A wise therapist once told me that there were three universal solutions to any recurring problem. To help his clients, he would start by describing those three solutions. Then he would ask, “Which of these would you like to apply to your current situation?”
Let’s try this right now! Think of a recurring problem you have—with another person, with yourself, or with a situation, a thing, a place, a feeling. Some examples of persistent problems might be:
What is the recurring problem situation in your life? Got it?
OK, now I’ll describe the three general methods you might use to cope at a better level. The first two might sound familiar, but they are not always what they seem. The third is definitely unusual. As you read, ask yourself, “Which of these solutions would I like to apply to my situation?”
The three solutions are:
1. Accept the situation as it is.
The Acceptance Solution works with things and people you can't control, such as most other adults in your life. Is your brother going to ever admit it when he’s wrong? Probably not. Is your friend going to stop her destructive drinking? You’ve confronted her several times and gotten the brush-off.
Maybe you tend to imagine the worst, as in the example above. You could “blame your brain” and accept that worrying is just part of your genetic programming. With your tardy friend, you could tell yourself, "This is just the way she is." With those misplaced keys, you could just shrug your shoulders and keep searching.
Acceptance is not necessarily a passive process and it's not just "giving up." It does require telling yourself the truth about an unpleasant inner reality—like that you are jealous of someone-- or about an unpleasant outer reality—like that a trip costs more than you can afford. It requires awareness of how you feel and the ability to acknowledge those feelings. This can be hard.
On the bright side, acceptance means that you stop beating your head against the wall. You can work with your current reality, however much you may dislike that reality. It may be a relief to stop “pushing the river;” you can let it flow by itself and turn your attention to other matters. Making the conscious decision to let something alone may even empower you to change other things that you can control. For example, even if you realize that you can't change your friend's drinking habits, you can protect yourself by insisting that you will be the one to drive home after a party.
And that brings us to the second universal solution:
2. Change something.
The Change Solution is a great option when the “something” you decide to change is yourself. You can also use this solution to improve the world around you, from tidying up your house to making a difference in the world at large.
In the case of your always-late friend, you might opt for an attitude change and reinterpret the typical 15-minute wait for her as “free time.” You could bring a book and settle back and read while you wait. Or, you could reappraise her lateness as her unique character flaw, not as something you need to take personally. Alternatively, you could decide that maintaining this friendship just isn’t worth it and stop calling to make dates.
If you find yourself dreaming up a catastrophic scenario again, you could decide to distract yourself the instant you realize you are mind-traveling into Worry World. Or, you could substitute more realistic thoughts for the upsetting ones—“This is so unlikely to happen.” "Whatever happens, I can cope."
Change can be small and still be satisfying. Instead of accepting “the fluster of lost door keys,” you could put up a key hook and train yourself to hang up your keys the moment you come in the house. As counselor Bill O’Hanlon puts it in his book by the same name, just “do one thing different.”
The Change Solution takes active work. You have to figure out what you want to change, why you want to change, and how you will change. At some point, you might experience setbacks and even abject failures. But if you persist, you’ll discover that experimenting with better ways to live your life will build confidence. And if you fail again and again…why that’s a recurring problem for which you can apply one of the 3 universal solutions!
Finally, there’s the creative third solution, which is…
3. The Speed-Up Solution: Recognize that you are having the same problem AGAIN and figure out how to get through it faster.
Solution #3 works beautifully with problems you repeatedly cause for yourself. I think of solution #3 as “The Speed-Dial Solution” because you are still calling the same number, but you’re doing it faster.
Taking your perpetually-late friend, you would normally ruminate like this: “Why is she always late? Doesn’t she respect my time? Doesn’t she value me as a person? Doesn’t she value our friendship? Should I say something? No, that hasn’t worked....” Once you realize you sound like a broken record, you could tell yourself, “Here’s me, re-playing the same old song. OK, I’ll play it faster. Resentment. Anxiety. Feel devalued. OK, done with that!” You’ve just reduced your brooding time from one hour to one minute!
When you realize you are lost in your typical catastrophic scenario, learn to break away as fast as possible. Even if you are never able to stop catastrophic thoughts entirely, you'll minimize the stress of them and the time they absorb. Eventually, you'll take them less seriously and be able to tell yourself, "Just thoughts."
You can also give a recurring thought pattern or behavior pattern a label. Let's say you and your partner have heated arguments about what food should be used and what thrown out. Sometimes this quarrel comes to represent everything you find annoying about your partner. But instead of spending an hour feeling resentment, just say to yourself, "The refrigerator argument," and be done with it. The label can help you put the problem in its place.
The Speed-Up Method utilizes both acceptance and change. You accept that your feelings, thoughts, and actions will follow a certain pattern, but you decide to speed up your usual way of handling the problem so that you spend less time agonizing over it. Recognizing your habitual coping strategy might also lead to a greater awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, paving the way to use The Change Solution in the future.
The Power of a Conscious Decision
Now think back to the problem you would like to solve. What’ll it be? 1. Acceptance; 2. Change; 3. The Speed-Up Solution: Go through the problem in your usual way but faster.
If your problem is a knotty one, you may need to divide it into a series of steps; you may discover that you could apply a different solution to each step. And if your chosen solution isn’t working, try a different one, and see how you feel.
Whatever solution you choose, you’ll experience a boost from making a conscious decision about how to handle your problem.
Can you think of any recurring problem that can’t be solved in one of these 3 ways?
© Meg Selig, 2015
If you enjoyed this blog, you might like these related blogs:
"The fluster of lost door keys," from the poem "One Art," by Elizabeth Bishop.
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