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Tackling Problems by Zooming In and Zooming Out

How to develop the ability to see both the big picture and the details.

Key points

  • Problem-solving ability is limited when we see only the big picture or only the details; we need to see both.
  • Adjusting mental lenses allows us to zoom in and out to both perceive the details and the larger perspective.
  • Doing so allows for greater objectivity, empathy, and confidence with which to work through problems.
  • Some applications are grieving losses, resolving marital conflicts, and receiving insight to solve problems.

Often, life’s problems come in bunches. We encounter new, acutely painful problems while already struggling to keep up with the normal stressors of daily life.

Marital conflict, parenting dilemmas, financial pressures, job loss, disease, accidents, sick or dying loved ones, etc. can pile up and threaten our confidence and sense of efficacy.

As a counselor, I’ve encountered people so lost in the minute details of their problems that they can find no clarity about what they actually want or need. They are unable to grasp a big picture or overarching goal to help them organize their thoughts and feelings.

I’ve also encountered people so overwhelmed by the enormity of their difficult situation that they can’t see the smaller parts that are within their ability to immediately control and change.

Fixed or adjustable lenses

Both approaches indicate a fixed lens when what is needed is an adjustable lens. We need the capacity to zoom in and clearly see small details and zoom out to see the whole picture panoramically.

Often, this requires help and support from others because we have blind spots and don’t know we have them. We are “blind to what we are blind to.”

This is a good rationale for pursuing psychotherapy. An objective witness to both the parts and the whole can contribute to a more complete perspective we can't comprehend on our own.

The fixed lens problem brings to mind a useful construct called the gestalt. Broadly defined, gestalt is something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts.

This concept can contribute to our understanding of the variations in how individuals process the information taken in through the senses and apply it to their problem-solving.

You are probably familiar with optical illusions in which the eyes and the brain shift from one perception of an image to a different one. This is referred to as the figure-ground phenomenon.

We first see a young, beautiful woman, then she vanishes and is replaced by a haggard old woman. We first see a vase, then see two faces looking at each other. Our eyes and brains make this shift without much effort. Our neural systems are designed to allow this flexibility of perception. If we instruct our minds to see both images at the same time, we can perceive the whole.

Likewise, when viewing a painting in a museum, we may first take in the entire scene and experience the emotional and creative intention of the artist. Then, we step closer and admire the nuances of color and texture that show the artist’s skill.

Some viewers will only see the parts, and others only the whole. But both types of information are important to the fullest appreciation of the picture.

Let’s apply this to our need to be more flexible as we perceive and cognitively process information related to our personal experiences and problems, using a couple of examples.

Grieving Losses

When individuals experience the sudden loss of a loved one, they require a period of grieving as they work through a jumble of different feelings. Ultimately, there is no avoiding the need to grieve.

Sometimes, the grief process becomes complicated or delayed when a grieving person must attend to the details of funerals, burials, wills, and the needs of others who are also grieving. Because emotional energy is a finite resource, they feel they must zero in on these details, or their world will fall apart.

A person in this situation, when ready, can begin to adjust their lens and to examine and grieve the larger realities of their loss. They can begin to move toward acceptance. They can honor the lost loved one in a healthy and wholehearted way.

Marriage Counseling

The fixed-lens problem often occurs in marriages in distress.

A couple seeking professional help sometimes starts by presenting their respective inventories of irritations and frustrations. They focus on the recurrent issues and complaints they can never resolve.

They are stuck in the details. And the details are important because they provide clues pointing to the larger needs that lie beneath.

However, it is important to first hold a space for them to affirm each other, facilitate reflective listening, explore what works well in the relationship, and re-establish their commitment to one another.

In an atmosphere of greater empathy and mutual affirmation, both partners can zoom out to see where their common needs and interests lie. Then they are positioned to look at facts, make requests for change, and experiment with more intimate and life-giving ways to be together.

Source: Kenny Eliason/Unsplash
Problem solved.
Source: Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

If your lenses are stuck

Sometimes, we need to “see” an answer and not just think one.

Perhaps you’ve experienced the phenomenon of wrestling intently with a problem and obsessively focusing on it. You’ve been thinking and thinking, but no answer comes.

Then, you step outside, watch a hummingbird at the feeder, take a nap, cook a meal, or walk a dog. By stepping away, you give your mental lenses a rest and open your other senses to perceive the wider landscape of your life.

When you return to look again at the problem, insight has come suddenly, as if dropped from the sky!

Sometimes, we all need to zoom out, take in different stimuli, and return to appreciate a larger perspective on our problems.

This adjustable lens approach can be key to greater patience, resilience, and adaptability to the challenging circumstances of life.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Ruth E. Stitt M.S., M.Div., LPCS
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