This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, iBooks in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 611 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Friday, 26 February 2016

BOOK REVIEW : How to Be an Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise

In my book How to Be Free I said that “the love of perfection is the root of all evil” and that “the key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance.” That’s all well and good, but what practical steps can we take to break the hold that perfectionism may have on us and to become more self-accepting? When I was asked this I couldn’t come up with much in the way of practical exercises, but had to acknowledge that that is one of the things people quite reasonably look for in a self-help book. So imagine how excited I was when someone alerted me to the existence of this book which promises a “new way to self-acceptance, fearless living, and freedom from perfectionism.”

Stephen Guise’s book is what a self-help book should be - short, illuminating and practical. It is full of observations which seemed so obvious after he said them that I wondered why I hadn't thought of them before.

Some of us may not view ourselves as perfectionists, but on close examination some of our problems - shyness, procrastination, depression, addiction, rumination - may arise from perfectionistic thinking, from having unhelpfully high expectations of ourselves, of others or of situations or events. Shyness can arise from a feeling that we mustn’t make mistakes in our social interactions with others. Procrastination can come from wanting to hang onto a vision of perfect action rather than discover the imperfections involved in actually carrying it out, or it can arise from over-estimating the effort that may be required in the doing of something or the negative results which might result from it, an unhelpfully high negative expectation. Depression can be increased by fighting against negative thoughts, being intolerant of our deviations from positivity. The “never enough” feeling of psychological addiction is also a form of perfectionism, as is the intolerance towards our past mistakes which takes the form of ruminating over them.

The practical exercises suggested in the book are based around the idea of forming mini-habits - very small daily tasks (so small that there is no excuse not to do them) the purpose of which is to establish the groundwork for larger habits. The example Guise uses most often is his exercise plan of doing one push-up a day. This gradually led to full workouts five days a week. His earlier book on this topic - Mini-Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results - is apparently a best-seller. (I haven’t read it.)

Guise’s approach is not about building up motivation. It’s about removing barriers. We are unlikely to be very good at anything the first time we try it, so becoming skilled and confident in any area of life means removing the barrier of high expectations. One way he suggests we can do that is to adopt a binary view of success. For instance, if we want to give a speech in front of an audience, we can forget about the issue of how well we do it, but count doing it, even incredibly badly, as a success. The only failure is to not give it a go. This isn’t just a trick. It’s being realistic, because the only way we become confident and skilled at public speaking is by being willing to do it badly until we learn to do it well. So doing it badly really is a success, because it gets us far closer to doing it well then not attempting it will.

Another idea I really like is that of replacing the phrase “I should have done…” with “I could have done…” It’s such a simple cognitive technique, but it turns us away from regrets about the past and towards a practical strategy for the future.

Need for approval from others can also be an area of unhelpfully high demands. Guise recommends ways we can break past this barrier and thus gain confidence to be more authentically ourselves. I’m not sure that singing at the supermarket is one of the suggestions of his that I will take up. (I don’t think that my authentic self is sadistic enough to inflict such suffering on others.) The principle is a good one though that, where fear stands as a barrier, liberation can come through the process of desensitisation. The more we do something potentially embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, the more those feelings will decrease.

As Guise points out, this is the problem with so many motivational books. We can build up a high level of motivation, but it too may tend to decrease over time. The beauty of his mini-habit idea is that it requires minimal motivation at the start. The habit, once established, then provides a framework within which motivation can grow, if the habit turns out to be a rewarding one. If you do one push-up a day for a few months, you may find you are curious to see if you can do a few more on your more energetic days. Eventually you are doing enough to feel stronger and more confident, and that is the motivation to join a gym, or whatever. If you write two sentences a day for six months, you may find that a really good idea for a novel is starting to emerge. Then the excitement of discovery is the motivation to keep going. But if you pumped yourself up with motivation, did as many push-ups as you could do before collapsing and said “I’m not going to do that again for awhile” or if you pumped yourself up with dreams of being the next J.K. Rowling and sat down to begin on your first novel and found you couldn’t think of a plot, you might give up before you’d had a chance to really begin. Think of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Build the habit and the motivation will come.

Guise isn’t one of these self-help gurus who hands down his wisdom from on high. He’s the kind of self-help author who tells you about the embarrassing thing he accidentally said to the hot woman at the gym. He practices what he preaches not just in life but in the manner of his writing. He doesn’t try to avoid embarrassment. And that makes me feel all the more comfortable in listening to his advice.

I’d recommend this book to anyone. I don’t think there is anyone so perfect in their imperfectionism that they can’t learn something from it. Any book which can give us methods to increase our chances of success in any endeavour we choose to pursue, and provides us with strategies to avoid being hard on ourselves even if we fail at all of them, is definitely worth the short amount of time it takes to read.

Beyond self-help, though, there are ideas in this book which, if they were to take hold, could make all the difference to our chances of survival as a species. Our ecological and economic crises both rest upon our “‘never enough’ bias” (pg. 58). Our apathy arises from our inability to “focus on the process” (pg. 61). The breakdown in community (and thus the cooperative skills we need to work together on solving our social problems) arises from our “need for approval” (pg. 85). Chaos theory shows that small changes in a system can gradually lead to a complete change of that system. Who knows what could be unleashed by an imperfectionist revolution? When you consider how hampered so many of us have been by perfectionism in its many forms, that is an awful lot of potential energy and talent of which we have been deprived throughout the whole of our history (has there been a time not blighted by perfectionism?).

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