The Best Approach to an Unsolvable Problem

No advice will help as much as this response from you.

Posted Apr 13, 2019

Urilux/Photo Images
Source: Urilux/Photo Images

A serious health challenge.

A stressful job that can’t be quit.

A relationship that’s as painful as it is loving.

Life serves up many problems with either no solution or only imperfect solutions that seem either just as bad or worse than the problem itself.

What do you do when someone you care about faces a problem like this? What if that someone is you?

We are far more than just solution-generation machines. In the face of unsolvable problems, we can still be there for each other and ourselves. 

How to Validate Someone (Or Yourself)

As a therapist, I’ve sat with many people over the years struggling with substantial problems with no good solutions. The pain of impossible situations is often what brings people to therapy.

I’m always struck by how much lighter people feel when they hear, “This is a difficult problem. Anyone in your shoes would be having trouble with this,” or simply, “You’re caught right now between a rock and a hard place. No matter what you do, it’s not going to be easy or pleasant.”

They leave the conversation with the same problem, but carrying less despair and stress. Meaning they have better access to the inner resources they need to face the difficulty.

Telling someone (or yourself), “This is hard. There’s no good solution,” is a form of validation. 

Validating someone’s (or your own) experience is a helpful response in many situations, but in the face of unsolvable problems, it’s often the only help you can offer.

The Road to Solutions

Don’t dismiss validation just because it doesn’t solve the problem directly. Validation makes us stronger. Without it we may feel incompetent, unworthy, or even crazy in our suffering. That adds extra weight to the actual problem.

We need to know we’re normal and acceptable, even when life challenges us. Validation makes this clear. It provides much-needed relief and the strength to carry on under demanding circumstances.

In some instances, validation may be the only thing that might make change possible. Knowing how to offer validation is like wielding a superpower.

When we accept ourselves in our troubled state, we gain strength. For the first time, we might be able to make choices that would move us into a better position, and even solve the seemingly unsolvable. 

Get Unstuck

Let’s take the example of a stressful job that sucks the life out of you, but you can’t afford to quit. For various reasons, you feel stuck. 

Loved ones who worry about you will likely urge you to either quit or change your attitude. Neither response is validating. Here’s what validation might sound like: “What a terrible situation to find yourself in. Your job is impossibly stressful, but you can’t afford to quit. And even if there were another job for you somewhere else, you don’t have the time or the energy to look for it. You’re really stuck.”

Validation reflects and makes sense of a person’s experience. Just hearing words like those in the previous paragraph can lower blood pressure and open up creative thinking.

Validation doesn’t solve problems, and it doesn’t make things worse. Instead, it makes us more able to either solve hard problems or survive them.

Use validation whenever a loved one (or yourself) has a problem that seems to have no solution. If there is a solution, it will present itself to a calm and centered mind. Being validated calms and centers us.

When there’s no solution, validation helps us cope.