Got a Problem? It's Probably Not What You Think
Problems are psychological moving targets. The key is to discover their meaning.
Posted Jul 04, 2018
You walk out to your car and find that your front tire is flat. You’re upset — right? Maybe. Suppose you were heading to a meeting that you were dreading — now you have the perfect excuse (complete with photos). Thank you, car!
You find your partner’s late-night snack dishes left all over the kitchen counter — again. Do you have a right to get annoyed? Maybe. Some folks would be…whatever.
Problems are in the eyes of the beholder and are moving targets; what seems like a problem today may not be tomorrow, or for you, ever. The skill-set here is decoding the source of today’s problem — the problem under the problem.
Here are the most common types of “problems” and their sources:
The flat tire is just the flat tire, a variation of Freud’s famous quote when asked about the symbolism of smoking cigars (and he smoked up to 30 a day): "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Sometimes a flat tire is just a flat tire and not a handy get-out-of-jail card. Ditto for your kid getting sick and needing to picked up from daycare, your electricity going out for 3 hours or 3 days after a big storm.
It’s not personal, not about you. In life, stuff happens. Resist telling yourself the story about how your life sucks, that you can’t get a break. Just fix the problem and move on.
The flat tire would normally be a pain but not derail you. But today, because you really wanted and needed to be at the meeting, you go ballistic; the same for the sick child or the dishes on the counter. Hmmm, why today? It’s probably about stress.
This is the category that pet peeves in relationships often fall into: My boyfriend’s nose seems a bit too big, my girlfriend is always running late, the dishes are always on the counter. The “always” isn’t true, but today is True x 10! In AA they talk about HALTS: Hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed — common triggers for cravings. The key here is using the surface problem as a red flag letting you know there is likely something else is going on that really needs to be addressed. If it’s about stress and/or anxiety use as that: What else am I worried about? What else is stressing me out? (It may be as simple as not sleeping well.) Dig down, find it, fix it.
Most of us have 4 or 5 unique stress signs. Do you know yours? Map them out, write them down, stick on the refrigerator.
Tip of the iceberg
The dishes are not about dishes but something bigger — that you are doing all the heavy lifting in terms of house chores; the dishes are the tipping point and you are fed up. Or your supervisor continues to schedule meetings at an inconvenient time when she said she would change them; your fed-up with her unreliability and lack of follow-through.
The key here is defining the larger issue that your current annoyance is the tip of the iceberg, the last-straw of — the not-following-through or helping-out. Talk about that.
In a 1921 letter to Countess M., Rilke, the German poet, wrote, “Everyone, in the last analysis, experiences only one conflict in life which only disguises itself differently all the time…”
This is all about you, and at the deepest level, about that central conflict, core issue that Rilke is referring to. Everyone has one, your big emotional wound, your Achilles Heel, the one lesson that your problems and your life have most been trying to teach you that, as Rilke says, takes various disguises.
Here the problem isn't about dividing up chores, but about not feeling heard and feeling dismissed, or about always being in an imbalanced relationship where you do more and others are not as responsible, or never seem like they care about you. The job meeting is not about the meeting but about your supervisor as another important adult in your life disappointing you, not supporting you, letting you down.
Wounds and hurts and sad lessons learned in childhood. You can uncover them by looking at the larger patterns in your relationships, looking at what most pushes your emotional buttons, by seeing where you always seem to wind up, what you always regret not doing.
Once you are able to define what your life-problem is, you next step is action: Helping your partner understand what is really behind the dishes on the counter, your boss about the meeting, and what you need to change overall in the relationship. Do now what you couldn’t do with your parents.
Again, this is not about your partner or your supervisor, but about you and you resolving your own core issue, learning the lesson, and putting the problem to rest so that it can stop coming up, so others can give you what you need most.
All problems are not created equally. The goal here is to find the problem under the problem, using the problem as a door to your own self-awareness...
To hopefully change your relationships, to better understand and run your life.