You know that thing… that thing that niggles at the back of your mind, that thing that wakes you up at 3 am, that thing you studiously avoid thinking about during waking hours? Do you actually know what that thing—your problem—is?
I ask because most of the time I do not want to even remotely think about my problems. I push them away, distract myself, work around them, and my #1 go-to move, deny them. If I had a superpower, it would be denial.
I find there’s an inverse relationship between the perceived size of my problem and my desire to entertain it: the bigger I believe the problem to be, the less I want to deal with it.
Here’s the paradox of problems: On one hand, it’s my experience that I won’t fully recognize the problem until I’m ready to deal with it. On the other hand, when I have the courage to look at the problem straight-on and frame it up clearly, it helps me better deal with it.
So much about this whole problem-thing happens within the shadowy realm of the unconscious. My theory is that we don’t want to look at the problem because subconsciously, we’ve already arrived at a conclusion. And that’s the problem.
- You won’t acknowledge that it’s time to quit your job, because you’re afraid of leaving the known for the unknown.
- You won’t acknowledge that you’re unhappy in your relationship because you think that if you do, you’ll have to leave.
- You won’t go to the doctor to get that weird skin thing checked, because you’re afraid they’ll tell you it’s cancer.
The crazy paradoxical part is, that by refusing to acknowledge the problem, you make it that much more likely that your scary eventuality might occur. You might be so demoralized at work that you perform poorly and are fired, you may become so withdrawn in your relationship that your spouse decides to leave you, and well the skin thing? Let’s all just get those checked.
Here’s the other kicker about problems.
Our unwillingness to bring the problem from subconscious mental rumblings into our conscious mind makes it impossible to accurately define the problem. Imagine if a crime scene investigator was so grossed out by blood that they were like, “Ew, I’m not even going IN there.” Yet we do that all the time with our problems—we do not even go in there.
We don’t go in there because we think we’ll avoid pain and keep ourselves safe. But avoiding creates its own pain. You don’t avoid pain by avoiding your problems. What I’m trying to say is that sticking your head in the sand only gets you bitten in the ass.
First, create a safe space.
What I’ve learned to do is to create a safe space where I can bring my problems into the light and examine them. I create safe space by making this deal with myself: “Self, just because I am taking this problem out of the shadows to look at it, doesn’t mean I have to do anything about it.”
This promise separates the problem from its foregone conclusion, and that makes it safer to contemplate. Think about it, if you’re convinced that looking at your relationship issues is absolutely going to result in a breakup, you are not going to look. No way. But can you really know that will be the outcome? Can you even be sure you understand the problem? The thing about foregone conclusions is they make you feel scared (unsafe) and that shuts down all access to creative solutions.
If problem A leads to Outcome B, then why even think about it?
But what if problem A is not actually the problem?
From a safe space, clearly define the problem.
The first thing to do in your problem-solving space is to clearly define the problem. This can be tricky! You also might want to bounce your thoughts off a trusted friend, coach or therapist. But be sure it’s someone who isn’t going to yank you out of your problem-solving safe space.
Here’s how you can work with a problem in your safe space.
It’s good to actually write your questions and answers, as that has the function of taking the scary stuff out of your head, where you can look at it more objectively.
Original scary problem that I couldn’t even look at: I hate my job and I need to leave.
Step 1: Remove the foregone conclusion and restate only the problem: I hate my job.
Step 2: Ask yourself some “why” questions about your initial Problem Statement: I hate my job.
- Q: Why?
- A: Because my boss is an ass.
- Q: Why?
- A: Because whenever I ask a question, he just tersely tells me to refer to the employee manual and doesn’t actually help me.
As we dig deeper in this example, we start to see that there’s a need that’s not being met.
A better problem statement might be: I am not getting the information I need to do my job.
Hmm… but that’s not quite it you think to yourself, because you can certainly look stuff up in the manual.
What the problem really is: I am not getting the support and teamwork vibe I want at work.
Ah! Quite a different problem than the original.
Engage your creativity.
Now, that you have your Problem Statement and you’ve created safety for yourself by separating the problem from its foregone conclusion, you can engage your creativity to brainstorm possible solutions.
Your list of potential solutions could look like this:
- Possible Solution 1: I could ask Bob, my boss, for a meeting once a week to discuss my work projects and get info and feedback.
- Possible Solution 2: Gina, my co-worker, seems like she really wants to help and work as a team, maybe I could try asking her some of my questions and then look in the manual for the rest.
- Possible Solution 3: I could transfer to Judy’s department, she seems to have more of a teamwork vibe.
- Possible Solution 4: Just realizing that the problem isn’t that I hate my job, but that I was trying to get my needs met by someone who isn’t able to, makes me feel so much lighter that I don’t feel I need to do anything dramatic for now.
Here’s the key: Wait. No seriously, wait. Unless you feel 100% clear about your solution, give it time to marinate. Other ideas will pop in now that you’ve ignited your creativity.
Give it up to the universe and see what shows up—this is where the magic happens.
The bigger the problem is, the longer you should wait. (Unless of course urgent action is needed, but most of the time our psyche tells us it’s urgent when it’s really not.)
Then, when you feel ready, put your preferred solution into play.