- Your family doctor, or therapist, often start by breaking down a problem to identify symptoms/patterns.
- You can do the same yourself by defining specific behaviors, triggers, and the skills you need.
- It's always helpful to build in support: Someone to encourage you, give you new ideas, hold you accountable.
You go to your family doctor because you are having stomach pains. You see a therapist because you’ve been feeling anxious. Both start by asking about symptoms, patterns, what helps, and what doesn’t, and by your answers, zero in on possible underlying causes and eliminate possible treatment options. Solving a problem starts with breaking it down.
But if you are stuck solving an emotional or relationship problem, you can do the same yourself—be your own therapist. Here are some questions and statements to help you untangle your problem and move toward a solution.
What is the Problem in Concrete Terms?
“What brings you here today?” asks your doctor, your therapist. Telling your doctor you’re not feeling well or a therapist that you’re not happy are not solvable problems—too vague. You need something concrete to focus on: I’m worried I’ll get fired from my job; I don’t know how to handle my daughter’s tantrums; my partner and I are arguing a lot. By zeroing in on a specific problem, concrete behaviors, you know what to focus on and fix.
Does the Problem Come and Go, or Seem to be Always There?
Yes, I’m lately worried about my job all the time; no, my daughter’s tantrums obviously come and go, but I feel I never handle them well; our arguments have increased lately, but we also can have good times.
Most problems—with your mood, your relationships—are rarely in a steady state. If you’re particularly worried about your job today, the question to ask yourself is: Why today rather than yesterday?
Are There Specific Triggers That Set Off the Problem or Worsen It?
Yes, when my supervisor seems cold and detached, I worry more that she is unhappy with me. When my daughter has a busy day with back-to-back activities, or I’ve had the same, it’s easy for her to melt down, for me to lose my patience; if my partner and I try to talk about a problem late at night, it never goes well.
Sometimes the triggers are external—your supervisor’s mood, your daughter’s tired—or internal—you are stressed out, haven’t slept well, or had too much to drink. Knowing the triggers allows you to anticipate problems and potentially cut them off at the pass.
What Have You Done to Solve the Problem?
Not much—I’m trying to lay low on my job and do the best I can do, but I’m still worried; I’ve tried putting my daughter in time-out, but she bucks it, making it all worse; I’ve tried not saying anything that will upset my partner—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Good to know; solving problems is often a process of elimination. You need to try things to find out what does or doesn’t help.
What’s Your Theory About Why You Are Having This Problem?
I think my boss doesn’t like me, or I really don’t know what I’m doing and feel like I’m faking it all the time; my daughter is upset because she is jealous of the new baby, or I can’t cope because I’m tired all the time; we’re arguing because we’re not having enough sex, or are busy with jobs and are disconnected.
Even folks who say they don’t know they’re having this problem, if pressed, will come up with an explanation—that’s how our minds work. Identifying your theory either helps you know what to focus on—your skills, the new baby, disconnection—or it helps you question your approach and substitute a more realistic one: No, we’re having plenty of sex and affection, so it must be something else.
Where Are You Stuck? What Do You Need to Move Forward?
I know I need to talk to my boss about my job and how she thinks I’m doing, but I’m afraid to, or I realize my skills are shaky and I need more training. I need to spend more time with my daughter so she is less jealous, or I need to look up information on dealing with tantrums or talk to a therapist about managing this. We need couple therapy, or we need to have a heart-to-heart conversation about all the arguments we’ve been having and how to stop them.
Knowing where you’re stuck helps you identify the problem under the problem, and the practical or emotional skills or steps you need to solve the problem. If you’re struggling in your job, get training; if you’re afraid of your boss, learn to be assertive. Ditto for tantrums or marital arguments.
What Support Do You Need?
All this can be hard to do on your own; sometimes you need support to change what you do—a friend to encourage your conversation with your boss or help you craft an email, a therapist who can teach you skills or hold you accountable: So, did spend one-on-one time with your daughter this week? It helps to know that someone’s got your back and wants what you want.
There you go. Some questions to help untangle what it is that tangles you. Start by stepping back, getting a bit of perspective, look at the bigger picture and the pattern. Then ask yourself some of these questions. See what you discover.
Problems will always crop up. While you can’t control what life throws at you, you can control how you think about them.
Ready to tackle your problems?