themselves exactly the way they were (without realizing that at least one of them might be a serious criminal or amoral abuser of others!)

This was rather naïve of me, given that, according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The line between good and evil runs right down the centre of the human heart!

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Somewhere along the way, Dr Jim Byrne, who had agreed with me that Albert Ellis’s USA was a great idea, began to have second thoughts.  After examining and researching the full implications of unconditional self-acceptance, he came up with the concept of “One-conditional self-acceptance’, as he realised the flaw in Albert Ellis’s view that people should accept themselves unconditionally (without spotting that they should not do this in the case of immoral actions on their part). (See Byrne, 2010, in the References, below). Dr-Jim-Self-AcceptanceEllis’s USA approach, at least implicitly, and unfortunately, gives people permission to abuse others and to not feel bad about it afterwards.

So Dr Byrne proposed that we accept ourselves as imperfect humans. But we should not (and that is a moral should!) give ourselves permission to go out and behave badly or immorally towards others.

Jim distinguished between three areas of human activity as follows:

  1. Performance competence;
  2. Personal judgements;
  3. Moral/immoral actions.

His argument was this: It is perfectly reasonable, and indeed desirable, and certainly self-helping, to always accept yourself when you fail to perform competently; or you make poor personal judgements.  You should forgive yourself in these contexts, try again.

But with regard to item 3 above: moral and immoral actions; we owe it to our society to act morally, and to refrain from acting immorally.  And we morally must not accept ourselves as being okay if and when we behave immorally.

This means that you can practise the technique of accepting yourself as you are – an imperfect human, who makes mistakes occasionally just like everyone else. But you must not accept yourself as being okay when you act immorally!

Accepting yourself under one condition

So you can accept yourself as being totally okay on one condition – that you behave morally and ethically towards all other human beings. Treating others as you would wish them to treat you is the basic contract people have in a civilised society. It’s called following the ‘Golden rule’ and enables people to live together in a decent and safe way.

Why is giving yourself “One-conditional self-acceptance” an important factor in self-confidence? Because there are all sorts of skills which we are all learning, and practising, every day of our lives. And we inevitably make mistakes. Realistically there can only be a few skills that we are very, very competent at, in our lifetime.

Callout-4But in our cultures we will face criticism for our imperfections, as if we had to be perfect all the time. What nonsense – but it’s very powerful pressure. Just look at the pressure in the UK culture to look ‘good’! In 2015 (according to the British Association of Aesthetic plastic surgeons) 51,140 people had treatment to improve their appearance.

Most of those people could have kept their dignity, and their cash in their pockets, if they had practiced one-conditional self-acceptance.  (And we also know, from Maxwell Maltz (Psycho-Cybernetics, 1960), that having plastic surgery will not change your self-concept reliably [for a significant proportion of those surgery patients], because it’s our inner self-appraisal that affects how we feel about ourselves, and not our objective appearance.  For example, Marilyn Monroe thought she was ugly!)

However, we can learn to accept our physical appearance, even if it is ‘perfect’, by telling ourselves: “I am not my face.  I am not my nose.  I am not my balding head.  I am not my fat; I am not my skinniness; I am not my social skills.  I am not my socially disliked characteristics!”

We’ve got a moral responsibility to ourselves to reduce our contact with people who try to put us down, and destroy our sense of self-worth. But the most crucial factor in relation to our confidence is our own (one-conditional) self-acceptance of our imperfections.

“One-Conditional self-acceptance” – What does this mean in practice – in real life?

It means that if you make mistakes, you make mistakes. End of story. It doesn’t mean that you are a bad or evil person for having done so. Obviously you will need to apologize and make amends if the mistakes are very serious and (accidentally) harm others physically or emotionally. But as an imperfect human being, you are bound to make mistakes. We all do – all the time!

What happens if we don’t give ourselves permission to screw up in one way or another? Our resilience and physical energy will be badly affected. Albert Bandura stated in 1966:

There is no more devastating punishment than self-contempt.”
Psycho-CyberneticsRefusing to make allowances for our humanity and imperfections will wreck our confidence when we are trying to learn new skills.

Practising “One conditional self-acceptance” (OCSA) means that you have to extend compassion towards yourself. As the Buddha said:

Compassion that extends itself to others and not to yourself, is incomplete “.

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Taking action

Trying out this technique (OCSA) means that you have a much kinder and much more accepting attitude towards yourself when you make mistakes; form poor judgements; or act incompetently.

This helps you to feel much stronger when it comes to handling criticisms from other people (and internal criticism from your ‘Inner Critic’).

Callout-1If you practice this one-conditional acceptance approach to yourself, you will be taking a huge burden off yourself – one that you may not have realised you were carrying.

And guess what? If you have children, they will see you accepting your own humanity and imperfections, and not mentally beating yourself up for being imperfect.  And they will copy what you do, and accept themselves more. Do you remember the quote about what makes a great leader? “Example, example, example!“

How happy do you want your children to be?

This change of attitude towards yourself – of accepting yourself one-conditionally – will take time to become part of your approach to yourself as an imperfect human. (It can be very hard for us to accept ourselves when we make mistakes – especially when we screw up in front of other people).

Teaching is a very public job, and I found during my early teaching career, that making mistakes in front of others as I learned my job, was very challenging and emotionally threatening. But accepting my mistakes and learning from them really helped me to recover and keep my equilibrium, so I had the energy to keep learning and trying to improve my performance.

For these reasons, I strongly recommend practising “One-conditional self-acceptance” in your daily life and especially if you are learning any new skills, or have got problems in any of your relationships.

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Can you imagine how much less stressed you will feel, if you give yourself permission to be an imperfect driver? Or mother? Or husband? Or worker/professional? (So long as you are doing your best, and not acting immorally or unethically, or disregarding the possibility of harming others!)

This then gives you the mental space to realise that, if you wanted to, you could slowly learn new behaviours to improve your performance, and your judgements, but without your inner critic nagging away in the background.

This would amount to treating yourself with respect and consideration, just as you would treat your best friend if they were in the same situation, with undeveloped skills which they wanted to improve on.

If you experiment with this self-permission, this self-acceptance, you could find it a real life-changer!

That’s all for now,

Best wishes,

Renata

Renata Taylor-Byrne

Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor

The Coaching/Counselling Division

Renata4coaching@btinternet.com

01422 843 629

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References:

Byrne, J. (2010) Self-acceptance and other-acceptance in relation to competence and morality. E-CENT Paper No.2(c).  Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT.  Available online: https://ecent-institute.org/e-cent-articles-and-papers/

Maltz, Maxwell (1960). Psycho-Cybernetics. Simon & Schuster.

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