Hebden Bridge counselling, psychotherapy and coaching services. Narrative and lifestyle approaches to problems of everyday living – including couple conflict, anger management, communication problems, life goals, stress, self-confidence, anxiety and depression.
Dr Jim’s Blog: How to use Writing Therapy for business success
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, September 2018
Every day, I discover some new problem that I have to solve, for important, self-defined reasons.
No matter how many problems I solve, I still find new challenges to grapple with.
This is our human nature. We are problem-finding and problem-solving creatures. We move forward in life by wrestling with difficulties.
If we do not wrestle with difficulties, we get stuck at some unsatisfactory point along our path through life.
Navigating the turbulent seas of stressful life
My Writing Journal is my *anchor* and *compass* in the turbulent seas of life. At least when it comes to processing my negative experiences.
For example, yesterday I was feeling quite unhappy because one of my major goals was not being achieved to any significant degree. Nothing I did seemed to shift my unhappiness about that sense of stuckness. To be clear, it was a goal about business success…
I had worked hard to define that goal, and to work out a detailed action plan. But progress was so far below par that I felt greatly discouraged.
So I sat at my desk with my journal, and reminded myself of the writing therapy processes that I have written about in my book, which are designed to help in this kind of situation. I used the section on self-management skills, and pretty soon I had identified something that I can do to maximize my chances of achieving the goal in question.
Pursuing business goals
On this particular occasion, I was concerned about a business goal, and so I made a commitment to write it in my journal every morning, and then to review progress against that goal, also in my journal, at the end of every day.
I was also remained of the very important principle that “success cannot be pursued”. Success, like happiness, is something that happens as a by-product of following your conscience in doing your life’s work. So I began to write about my life’s work, and how to pursue some elements of that today, and not how to translate that into material success!
As I wrote, the *writing therapy process* itself began to resolve things, and throw up new ideas. I now have a daily strategy to follow which should take care of the problem for me; and if it does not; then I can go back to the ‘drawing board’ (or writing therapy journal) and do some more work on this problem.
My book on Writing Therapy teaches these points (among the more than 20 strategies I include); and also the principle that you have to “think on paper” – (or *perceive-feel-think* on paper) – otherwise you will get washed out into the turbulent sea by the stressful waves of life, and lose your connection to your anchor in life (which should be your life’s work, dictated by your conscience!).
These three books have proved very popular with counsellors and psychologists on LinkedIn, and they are selling in significant numbers.
It seems there is an appetite for radical change abroad in the world of counselling and psychotherapy at the moment, and people are ready to explore new ideas. In particular, the relationship between the body and mind (the body-mind connection); the problems of sedentary lifestyle and inadequate nutrition; plus inadequate sleep; and how to process our own experiences in a journal.
All of these developments are very encouraging for the future health of our counsellors and therapists, and for their clients!
Dr Jim’s Blog: Freud, sex, literature, Descartes, and the body-brain-mind-environment-complexity!
Part Two: More on ‘What are the linkages between psychology and psychotherapy, on the one hand, and literature, on the other’?
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, July 2018
Recently, I’ve been blogging about some of the important linkages, or overlaps, between psychology, on the one hand, and literature, on the other.
For examples: I have written about:
(1) Some of the books that helped to grow my emotional intelligence; or to help me to ‘complete’ (or process) some early, traumatic experience;
(2) My own semi-autobiographical novel/story about the life of Daniel O’Beeve – and how this is legitimate psychotherapy for the reader, as well as the writer;
(3) How to “write a new life for yourself” – in the form of a new paperback book about a system of psychotherapy, which I have developed over a number of years.
(4) How psychological insights seep into literature; and how literature in turn influences, or humanizes, psychology and psychotherapy.
Today, I want to describe some experiences with literature that I’ve had over the past couple of days.
Visiting bookshops in Bradford
Two days ago – on Saturday 21st July – Renata and I took some time out and went to Bradford for lunch, and to take a look around the shops, including two bookshops and the main DVD/movie outlet (HMV, in the new arcade).
In Waterstones’ bookshop, towards the end of our visit, I was looking for something which would help me to reflect some more upon the linkages between psychology and literature.
There was nothing of any relevance in the Psychology section.
Then I went looking for a Literature section. The best I could find were two adjacent book cases, one on Poetry, and one on Drama. (Bradford is not a particularly big city).
In the drama section, there were a few books on literature, including one by Julian Barnes: Through the Window – Seventeen essays (and one short story); London; Vintage Books; 2012.
The blurb on the back of this book suggested it was exactly what I was seeking. It began like this: “Novels tell us the most truth about life…”
I bought it, and brought it home, and dived into the Preface, which describes ‘a Sempé cartoon’, which shows three sections of a bookshop. On the left, the Philosophy section; on the right, the History section; and in the middle, a window that looks out at a man and a woman who are approaching each other from roughly the locations of those two sections, and who are inevitably (and accidentally) going to meet in front of the middle section, which is the Fiction section.
For Julian Barnes, this cartoon describes his own beliefs about the central role of fiction in our lives.
“Fiction, more than any other written form, explains and expands life”, he writes, with great assurance. “Biology, of course, also explains life; so do biography and biochemistry and biophysics and biomechanics and biopsychology. But all the biosciences yield no biofiction. Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it. Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin; the conscious and the subconscious. What it is to be an individual, what it means to be part of a society. What it means to be alone. …” Etcetera.
However, it could be objected that, while the various sciences instruct, and suggest what must be done and not done, the literary arts merely create visceral and emotive sensations, which must link up with our socialization in general – that is to say, our previous learning – to help us to decide what to do with this new literary information; these insights; or newly forming feelings and thoughts.
Indeed, it seems to me that if all we had was literature, then we would be “weaving without weft” – or trying to make a fabric without those long strings, from one end of the loom to the other, through which the shuttle passes. We would be trying to make sense of fictions in the absence of the insights we gain from the various sciences, and the ruminations of the various philosophers.
However, the reverse is also true. Without literature and art, the sciences would provide us with long strings of facts, set up on our mental looms, but with no means of weaving a living fabric of warmth and depth and emotional meaning.
An example from fiction
What I omitted from my story above is this: Before going to Waterstones’, we had visited the Oxfam shop, which has a vast floor dedicated to second-hand books, included the abandoned books of waves of undergraduates and postgraduates from the local universities: yards of books on Psychology, philosophy, health studies, and so on. And then there’s History, and lots of novels – many of the pulp variety – and some classics.
During this visit, I did look at psychology, and health studies, and personal development; but I began by looking for a novel which might help me to elucidate some of the points I’ve been exploring in these blog posts. And I did find one.
I found Mantissa, by John Fowles. This author’s name jumped out at me because I have read five of his nine books – but I had never come across Mantissa.
So I opened it, and what should leap off the page at me, but a quotation by René Descartes. This had an electrifying effect upon me, because I have been arguing – in earlier blog posts in this series – that philosophies, like Descartes’ misleading ‘cogito’ (“I think therefore I am”), got into psychology; and that, whatever arises within, or gets into, psychology, inevitably finds its way into literature. And here was a living proof of my assertions. The particular quote from Descartes, promulgated by John Fowles, on page 5 of Mantissa, included the following conclusion:
“…this I, that is to say the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, is even easier to know than the body, and furthermore would not stop being what it is, even if the body did not exist”.
We know from previous considerations of this ‘cogito’-philosophy of Descartes by generations of philosophers, that it is impossible to sustain his beliefs about the body-mind split.
But the more important consideration is this: Why is John Fowles beginning his novel with this quotation?
Is it his intention to argue that we are souls, separate and apart from our bodies?
Or is he going to try to undermine Descartes’ belief?
Part I (of IV) begins with the suggestion of ‘a consciousness’ surrounded by “a luminous and infinite haze”. And out of this connectivity comes an individual consciousness – a male person, in a bed, looking up at two women; one of whom claims to be his wife, and the other a doctor (of neurology); and the suggestion emerges of ‘loss of personal memory’. The ‘wife’ departs, and a nurse arrives to join the doctor, and it unfolds that the treatment for this poor man (Mr Green’s) mental problem is a physical therapy. (The theory, explicitly stated by the doctor, is that there is a link between the genitals and the personal sense of remembered self!)
At this point, we can say that Fowles seems to be setting out to refute Descartes view of a separation between mind and body, by treating memory loss via the genitals. (Crazy theory, I know! But it proves to owe a lot to Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages of human development!)
Fowles’ intention to undermine Descartes seems likely, especially given that the doctor in this story is a neurologist: a specialist in understanding brain-mind functioning. Or the physical brain as the substrate of mind.
Mr Green proves to be resistant to the sexual activities to which he is subjected by the doctor and the nurse, until, at the start of Part II, it emerges that no such reality exists. There are no physical bodies present! It is all going on in the mind of Mr Green – (who is obviously, ultimately, Mr Fowles!) – who is essentially writing (in his mind) some scenes of pornography.
This is an echo of one of Descartes’ meditations, in which he wonders if he might be just a brain suspended in a vat by an evil demon, and that his brain imagines that it is attached to a body in an external environment. (I know! Descartes was a nut!)
(But think about today’s counsellors and psychiatrists. Most counsellors think of the client as a floating mind! And most psychiatrists think of the mind-brain as a chemical unit separate and apart from the stresses and strains of its social environment, its philosophy of life, and its personal history of experience!)
Towards the end of Part IV, it becomes obvious that all of the action being described within this narrative, is not actual action, but narrative within narrative; with a magical edge, provide by the presence of the Greek goddess, Erato: (originally introduced as the doctor of neurology!); and the pornographic ravings of a juvenile author (Fowles!)
There is a nod backwards towards Freud in this book; not alone by reducing all human activity to a sexual nightmare; but also these nuggets:
“Now listen closely, Mr Green”. (This is said by the doctor of neurology; who we later learn is the goddess Erato!) “I will try to explain one last time. Memory is strongly attached to ego”. (NB: Ego is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the I’.) “Your ego has lost in a conflict with your super-ego”, – (Super-ego is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the Over-I’ [the first instantiation of which is every baby’s mother]). – “which has decided to repress it – to censor it”. (The concept of repression comes from Freud!) “All nurse and I wish to do is to enlist the aid of the third component of your psyche, the id”. (‘The id’ is the English-psychoanalyst rendering of Freud’s concept of ‘the It’; the ‘thing’ that we are at birth! The ‘whole thing’, body-brain-and-embryonic-mind). “Your id” writes Fowles, through the ethereal person of the doctor/goddess, “is that flaccid member pressed against my posterior. It is potentially your best friend. And mine as your doctor. Do you understand what I am saying?” (Page 31 of Mantissa).
So, I think some of my points are being ‘firmed up’ here (if you will pardon my inability to refrain from making a pun at the expense of Fowles and Freud!) In particular, I think it is safe to say that ideas pass freely between philosophy, psychology and literature. Each feeds off the other. There are no impermeable boundaries between those domains of thought!
And we have to be awake to this reality for various reasons which I will look at later. The most obvious one being that fictions find their way into philosophy; and philosophical fictions find their way into psychology; and fictitious aspects of psychology inform counselling and psychotherapy! And round and round!
Back to Julian Barnes
Earlier I quoted a very strong argument by Julian Barnes, from the Preface of his book, Through the Window; in which he said: “Novels tell us the most truth about life…”.
However, if you read your texts closely, you will often be rewarded with insights like this: Barnes was inconsistent.
Really? In what way?
Well, just 45 words after the end of his strong claims about novels telling the most truth, we read this statement; the final statement of the Preface:
“The best fiction rarely provides answers; but it does formulate the questions exceptionally well”. (Emphasis added, JWB).
So, if we put his two main ideas together, we get this:
Novels tell us the most truth, but not in the form of answers; only in the form of questions!
Does that make any sense? No.
Because the novel actually presents imaginary scenarios as history. Reading those scenarios – and taking them at face value – the reader finds that certain questions automatically form within their body-brain-mind, based on their socialization; their past experiences; and their current circumstances.
The author cannot control which questions will form in the mind of the reader.
But what is the value of the questions that are thus formed by fictional writing?
The value is huge! Why? Because questions are the first and most essential part of what some people call ‘thinking’, but which I call ‘overt, conscious perfinking’ – where ‘perfinking’ means perceiving- feeling- thinking, all in one grasp of the mind.
So, novels impact us, by bringing up new thoughts, and especially questions, which, if we pursue them, may produce dramatic answers that shunt us out of a current reality into a range of new possibilities! In this sense, novels are potentially hugely therapeutic!
For this reason, I recommend novels – the very best novels – my counselling clients; and to my supervisees – counsellors who need to keep growing their hearts and minds; and improving thereby their body-brain-mind-environment-complexity!
How did the body get into the previous statement?
It might have been difficult to answer the question – ‘What does the body have to do with reading and/or writing novels?’
Except, while I was scanning the pages of John Fowles’ Mantissa, Renata came over to me and showed me a book she had found: ‘The Anatomy of Change: A way to move through life’s transitions’. This book was written by Richard Strozzi Heckler (1993), a teacher of Aikido (which is a system of Japanese unarmed combat – which I studied briefly at the Dublin Judo Club, in 1991-’62). Heckler’s philosophy of life can be summed up like this:
Renata pointed me at a section on Living in the Body; in which Heckler describes how he was once hired by a juvenile detention centre, where he was to work with difficult juveniles who were violent offenders. He worked with one, physically huge, and very angry young man who expressed the desire to kill somebody, because he was so angry. Heckler, intuitively, and pragmatically, told this youth that he could show him precisely how to kill somebody. The youth was hooked, and they began to work on the Aikido pressure points. But this youth’s physical energies prevented him easily learning what needed to be learned; and so Heckler began to work on his body, to get him to the state where he could master the Aikido pressure points that he wanted to learn. However, through the process of focusing his attention on his own body, and learning to release tensions, this youth lost his interest in killing anybody. He was beginning to live in his body; and he realized it was more interesting to find out about himself than to kill anybody.
Moving a muscle can change a thought, and/or an emotion. Physical training is profoundly stress reducing. It teaches physical self-confidence. And, the softening of ‘body armouring’ can release the person’s feelings, intuitions, and compassion, and, according to Heckler, it can heal our physical and emotional wounds. (That certainly lines up with my own experience at the Dublin Judo Club [which was actually called the Irish Judo Association at the point when I joined]). Our experiences shape our body-brain-mind; and we can begin to loosen and reframe our most troubling experiences by working from the body-side of our body-brain-mind, or from the mind-side of our body-brain-mind.
Reading a novel on the way to and from your equivalent of the Judo Club will double your progress in healing your body-brain-mind; and seeing a good, wise, broadminded counsellor, at some point each week, will also help!
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
I 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:
Firstly: 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.
Years 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?
One 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”. 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.
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).
On 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!
Dr Jim’s Blog: Literature, personal writing of fiction, and therapeutic healing of the heart and mind
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, July 2018
Individual 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.
On being human
The 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!
So speak to the world of your journey, that you might know where you have been; and that others might benefit from your journey!
The 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).