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RID Yourself of Psychological Distress

Three simple steps that will help you live more contentedly.

Life is a journey of ups and downs. Sometimes the ups don’t stay up as long as we’d like them to and sometimes the downs stay down for too long. In between the ups and downs, however, there can be long spaces where we simply meander contentedly through the landscape of life.

Occasionally it happens that the downs stay around much, much longer than they should and also plummet far further than we would want. During these times, professional help can often restore balance that has been disrupted but there are also things you can do personally to get back on track.

When correcting any problem, the way in which the trouble is understood will have a large bearing on how effective and efficient the remediation efforts are. We recently had difficulty with our television reception and assumed that we needed a new antenna installed. Luckily, the technician who came to do the work didn’t take our advice but set about investigating the situation. It turned out that our antenna was perfectly fine but the lead making the connection with the tv was faulty. By replacing the lead, our channel reception was restored. If we had followed through with our assessment and replaced the antenna, nothing would have changed in terms of how many tv channels we were able to watch.

So understanding the problem correctly is paramount.

Given the rigorous way it has been developed and tested, Perceptual Control Theory (PCT; www.pctweb.org) is a great friend to have when accurate understandings are required. From the perspective of PCT, the most common cause of psychological distress is conflict. The reason that it’s important to understand psychological distress as conflict is because a conflict always has two sides. Mostly, however, when people address problems that are psychologically distressing they typically think only of one side.

People can become very focussed on stopping their smoking or reducing their anger outbursts or increasing their fitness but scarcely pay any attention at all to the things they get out of smoking or exploding with anger or managing their busy schedule without having to cram in time at the gym. When anything is very hard to stop or start it is likely that there is something pushing or pulling from the other side. Identifying what the pushing or pulling is about can be a key to solving the problem.

Getting to know the multi-faceted nature of any particular problem is important and this includes not only understanding both sides of the problem but also appreciating what the problem is with the problem.

Is your fear of failure a problem? What’s the problem with fearing failure? Do you get worried about other people thinking negatively of you when you’re out in public? What bothers you about people’s negative evaluations of you?

Whatever the problem is, reflecting on why the problem is a problem or what exactly it is that bothers you about the problem will help bring into focus important aspects of your life that might previously have only been skulking in the shadows. Coming to recognise “the problem with the problem” will help trace the difficulty back to its source by illuminating essential features of the ideal way you’d like your life to be materializing. From this higher ground, not only will solutions begin to appear, but the problem itself won’t seem so problematic.

This process can be summarised in three simple steps:

Recognise the problem

Identify the problem with the problem

Determine the higher ground.

So, to RID yourself of psychological distress at any time, follow these three steps. Recognise the relativity in any problem you experience. That is, think about your problem as having two sides rather than one. Even in situations that seem fairly one-sided – perhaps you’ve got a bigoted, mean-spirited boss – there is likely to be a battle going on inside your head. Understanding this battle will help you manage the problem more effectively. What’s the battle? The battle could be something like wanting to tell your boss exactly what you think of her managerial tactics but also wanting to keep your job. So the actual problem is not really your boss’s behaviour but your dilemma about wanting to give your boss a blast and wanting a job to turn up to tomorrow.

Once you’ve recognised the problem, Identify what the problem is with the problem. What’s the problem with holding back from letting your boss know exactly how you feel? What bothers you about hanging on to your job by not speaking your mind? (This is not an attempt to excuse your boss’s deplorable behaviour but rather to help you find a way through an otherwise intolerable situation). Sometimes asking the “what’s the problem with the problem” question a few times can be needed to forge a way through the mire.

By learning more about the problem, the higher ground or more deeply cherished aspects of the situation will become clear. Perhaps you discover that your sense of justice, fair play, and decency is being disturbed. Maybe you feel a sense of helplessness about your ability to change the situation. You might discover that it’s important to you to do what you can to make situations better. As you dwell on this significant idea it occurs to you that it takes a certain strength to turn up to work day after day to face yet another barrage of petty spitefulness from your boss and, by doing that, you’re earning an income which enables you to make things better at home for your family. Considering things from this perspective pushes into view a resilient and steadfast assuredness that feels a bit like an impenetrable shield you have at your disposal to use whenever your boss launches her stinging insults. Mulling over this situation leaves you nodding prophetically to yourself as you realise that you can handle whatever comes your way at work because you’re building a better world for your family.  

Determining your own personal higher ground will remind you of the things that are important to you at this point in your life and will help you become clearer about what to do next.

RIDding yourself of psychological distress is as simple as these three steps. Simple, however, does not necessarily mean easy. It can take discipline and perseverance to focus on things that may not, at first, seem to be directly related to the problem. The effort you make in following these steps, however, will pay big dividends in terms of the life you see spreading out before you.

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