Be Unfinished

Unfinished Business-

Something that a person needs to deal with or work on : something that has not yet been done; dealt with, or completed.

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Thomas Mathiesen, a Norwegian sociologist, published ‘The Unfinished’ in 1974, about political action theory. In this book Mathiesen argues that radical change can come about by pursuing an agenda of proposing unfinished business. To remain unfinished means neither working for reform entirely within a system nor completely separate from it. The first option was said to risk being defined and neutralised by existing ways of thinking and the second option risked being marginalised and treated as irrelevant. Hence Mathiesen proposed that alternative ways of thinking should at most be outlined, never shaped or formulated.

In terms of personal change a parallel can be applied. If one is totally concretised by pre-existing attitudes and values then self-reflection is likely to be impotent in terms of new ways of seeing. On the other hand, to be anarchic risks social isolation and marginalisation. In contrast, the permanent attitude of ‘being unfinished’ allows room for self-doubt and  meaningful separation from the status quo with ongoing opportunities for new learning. The teacup story is a Zen parable that may exemplify this.

The story is that there once existed a very wise Zen master who lived in isolation. However, he did allow people from far and wide to travel to consult him about matters that troubled them or for personal wisdom and enlightenment. One day a very important person consulted him. This person was used to getting his own way, spoke in a commanding voice and had a pompous manner. The Zen master received him courteously and invited him to have tea. This offer was accepted as an appropriate gesture by the visitor. The tea was served  and the Zen master asked the visitor to ask his questions. When these had been voiced the master proceeded to pour the tea. When the cup was full the master continued to pour tea until it went over the top and onto the floor. The visitor screamed “stop,what are you doing?” The Zen master explained ” you are like this cup, already so full that no more can be given. Please come back when you are empty enough for me to give you something.”

The attitude of ‘being unfinished’ can be nurtured by allowing natural curiosity to have its place. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, locates curiosity in the inner ‘child ego state’ which can profit from a nurturing and harmonious  relationship with the more grown up parts of oneself. Self-reparenting is a technique that may encourage this process. Descartes, the French philosopher, famously coined the term ‘cogito ergo sum’. This means ‘I think, therefore I am’ and this was given as a proof that our lives are not merely imaginary. Another relevant motto could be  ‘curioso ergo sum’,  ‘I am curious, therefore I am.’

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Just Checking

Well am I getting paranoid

or maybe superstition is making me feel this way

checking in, checking out

I seem to do it every day.

Status Quo ‘Like a Zombie’ 2002 ‘ Rock Til You Drop’ Album


One of the most important and neglected skills in interpersonal communication is ‘checking’. So many arguments and difficulties between people are based on inaccurate perception of information; prejudiced assumptions; simple misunderstandings; and wrong interpretations. This can lead to much hurt and anger as arguments escalate out of control. Once the emotional reactions begin to prevent rational, clear, and accurate discussion then problem solving becomes almost impossible. 

‘Checking’ can take place very early in a discussion where there is apparent disagreement or conflict. For example, the questions ‘Can I check my assumptions about what you are saying?’ or ‘ Can I check whether I have understood you accurately?’ can precede a paraphrasing of what is thought to have been said or meant. This can clarify quickly a potential argument based on a false premise. Too often the argument has already escalated before this step has been taken. Sometimes the discussion is badly timed where one party is unprepared. Sometimes when one is wanting to initiate a request for sharing or for some wanted action or agreement it can be useful to precede the discussion with the checking question ‘Is this a good time for you to discuss x,y,or z.?’ If it not a good time, make a mutually suitable time to have the discussion. This can prevent one party feeling ambushed. It also can allow time for preparation of thoughts and a co-operative attitude. It is often useful in an intimate relationship to schedule a  ‘checking meeting’  regularly at a fixed interval to have automatic opportunities to deal with new, unfinished or unresolved business.

In some cases where there is an established disagreement in what is wanted by each party then a useful checking question could be ‘ What would it take to solve this problem and move forward ?’ or ‘ I was wondering if a compromise solution might be x, y, or z ?’ as a starting point for a resolution process. In situations where there is no disagreement but an absence of response (i.e. to an email; voicemail; or feeling ignored in some social situation, with another individual or group ) it can be useful to clarify with a checking question. Instead of harbouring lingering feelings of rejection or assumptions about negative feelings, the situation can be confronted. Rather than running  with an assumed story which can become self fulfilling, it may be best to check with a direct question like ‘ have I offended you inadvertently?’ If there is no problem the other is alerted to your feelings and may provide a different explanation. Alternatively, if there is a problem the issue can be ventilated and explored allowing the potential for problem solving.

This process invites a sort of intimacy in sharing. There seems little point in doing this with someone with whom you don’t want to be intimate. This may be someone you don’t see very often or is not important in your life.

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  Faber est suae quisque fortunae.

  Every man is the maker of his own destiny.

  Appius Claudius Caecus  340-273 B.C.


Every journey through life has its own obstacles. Some of these obstacles are higher or lower for each person individually and also vary in difficulty for different people. Some people have more support early in life than others. Some psychologists and psychotherapists in general believe that healthy early life experiences form the building blocks for later emotional resilience and capacity. Further, that early life experiences and the emotional defences that are generated can persist in the type of neurotic patterns that occur throughout life. Some people can easily traverse the obstacles that are set before them and others do so only with difficulty. Some people require assistance and some do not. Some patterns learned through positive early life experience may lead to easy success in navigating life demands. However, trauma in early life may lead to more difficulty. According to Eric Berne, founder of Transactional  Analysis, this may in part be due to the early formation of an unconscious life story or script which may detemine patterns of reactions and relationships. These patterns are called racket systems by Berne and the characteristic feelings at the end of a pattern are called racket feelings. In a way your racket feelings can be regarded as your favourite bad feeling, maybe depression, anxiety, sadness, anger, disappointment, mistrust, fear, guilt, whatever. They may recur regularly and characteristically in a predictable way. This can serve to reinforce underlying beliefs and life script.

In this sense, the motto quoted above by Caecus is plainly wrong. Each person may have their destiny laid out for them. However, self-leadership allows  transformational psychological changes through personal awareness. These changes may take place through learning through personal experiences and might also involve mentoring or some other form of psychotherapy or counselling. Eric Berne developed an ‘ego state’ model which illustrated how transactions take place between the so called Child, Adult, and Parent  parts both within each person and between different people. Each person’s history and reaction pattern is embedded in this model and it informs communication patterns both internally and externally. Understanding the pattern and the assumptions and beliefs that have been self-sustained is the key to rising above them. This then allows different choices and potentially different outcomes from the set script. In this way, the motto of Caecus above becomes more accurate. Understanding of historical causality and defence allows more room for current accurate reality checking and mutuality. Although the saying of Caecus above is the motto of some schools, including my own high school, it is unfortunate that academic learning alone does not address the emotional learning that may need to take place to make the motto useful. 

Personal self-leadership as described above not only may allow better personal relationships but also better and more objective decision-making in the work place. Communication between managers and subordinates may escape characteristic Parent-Child traps. This can be true on both sides of the equation. This model can also be applied between organisations and even countries. Each of these may be viewed as a single organism with its own racket system and life script set. The Parent can be seen as a set of organisational rules or a developed cultural imprint and the Child as the history of remembered or otherwise rewards or punishments of past relationship experience between organisations or countries. Wise leadership may understand the traps of historical reactive prejudice and narcissistic outlook and look, instead, for ways to develop trust based on accurate mutuality. Clearly this is easier said than done, looking for example at difficulties in world politics in the Middle-East and many other conflict zones. The sort of successful leadership needed may ultimately  devolve down partly  to personal actualisation and decontamination of personal scripty material. So, even if institutional or party politics makes change difficult, personal clarity and awareness may form the lynchpin for successful problem solving. Personal psychological treatment through psychology, psychotherapy or counselling may be  useful options in this regard.


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Addictions and ‘Sacrifice Therapy’

It’s a human sign

when things go wrong…

And temptation’s strong…

But it’s no sacrifice

No sacrifice

It’s no sacrifice at all.

(Elton John song ‘Sacrifice’ 1989 )


Unlike this sentiment expressed by Elton John, in the area of addictions, sacrifice may be called for. Sacrifice means to surrender something wanted, for something else, considered to have a more worthwhile claim. The word sacrifice is derived from Latin and can mean ‘to make holy’. Holiness can be associated with wholeness in terms of self integration.It is in this sense that it may apply in working to overcome addictions.

The reason for this is that different levels of the personality can be associated with different motivations or agendas. Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis, coined the terms Child Ego State, Adult Ego State and Parent Ego State as a three-part model of personality. The Child Ego State is said to be characterised by behaving, thinking and feeling as you did when you were a child. This Ego State contains core beliefs about self and the world. The Adult Ego State is said to be involved in direct ‘here and now’ responses to current events using grown-up abilities. The Parent Ego State represents behaviours, thoughts and feelings copied from parents or parent (authority) figures.

Often, working with addictions is confined to strategies involved with the Parent Ego State or Adult Ego State. In short, the message is ‘you should or should not do this or that for these obviously bad consequences which you don’t want’. Various cognitive and behavioural strategies can be devised to these ends. However, these approaches may miss some important features of how addictions appeal to the Child Ego State. Addictions can often be enjoyable and fun when doing them. They can help ward off awareness of  painful feelings. They can release tension. They can involve ‘secondary gain’ derived from their ‘bad’ ultimate consequences. These consequences may justify avoidance of the risks of closeness, intimacy, social exposure, or taking responsibility for oneself as a grown-up. These are ‘advantages’ to the Child Ego State that struggles to be part of a mature functioning grown-up unit. Alongside this can be negative core beliefs about oneself that invite unaware self punishment or painful consequences — a ‘just’ reward for being who one is. Freud termed this ‘psychic masochism’. More latterly Callan and others (J.Personality and Social Psychology 2014) have found support for the idea that some individuals feel they deserve bad outcomes in their life because of their low self esteem.

So, in treating addictions it may be important to include the Child Ego State and its motivations. Rather than just treating addictions as a terrible affliction, illness, or deficiency, it maybe useful to acknowledge how enjoyable and ‘useful’ they can be at one level. Then ‘sacrifice’ can come into the equation in terms of the surrender of something ‘wanted’ at the Child Ego State level, for benefits valued at a more integrated level.The core of ‘sacrifice therapy’ involves the conscious surrender of dysfunctional (but ‘useful’) behaviour promoted by the Child Ego State, for behaviour that is more functional overall. This requires mature adult choice with strategies to replace or modify the sometimes hidden ‘advantages’ of addictive behaviour. This involves a non-victim, non-forced choice rather than a ‘should’ , or  ‘shouldn’t’  message. The latter can be secretly resented and sabotaged by the Child Ego State which does not want to surrender its ‘advantages’. It may seem odd to ‘miss’  the behaviour that causes so much trouble. However, conscious and non-victim mourning for the lost ‘advantages’ of dysfunctionality could be seen as an appropriate and necessary rite of passage. Psychotherapy may be required to decontaminate dysfunctional beliefs from childhood and to alleviate associated painful feelings.

Sometimes in cases of drug or alcohol addiction, a medical detox is required because of the physical nature of the addiction. In addition, sometimes individuals are self-medicating some mental health problem, which may require more appropriate medication as part of a treatment program. 

To summarise: 1.Discover your Child Ego State motivations and acknowledge them.

                         2.Honour them by addressing and sacrificing their overt/covert ‘advantages’.

                        3. Substitute these ‘advantages’ with more functional ones as part of a change, skills development  and growth process.


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Making Policy: ‘law therapy’

‘Act as if the maxim [guiding principle] of your action were to become, through your will, a universal law of nature.’

Immanuel Kant (The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals 1785)                                                                                                                                          


This is from the first formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To paraphrase Kant, you can decide how to act as a matter of policy (through an act of reason) that is as compelling as a natural law. This would lead to an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and was self legislated. The German philosopher Kant (1724-1804) was in disagreement with the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who said that good people did what gave them a good feeling. Hence, feelings were the main impetus to do good actions.

The problem with following Hume’s ideas is that very often feelings are not inclined to be motivating to a positive act and often a behaviour change is required before a bad feeling will shift. The value of following Kant’s premise is that reason can lead to a decision to set down a policy which can be regarded as a law to be followed in all circumstances. We can regard this as a compelling personal law rather than a universal law of nature. We don’t often think about whether to obey or not a law laid down by Parliament. We generally automatically obey them on autopilot without having to examine every action from first principles. So, we don’t think about whether we feel like speeding or not, we just focus on the speed limit. We may feel angry about something but generally we don’t break legal restrictions in how we express that feeling. Laws are guidelines for action without having to overanalyse or consult our feelings. Similarly, in our private lives policies can be set to construct our own personal set of laws. These should be written down,dated and signed to concretise them. This is the way to convert policy into personal law with the strength of ritual. There may be value in signing off on a personal law daily if a recency effect is necessary. The status of law helps to set a frame of reference to defend against impulsive behaviour. For example setting a law against eating chocolate today will act as a brake in the supermarket. The same applies to any addictive behaviour. You can reward yourself for maintaining the desired behaviour in ways you choose. The consequence of not upholding your chosen law is to lose that reward and make efforts to re-assess and regroup.

Many of our policies are implicit. That is, we don’t need to think about whether  we feel like cleaning our teeth at night; washing our clothes; putting the rubbish out; cleaning the house; ironing our clothes; picking children up from school, etc. If it is needed we just do it without a philosophical enquiry and decision about policy. The value of making some EXPLICIT decision that DOES result from enquiry, and then concretely set down as policy, is that desired and positive outcome is not left to chance and circumstance.This is our own private law to instruct action to achieve certain goals. This can be regarded as law therapy. Your law needs to be plausible, realistic, and achievable. This allows you to be responsible and accountable. Your accountability militates against learned helplessness and is empowering. This is because you can take action to realistically fine tune your policy and be informed by what you decide to do progressively in your particular situation.

 So, if you have decided not to smoke, the circumstances or how you feel can be disregarded. Your policy can be followed automatically without reconsideration. This is the nature of personal law. If you have decided to limit your drinking to a certain number, it doesn’t depend on the occasion or the company. There is automatic cut off. No thinking to be done. Sometimes what is unwanted may be wanted at a deeper, perhaps unconscious level. Then there is value in setting law to limit duration of episodes of conflicted behaviour to gain a sense of control. Psychotherapy may be valuable also to resolve such matters. If you have decided to value yourself in the face of criticism from others or some internalised critic, you automatically remember your decision and policy to give yourself value. This is valuable in fighting low self esteem and depressive feelings. There are two types of self esteem. One is conditional and earned through good performance.The other type is unconditional, it comes with being a living form in the universe and is spiritual. Gaining this only depends on you DECIDING to take it and give it to yourself and others. No earning or performance is necessary. This is the biggest element of self esteem in your bedrock. Performances are always ephemeral. One day a rooster, next day a feather duster. Your POLICY can be DECIDED to allow unconditional self esteem in perpetuity regardless of internal or external critics. At the same time, you can strive for excellence at various skills. However, the level of skill achieved does not have to affect acceptance of self and others at a fundamental level.

Treating depression has many facets including medication if required..There are also many other psycho-social and physical  treatments. Very important amongst them, you can have a policy of exercising whether you feel like it or not. If you want to feel better you need to behave differently first. No thought is required if you have no physical illness that requires limiting exercise. Just do it according to your policy. Similarly, if you have a law not to suicide, you will not act on such thoughts or feelings but, instead, take yourself to a place of safety.  One good support option, not often recognised, to combat depression and low self esteem may be to join a public speaking club. Public speaking clubs also aid personal development. They are  one of the hidden gold mines for self improvement in our community. Benefit is best achieved by active participation. Even if you are scared you can have a policy for volunteering quickly and automatically when opportunities to speak arise. You can have a policy to raise your hand quickly instead of debating ‘will I, won’t I ? ‘ and losing the opportunity.

There are numerous opportunities for policy making in your life. They may be as simple as smiling more often, giving compliments to yourself and others, rising from bed by a certain time, and taking more moments to reflect on your process during the day. Replace wishful thinking  and a prayer for action with firm policy for action to facilitate wanted change. Make it law.

For those finding the above too wordy, the take home message is :

1. Ritualise your policy into law by writing it down, signing and dating it.

2. Just do it.

If you require the services of a Perth Psychologist or Perth Counsellor, please contact me at