Think back to the last time you had a problem.
Can you think of something?
My guess is the answer is… ‘yes’.
My second guess is, you didn’t have to think too far back.
If you’re like most humans, you’re probably sitting reading this with your own over-flowing problem bucket.
We’re so damn good at problems.
And by that I mean having them, not solving them.
As a therapist and coach, people come to see me when they have problems. This could be a relationship question, a personal crisis, a business dilemma, a health issue, or a loss. Other times there’s just a vague notion that something’s up. The light of life has grown dim, they’re wandering aimlessly with a gnawing sense of ‘something ain’t right here but I don’t know what it is’.
The good thing is…my job is to get them past that problem. But more than that, to make sure they don’t stumble so much when something buggers them up in future.
Now anyone who’s in the field of psychology, mentoring or coaching, know something important about problems. And that is…
The problem or dilemma, in large part, is solved (or not) by the types of questions we ask.
That means both the questions we ask as therapists and coaches, and also the questions we ask ourselves when we have a crisis or issue to solve.
So, before we explore what that means, I’ll set you a little challenge.
Here are a few real-life problem scenarios that clients have presented. Just take a moment to read through them and take note of the types of questions these people were asking themselves.
Ok here we go…
- Daniel – is ambitious, energetic, talented at his job as a business consultant. For the last 2 years he’s tried to grow his client base. He’s failing. Daniel comes to me at the point of giving up. He’s scared. He tells me his story of how the future looks, how he’ll have to go back to work he hates, how he’ll have to sell his home, how him and his wife are going to divorce because of the financial pressures. He’s asking himself, ‘Why can’t I make it, like all those other successful people…why am I such a loser?’.
- Renee – is savvy, kind and a mum of 2 teenagers. For the last few years she’s found parenting a ‘nightmare’. Her kids don’t listen, she gets into scream-fests with them. She finds herself hating them. She wants to run away. She’s filled with shame and guilt about being a rubbish mother – just like her own mum. She’s asking, ‘What the hell is wrong with me, that I don’t even like my own kids?’.
- Georgia – has it all! A luxurious life, high-flying career, friends, good looks and creativity. She tells me she’s stressed and needs a ‘life-style’ balance. She tells me she wants to stop drinking so much, she wants to stop lying awake at night worrying, she wants to stop feeling lonely. She’s asking, ‘Why am I so miserable, when I have so much?’.
Now, without doubt, they’re all in a bit of a mess. The problems they have are real.
But did you spot the issue with their questions?
If so, you’ll have noticed they’re the types of questions we ask ourselves all the time when we hit some bother. It’s standard to get caught up in asking questions relating to the problem we’re facing. Questions like, ‘Why do I have this problem?’, ‘Why am I miserable/anxious/depressed?’, ‘What’s wrong with me?’.
BUT… they’re the wrong questions.
The questions they’re asking are not on the level where the solution lives.
Albert Einstein recognised this, when he told us…
‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’
Research in neuroscience shows that if we ask a problem-focused questions, we get problem-focused answers.
Questions such as ‘why am I so miserable’, will have the brain running around gathering up all the data about misery.
Now, this can bring insight and it’s useful for someone in a trouble-shooting sense. As humans we have a need to understand ourselves and why we feel and behave in certain ways.
But focusing on the problem too long, just keeps the brain wiring-In the problem over and over and then we wallow and remain miles away from the solution to the damn thing.
And I’m not talking about life ‘situations’. If our loved-one dies, or we get sick, or we lose our job…these are situations and events that need time for healing and repairing.
What I’m talking about are persistent problems that don’t seem to be getting resolved. That means grief that’s never-ending. Illness made worse by worry. Job-loss that has us paralyzed with depression and anxiety. Bad habits that have us bound in gloom. Relationships that suck.
THOSE types of problems.
Research in cognitive psychology shows that if 100 people have the exact same problem, background and biochemistry, they won’t all react in the same way when their world shatters.
Some will thrive and rise stronger after a crisis. Others will falter and fail to get over it. Some can’t even bear to stay alive.
And what we really want to know is…why?
What are the processes that the thrivers and survivors use to get unstuck and flourish in the face of adversity?
Well there are hundreds of strategies that can be used. And in order to embrace a fresh perspective and get out of the doldrums, the first thing we can do is back up from the problem. Because the mind that’s creating the problem is not the one that has the solution.
Statements such as ‘I hate my life’ or ‘I don’t want this’, are normal as a starting point for change. But they should act as signals that trigger something new. They’re NOT a place to dwell.
One important piece of research might help give us insight.
Igor Grossmann, of the University of Waterloo, carried out experiments in relation to problem-solving. The name of the study was…
Exploring Solomon’s Paradox
For those that don’t know, King Solomon is the biblical figure known to give wise counsel. But, apparently his own life was a bit of a shambles! What he could dish out to others, he seemed unable to apply to his own life. Taking that as context, Grossmann formed the hypothesis for his experiment.
Grossmann wanted to test if people were wiser when they solved other peoples’ dilemmas rather than their own.
He also tested to see whether viewing your own problems, as if you were looking down on yourself in the third person, would give better answers…rather than trying to solve it from an ego-centric perspective.
He found this was indeed the case.
He asked those in romantic relationships a series of questions related to being cheated on and betrayed by their lover.
The questions included things like:
- Do you need more information and context to really understand this situation?
- Is it important to you to look for a compromise?
- How much do you consider others’ perspectives on the event?
- How many different futures can you imagine?
The findings showed a higher level of emotional intelligence and wisdom by those who imagined it was a friend who had the problem, rather than themselves.
This has stunningly important implications for how we go about asking the right questions, in the right way.
It indicates that psychological distancing can lead us to make better decisions and solve problems more quickly and wisely.
If we want to see how this works in real life, we can look at an example.
Let’s take Georgia from the above list of clients who presented problems.
Instead of asking Georgia directly what she thinks the solution to her misery is, I ask her, ‘Imagine your friend has this problem. What needs to happen for her to get out of misery?’
Georgia tells me, ‘She needs to stop dwelling on what she doesn’t have and appreciate what she does have. She could be more pro-active at finding a relationship. If she stopped drinking, she’d have more clarity, focus and energy’.
And the list goes on.
When Georgia takes herself out of the equation, she knows the answers.
It also worked when Georgia imagined herself floating up and observing herself and asking the questions from a third person perspective. So, I ask her, ‘Does Georgia need any more information to really understand her problem?’. ‘What are Georgia’s options for moving forward?’.
She showed a high level of emotional intelligence and creativity, when she viewed her problems objectively and got out of her own head.
Before I share a list of things you can do to find your own answers…I have a free gift for you…
So, here’s a list of things we can do when faced with a persistent or important life dilemma:
- Get the problems out of the head and into the open. Whether that’s writing it all out or talking it through with someone, clarity is key. Now at this point you might want to scream and wail…and you should. It’s important to acknowledge and release stress, pain and frustration. In order for the wiser part to step in, the distressed part of yourself needs to express its fears, or it will likely shut down the process and tell you, this is all a stupd idea.
- Trouble-shoot each problem to see what can be done. Ask questions from the third-person or as if you’re talking to a friend.
- Write out wise solutions that pop up and avoid letting the distressed part hijack the process, (e.g. getting distracted, saying it’s pointless, telling you this is NOT helping).
- Commit to avoiding problem-focused questions in favour of solution-focused ones.
- Be on guard for setbacks. The brain is used to defaulting to old patterns of churning the problem. When you notice it…. stop. Switch tracks. Repeat until the brain catches up with the new way of doing things.
At this point you might be thinking, ‘Well Linda, you clearly don’t understand how bad MY problem is’.
And I get it. It always feels like OUR problem is worse, different, bigger, tragic.
But we only ever have two choices…
Give our power to the problem. Or give our power to the solution.
And they ARE choices.
Sometimes, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes, the mind whips us into a frenzy. When that happens we now have the problem, coupled with painful thoughts, emotions and self-defeating behaviours.
And here are just some of the little thoughts that tie us up…
- I’m devastated, I actually can’t cope.
- The universe hates me, I must have done something terrible in a past life to deserve this.
- It’s the end of the road for me. I can’t stand it. I’ll die lonely and alone.
- I’ll never get over it/him/her.
- I’m going to end up a failure, a starving bag-lady, disowned by my children, old and sick, ugly and unloved, fat and worthless, unacknowledged and forgotten.
Then we wonder why we end up anxious, depressed and for some…suicidal.
And it’s not all to do with the problem. It’s to do with the faulty thinking about the problem.
And thank goodness we have a choice about our own thoughts. With practice, we can recognise how we’re sabotaging our chances of turning everything around.
Statistics show that those who are resilient and bounce back quickly do some of the following:
Get humble – and recongise that the world doesn’t spin around their desires
Cease fantasizing – that if they keep head-butting a brick wall, it’ll magically disappear
Quit demanding – that the world and everyone in it changes
Stop the drama – of playing the problem over with a large dash of catastrophic thinking and mind-movies that are hellish
Become Intolerant – Of any thoughts, beliefs and behaviours that are self-defeating. Laying down values to live by, owning their circle of control, being single minded in the pursuit of self-growth and empowerment
Get solution-oriented – If the problem is a ‘dilemma’, then it’s a matter or working through the pros and cons and seeing where the sticking point is. If the problem is a ‘loss’ then it’s a matter of nurture and support until grief and healing takes its course. If the problem is strategic, then it’s a matter of getting steps in place to overcome the hurdle and get to the goal.
Get REAL – And work in terms of the Serenity Prayer, where they ask their higher-self or their God to, ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference’.
So, the next time your life turns into a nightmare…
Look to see what’s real and what’s not. Look to see what you can and can’t do about it.
Have deep compassion for the part of you that’s devastated. We don’t want to be in denial about pain, we want to acknowledge it and listen to our inner fears. BUT, then we have to take charge and not let that part try to solve the problem. Remember the solution is on a different level to the hurt and fear.
And it’s not easy. It’s a ‘Hero’s Journey’.
The gauntlet you’re being called to pick up, is a means of transformation.
If you don’t pick it up, it’s going to trip you up over and over again. It’s lying there on the ground and you’re not going to get anywhere having a staring contest with it.
Now it’s possible that at this point in time, it’s just too heavy to lift. You can’t do it. Your life is in bits. If you’re in the middle of a crisis, you feel like the gauntlet can go eff itself.
You don’t want transformation.
You don’t want to do the work.
What you want is peace!
And that’s normal.
We all want things change ‘out there’, because it’s so much easier than changing ourselves.
So, we might have to start slowly. We have to commit to removing problem-related thoughts one by one.
We get quiet. We stop resisting. We stop magnifying the issue.
And most importantly of all, we don’t let our mind run off in all directions, bringing back more misery and pain to add to an already shit situation. Instead, we send it off to look for solutions. It’s brilliant at its job, it’ll always finds what we ask it for.
Be patient. Be persistent. Be relentless.
Because putting our minds to work FOR us, is the only real power we’ll ever possess.
When we accept the challenge, we’re going to face life with courage and we’re going to overcome that problem we thought would be the end of us.
And we can start by getting out of our own way. We can start engaging with our own inner, wiser, King Solomon.
This is the secret weapon that makes the difference between those who continue to flounder and those who flourish.
To your success.
Linda B x
Linda Bebbington is a psychotherapist & life coach, specialising in wellness and anxiety issues. She’s the creator of ‘Hypno-Fit’, ‘The Confidence Code’ and ‘Dear Therapist’…which help you take charge of your own life and happiness.
If you need help to heal or to build a bright & healthy future you can book a free 30 minute consultation HERE