In my March blog article I posed some questions in the second last paragraph and some people, frustratingly, wanted to know what the answers to those questions were! That’s kind of the point isn’t it? It’s the answers, not the questions, that are the key. Have you noticed though, the number of times you ask yourself a question but don’t answer it?

People routinely ask themselves things like “How could I have been so stupid?”; “Why did I do that?”; “When will I learn to keep my big mouth shut?”; and “Why do I let them treat me like that?”.

Now, we could have a discussion about who is asking the question and who is being asked, but, for now, I’m more interested in the idea of asking questions that don’t get answered. Who does that? If you asked another person an important question and they didn’t answer it, but just went on to another conversation, wouldn’t you think that was a little odd?

Labelled for reuse; Sam Garza, Mono Lake Serenity; Wikimedia Commons
Source: Labelled for reuse; Sam Garza, Mono Lake Serenity; Wikimedia Commons

Even though we expect other people to answer our questions, we don’t seem to have that same standard for ourselves. We can ask a serious question of ourselves like “How could I have been so stupid to trust that person and call them a friend?” and just move on to the next thought or idea as though we’d asked “Will I have mashed or boiled potatoes tonight?”.

Well, you might say, “It’s a difficult question with no easy answer”. Of course it is! But surely it’s more important to answer the difficult questions than it is to answer the easy questions.

If it is the case that these are questions that need answers, then the issue becomes, how do we get the answers? Luckily, we have our own purpose-built, answer-generating machinery that is part of our inherited endowment. This machinery is powerful, robust, and persistent. It never tires of generating potential solutions to problems. The key here is the word “potential”. This machinery is a generator, not a thinker, so it just churns out one possibility after another. It doesn’t spend any time evaluating the possibility before it presents it to you. That’s your job.

While you can’t really affect the possibilities that are generated – if you knew what solution was needed, you wouldn’t need this machinery – you can help the machine out. The machinery works on whatever it’s pointed at. So, if you want help generating solutions to a problem, you have to focus on the problem. That’s only part of what helps though. Some people might say they spend too long focussing on their problem. Sometimes it might seem like you’re overthinking a problem and that you just can’t stop thinking about it. This is where the listening comes in. Lots of people focus on problems by just going over and over them in their mind but not really paying attention to all of the thoughts that are swirling around.

For some reason, it seems to be easier to focus on your problem and pay attention to your thoughts if you get your problem “out there”. Perhaps by saying something out loud you get it out of your mind and provide the space for a new idea to sprout.

Saying things out loud and listening to them with your own ears often has unexpected and beneficial effects. Helping you say out loud the things that you’d rather not think about may well be the most useful thing achieved in counselling or psychotherapy. You can create a similar experience to what happens in counselling and psychotherapy by just saying out loud the things that are racing around in your mind.

Say them out loud and, while you’re saying them, pay attention to what else comes into your mind while you’re talking. Then, say that new arrival out loud, and see how your mind responds to that.

You don’t have to focus on your problems constantly either. Have you ever had the experience of trying to remember the name of a movie or a favourite actor? You know you know it but you just can’t bring it to mind. Then, at some unspecified time in the future, the answer just “pops” into your mind. Clearly, the solution generator is happy to work in the background once it knows what it’s meant to be working on.

In the final analysis, you are the only person who can find the solutions to your own dilemmas. And thankfully, you’ve got everything you need to do that. To help the right solution find its way into your consciousness you can:

  1. Focus on your problem;
  2. Say out loud the things that are going around in your mind;
  3. Notice other thoughts that occur to you while you are talking; and
  4. Never leave a question without having generated and considered some answers

The next time you find yourself thinking something like “How could I have been so stupid to trust that person and call them a friend?”, stay with it. Hold that thought! Say it out loud. Say it over and over. What do you think to yourself as you’re saying it? Say that thing out loud and wait for the next idea to come along. The most satisfying solution might not materialise straight away but it will come.

Be prepared to be surprised and delighted at what your mind will accomplish for you if you let it do all that it is designed to do.

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