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2021 Jan

Approaching Problems

Most people don’t welcome problems, but here’s why you shouldn’t resist them.

Self-awareness is the greatest gift you can bring to your life with other people. Self-aware people experience their inner world as very real, and this awareness usually gives them an empathic ability to imagine other people’s inner experiences. Being able to imagine the emotional impact of your behavior on others tends to make you more careful about how you act and speak. Thanks to your own self-awareness, you can never forget the hurt that is caused by careless responses between people.

Problems can be scary. They arouse helplessness because we don’t know how they will turn out. It’s hard to be a hero when something’s wrong. Even the strongest of us feels outclassed when faced with solving a tough problem.

But some people have a friendlier, less anxious relationship with their problems. They practice the habit of seeing problems as challenges, implicitly expected and requiring decisive action. These people have a creative, active approach to problems, breaking them down into steps and mini-goals. They ask themselves, what is the next tiny right choice? And then they do it. They keep doing the steps until the problem is solved or all that can be done has been done.

Other people resist and reject problems when they show up, as if the problem had offended them. To them, the problem should not have occurred in the first place. Because they put energy into protesting problems instead of solving them, they are limited to denial and escape instead of solutions. Since they refuse to accept problems as part of life, they don’t face them squarely.

How you view your problems has everything to do with the happiness of your life. Do you see problems as having something to teach you, or do they seem senseless and unnecessary? Could solving problems make you more competent, or are they meaningless obstacles that bring nothing but resentment? There is a profound difference between these two outlooks. One gives hope and energy, the other keeps you stuck in complaints.

In their book The Tools, authors Phil Stutz and Barry Michels describe these opposing attitudes as characterizing creators and consumers. Creators try to get to the point where they can see the problem as meaningful and bringing some kind of benefit.

Consumers, on the other hand, see life as something to be consumed for immediate gratification. When the goodies stop coming, they blame life rather than analyzing it. For the consumer, life’s problems are not instructive; they are just pointlessly unfair. They think getting what they want is the only way to happiness, but they’re not happy for long because consuming in itself does not create a meaningful life.

Consumers’ morale is vulnerable because they depend on circumstances in order to feel good about themselves. Their happiness depends on retaining control and prestige. Such a fragile security relies on luck and is rattled constantly by ordinary life.

Creators, on the other hand, find meaning in the struggle itself, as if wrestling with the problem is producing a work of art. They look at life, including problems, as the raw materials out of which life’s meaning and destiny must be fashioned. They know that once their initial fear abates, they can choose to learn, grow, and be strengthened by whatever happens next.

To find meaning strengthens the person looking for it. It is a more motivating and energizing philosophy than insisting that unwanted stuff shouldn’t happen and someone else is to blame for one’s problems.

If you go through life with a consumer mindset, countless opportunities to learn are lost. You don’t gain wisdom or spiritual growth through lessons learned. Consumers’ highest value is their own emotional reactivity: they are happy when things go their way and angry when they don’t. For consumers, their happiness rides the surface of the soap bubble of getting what they want.

But for the creator, the quality of their life becomes an inside job, dependent on how well they adapt whenever there’s a problem. As a creator, you end up on friendlier terms with your challenges, usually learning something useful, even if you wished it had never happened. You might get angry too, but that is soon set aside to work on the solution. Conversely, consumers get stuck in thinking that their emotional reactions are the point.

If life can be viewed a meaningful challenge for your own development, you own the controls. Right there, inside yourself, instant empowerment awaits—all it takes is one little attitude shift. You live not by what life has done for you lately, but what you have decided life is all about.

Lindsay Gibson

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Virginia Beach. She is the author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Who You Were Meant To Be. Visit www.drlindsaygibson.com for more information.

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