Resolve Conflict and Unhappiness, The book

Updated on 30th January 2020.

How to Resolve Conflict and Unhappiness

Especially during Festive Celebrations:

Coping with and resolving frustrations, disappointments and interpersonal clashes at family celebrations like Christmas, Yuletide, Hanukkah, Eid, and Thanksgiving

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 Dr Jim Byrne

With Renata Taylor-Byrne

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          Published by the Institute for Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy    (E-CENT) – January 2020

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Foreword

The fantasy of Christmas magic

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Cover design by Will Sutton

Families around the world get together from time to time for special events; religious and non-religious social and celebratory events.  These events very often stem from religious traditions and ceremonies, but many have evolved secular forms; or quasi-religious forms; and some have more to do with national pride (like St Andrews Day; St Patrick’s Day; St George’s Day; Thanksgiving Day; and so on).

Every major culture has its own celebrations. In the West, the most commonly celebrated days are Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, May Day, Thanksgiving Day, and several others. Less well known, but no less significant for the celebrants include: Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha (in the Muslim community); Diwali (in the Hindu community); Sangha Day (in the Buddhist community); Birthday of Guru Nanek and Birthday of Guru Gobind Singh (in the Sikh community); and Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah (in the Jewish community).

Many if not most of these celebrations reunite families – which have been scattered by marriage and/or work, or university study – who return to a central location – like parents’ homes – for celebrations; often involving food feasts and exchanging of gifts, etc.

Dr-Jim-Byrne8 (2)It is the observation and experience of this author that all of these get-togethers involve significant amounts of joy or happiness; but also unrealistic expectations of great joy and happiness, which often do not materialize.  And, when significant numbers of individuals congregate together, for prolonged periods of time, stresses and strains emerge, and communication often breaks down. So, these significant celebrations often, or at least sometimes, cause much misery for particular individuals.  And within couples, these kinds of Family Events often give rise to domestic violence, marital strain, and sometimes, separation and divorce.

Because I come from a ‘Christmas’ background, in this book I will use the word, ‘Christmas’, as shorthand for all of those celebrations mentioned above; for they all carry the risk of similar kinds of emotional upsets and prolonged emotional misery (alongside the joys and fun).

So, using ‘Christmas’ as shorthand, let me address those potential problems like this: Christmas is said to be “a time of giving”.  And we have all been told that “it is better to give than to receive”.  But those elements of traditional wisdom have been buried and distorted by the marketeers who want to sell you a particular, commercial vision of Christmas (or Yuletide, Winter Holiday, Hanukkah, etc.)

Because of the distortions introduced into our minds by the commercial marketeers, people often think of Christmas as a time of “gaining”, “receiving”, “getting”, “acquiring”, “winning”; or “magical transformations of life”; and so on.  In other words, dangerous fantasies!

Back cover 1In Buddhism it is said that “s/he who wants nothing has everything!”  That is to say, our sense of fulfilment (and therefore, happiness) is largely an ‘inverse function’ of our appetites, our expectations, and so on – which means: the more you want, and the less you get, the more miserable you feel.

Therefore, we can infer that a greedy person will feel more deprivation that a person of moderate appetites.  The higher our expectations of life, or of ‘Christmas’, the higher the odds become that we will be disappointed, frustrated, and depressed by the actual outcome.

We are, therefore, upset, mainly by the disparity between what we want and what we get.

In extreme versions, or elements, of Stoic[1] philosophy, it is falsely asserted that people “…are not upset by what happens to them, but rather by the attitude that they adopt towards what happens to them”.

In moderate Stoic philosophy, we reject that view.  We say, instead, that “People are upset by the negative things that happen to them, especially the more intense negative things that happen to them.  However, the intensity of their negative feelings will depend upon their philosophy of life (and the healthy or unhealthy state of their body-brain-mind)”.

And, even when those upsets cannot be avoided at the time, we can learn how to clean then up after the event, which is what I want to teach you how to do in this book.  This involves tracking back to the origin of the upset, in your mind, and then using your reflections to re-frame[2] the problem; to change their meanings; and thus to change how you feel.

If you firmly expect Christmas to be a magical time – which is unrealistic, since, (as far as I can tell), magic is a childish dream! – you will inevitably be disappointed, and your dream will be dashed.

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For example, last Christmas I helped a couple who were very upset because:

  1. Their son came home for Christmas, but spent most of his time with his friends;
  2. He was grumpy and grouchy when he spent time with his parents; and most of the time he was on his mobile phone, dominating the dining table with occasional blurtings out of things he found on the Internet which he (but not his frustrated parents) found interesting. And he barely noticed their words when they spoke to him.
  3. Furthermore, he seemed to be determined to reject any act of loving kindness they offered in his direction.
  4. Every chance he got he retreated to his bedroom and refused to come out!

I spent half an hour with that couple, talking them through my Nine Windows Model (which is the basis of Chapters 1-3 below).  About half-way through reviewing those ways of re-thinking their son’s behaviour, their faces softened and their eyes brightened.  And then they smiled, and laughed; and finally left my office, to return to their imperfect son and his imperfect relationship with them.  (But no longer frustrated or angry or depressed!)

Dr Jim, Oct 2019Two hours later I was working with another couple.  This couple wanted a divorce because they had “such a ghastly Christmas together”.  I explained that this is not uncommon; that Christmas is one of the worst times of year for family conflict and unhappiness; and that the ‘celebrations’ normally push the divorce rates up to record levels for the year. (As an award-winning family lawyer in the UK writes: “Statistics show the highest number of divorce petitions are issued the first working Monday after Christmas”. (Metro Newspaper, Thursday, January 2nd 2020; page 22). I asked this couple to read through a document I’d produced about how to re-think and re-feel your problems (which is the foundation of this current book), and they agreed to do so.  Three weeks later they returned, and told me they’d decided they did not need to divorce; and that they were getting along much more happily since they’d studied my system for ‘re-framing problems’. (See footnotes below for a definition of ‘re-framing’).

Those kinds of experience with clients, which I’ve seen many times, are the acid test of the system of re-thinking/re-feeling/re-framing that I teach in this book.

However, if all I taught was how to reframe your problems, you would still have more interpersonal problems than you need to have. Therefore, what I also do is to add a few appendices, at the back of this book, on how to communicate more effectively with those people with whom you spend your festive celebrations. (See Appendices B1 to E below).

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Let me first explain my approach to perceiving/feeling/thinking.

 

Perceiving/feeling/thinking straight will save you a lot of misery

Front cover 1Apart from communicating effectively (as described in the appendices below); and keeping yourself emotionally well – by the use of healthy diet, regular physical exercise, and adequate sleep – (see Chapters 4 and 5) – what matters enormously is your ‘philosophy of life’ – or:

– How you ‘mentalize’[3] about your life and its possibilities and outcomes.

– How you interpret what happens to you.

– How you have learned (or preferably taught yourself!) to perceive your experiences of life, and especially your difficult experiences of life.

A person with an effective philosophy of life will weather any storm better than a person with an ineffective philosophy of life (all other things being equal, such as diet, exercise, sleep, and more).  Therefore, if you want to weather the storms of Christmas and other Family Holiday upsets and disappointments, frustrations, hurts, rejections, failures and fears, you should look to developing an effective philosophy of life which will allow you to sail through the rough seas of emotional difficulty with the minimum amount of pain! (But never with no pain at all.  That would be unrealistic for a human being).

So, that is what the first three chapters of this book is all about:  Helping you to develop an effective philosophy of life, which will guide you around the quicksand of the emotional quagmires of the ‘Christmas madness’ and other forms of unrealistic expectations of Family Festivals or Holidays.

Then, in Chapter 4, we introduce a broader approach to managing your emotions at Christmas and family holiday time. This includes managing your body-mind, by attending to your need for adequate nutrition, and the avoidance of junk foods; your need for physical exercise, and how that exercise reduces painful emotions.

And Chapter 5 deals with your need for adequate sleep, to maintain your emotional intelligence; and how to make sure you get it.

Chapter 6 is designed to help readers to understand how to manage couple relationships more effectively than they currently do.

Back cover 1And Chapter 7 contains our concluding comments. There are then some appendices as follows: Appendix A provides some information on ‘frame theory’, which is about how we humans interpret our experiences. Appendices B1 and B2 explain how to communicate more effectively with family and friends during holiday events – or at any other time.  Appendix C describes a particular skill that you can use when somebody is being aggressive or controlling with you.  Appendix D will help you to improve your ability to handle conflict skilfully. And Appendix E provides a good introduction to Transactional Analysis, which will you to understand your personality better; and also teach you how to change your life-plan, if it is not working, and also how to communicate from the more effective parts of your personality.

 

Our non-conscious attitudes worsen our problems!

Normally, when we are emotionally upset by a particular event or experience, we are non-consciously looking at it through a fixed window; or fixed frame of reference[4].  Although our common sense tells us we are just ‘looking out through our eyes, and seeing what is there to see’, in fact we are looking at it from a particular angle; with a particular interpretation; and our viewpoint is quite rigid and preordained; though we are not aware of our own rigidity.

We are probably assuming something like the following:

“This is a misery-inducing situation”; or:

“I cannot be happy at all if (this) is the case”.

“Life is too difficult to bear”.

“I have to be able to regain control of (this thing which is beyond my control)”.

“I have never been so insulted in my whole life; and I never expected (this behaviour) from (this particular person)”.

And so on.

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Because of this fixed and unrealistic and presumptive frame of reference – which is non-conscious, and thus out of our awareness – we cannot change how we feel about the problem.

If we could wake up to the fact that we are taking a fixed, interpretive and presumptive view of the problem, we could try out a few alternative ways of looking at it, or perceiving/feeling/thinking about it, and see how that might reduce our upset emotion.

To get beyond this problem with our ways of framing experiences, we firstly need to understand some particular truths about ourselves, and our way of seeing, hearing and perceiving.

We do not see with our eyes – or hear with our ears – so much as with our brains.  Eyes and ears are part of the machinery of perception, but the decisions about ‘what it is’ that we see and hear are not made by our eyes and/or ears.  Those decisions are made by our ‘stored experiences’ driving our ‘judgements’.

We do not see ‘external events’ so much with our eyes and ears, then, as we see them through ‘frames of reference and interpretation’ which were created in the past, and which we now implement as habit-based stimulus-response pairings.

In other words, when a particular kind of event or experience occurs, we produce a particular kind of emotional and behavioural response.

Dr-Jim-Byrne8 (2)Or we could call these responses ‘pattern matching’ processes.  “I’ve seen this stimulus (or ‘external event’) before.  This (particular interpretation) is the sense I made of it last time.  So that is how I will relate to it this time. I have matched up the pattern”.

What we need, then, to break free from our non-conscious, automatic, habit-based responses, in problem situations, is some kind of ‘technology’ which will break up our fixed, non-conscious interpretations of “what Christmas and Family Celebrations should be like”; and/or “what it means when things go wrong at Christmas”; and/or “how upset I must be, because X happened, and Y did not happen”.

I have worked on this kind of problem for many, many years, and I have produced just such a technology. And that ‘technology’ is called the Nine Windows Model of E-CENT counselling. (E-CENT stands for Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy).

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Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling, January 2020

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[1] A first century CE approach to coping with difficulties and burdens, by accepting them as normal and unavoidable.

[2] For a human being to ‘frame’ something means that they look at it through a particular kind of ‘distorting lens’. Or, more accurately, they view an event or object though a ‘mental frame’ which includes a ‘slogan’ or ‘belief’ or ‘presumption’, or preconceived idea, which dictates how the event or object is to be interpreted. So, to re-frame an event or experience is to view it through a new or better or more helpful frame.  But we cannot get rid of frames and framing completely.

[3] Definition of ‘mentalize’: “To construct or picture in the mind”. Or what we often – in folk wisdom – call ‘thinking’, which is actually (scientifically speaking) a form of perceiving/ feeling/ thinking/ imagining, which I sometimes call ‘perfinking’.

[4] Your ‘frame of reference’ means the (most often non-conscious) frame or frames (or lens or lenses) through which you are viewing something; or which you habitually use to view something.

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Contents pages

Contents-1

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Contents-2

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Contents-3

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Chapter 1: How to change your perspective on sources of conflict and other problems

Dr-Jim-Byrne8 (2)In this chapter, I want to introduce you to a very powerful technique or technology for changing how life looks and feels to you, in difficult situations.  This is called the Nine Windows Model.

The Windows Model is one of the main models used in Emotive-Cognitive Embodied Narrative Therapy (E-CENT).  It is based upon ‘frame theory’. And frame theory suggests that all of our perceptions are interpretative, and that our interpretations are driven by habit-based ‘framings’ (or ways of looking at incoming stimuli), through our senses (mainly of sight and hearing, and, to a lesser extent, touch).

For example, if I look at the world through a conscious or non-conscious frame which tells me that “Life never gives me anything good!”, then no matter what happens, I will always see events and objects in that light. They will not seem to me to be gifts from a benevolent world, because of my negative framing.

On the other hand, if my dominant way of framing experiences is this, “Life is bountiful”, then I will see that I do have a lot to be grateful for in my life. (However, bear in mind that most of our framings are non-conscious, and we have to guess at what they might be, by thinking about how we tend to feel and behave in particular situations).

A ‘stimulus’ to our nervous system is any emotionally significant event which impinges upon our attention. The ‘frames’ that we use to interpret an incoming stimulus amount to an ‘inferences’, or guess or labelling of that experience.  Technically, frames are assumed to be sets of inferences, which are derived from past experience.

Depending upon the negativity or positivity of the frame through which you are perceiving an incoming stimulus, you will produce a correspondingly negative or positive emotional/behavioural response.

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These insights underpin the EFR model of E-CENT counselling, which describes what happens when a person has an experience, as follows:

E = Event or Experience.

F = Framing (of this event or experience), based on past experience.

R = Response (being emotional and behavioural).

Jim.Nata.Couples.pg.jpg.w300h245 (1)To change undesirable responses (R’s), we need to change the way we frame (F) our experiences (E’s).  (In Chapter 4 we will refine this view, and ‘add back the body’ to the mind, and take account of the need for good quality nutrition, sleep and physical exercise, in order to be emotionally healthy).

I developed this model over a period of several years, beginning with a Four Windows model, and gradually expanding it to Six Windows; then Eight and finally Nine Windows.  Here is a quick overview of the nine windows model.

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