So, you’re about the drive to the airport for an important trip and damn, your tire is absolutely flat. Big problem. You mentally scramble, you’re sure you’re not going to make your flight. Panic sets in.
You’re about to drive to the airport for an important trip, you see the flat tire. You’re relieved. This trip was going to be torture, you weren’t prepared. Whew, you have an excuse. Thank god!
Problems are always in the eyes of the beholder. What someone sees as a problem, another sees as an opportunity or a challenge, or a relief. Events are events, situations are situations. It’s what we make of them that determines how we react and what we do next.
What we do next is often where we get stuck. Most of us have the skills and knowledge to solve most of the problems that life throws at us, but it is our emotional reaction that gets in the way of putting them to rest. The internal battle being waged is between the emotional and rational parts of our brain.
Here are the most common obstacles to solving problems:
Obstacle #1: You’re overwhelmed
The flat tire, an out-of-nowhere-totally-unexpected letter from the government about auditing your taxes; your partner is making noises about being unhappy and even possibly wanting to break up.
What to do:
This is about calming your anxious brain. Once your anxiety ramps up, your rational thinking goes off-line. Start by taking 5 deep breaths, or 10 or 20. Or go for a run, take a hot bath. Something that helps you emotionally settle. This is not about problem-solving at this point but managing your anxiety so your rational brain can get back online.
Obstacle #2: You disasterize
Overwhelmed is about being flooded and can’t think. Here the problem is that you are automatically going down the rabbit-hole of disasters: You’ll miss the meeting and you’ll get fired; the audit means that the government confiscates everything you own and will ever own including your first-born child; you’ll breakup and wind up forever partner-less, lonely, with a naked lightbulb hanging over your head in a dark apartment.
Again, this is about your emotions going crazy, overreacting like hyper-alert guard dogs, and churning out these worse-case scenarios to psychologically prepare you for the worst.
What to do:
You need to calm those barking dogs down. They’re likely driven by some bad experiences you had when you were younger that have been wired into your brain and are causing you to overreact. Start by focusing first on the anxiety and doing whatever calming routine works for you. Next get your rational, adult brain online: Will you really get fired for missing the meeting? Will you be living in a cardboard box because of the audit? Can this relationship be fixed, and if not, will you never find someone else?
If, after calming down you decide that your worse-case has some rationality imbedded in it — that yes, your boss is crazy enough to actually fire you — you want to do 2 things: First, realize what you can and cannot control, what you can and cannot do. You can control you and your response to your boss, the audit, your partner, but you can’t control them. Second, plot out a long-term plan for your worse fears: What if you really did lose your job; what could you do to survive until you found another? What if you had to pay back a bunch of money to the government, how could you financially manage? What if your partner really did break up, what do you imagine you could do over time to move on with your life?
The reasoning here is that by having a plan mentally in place not only do you begin to see that the consequences are not as bleak as you initially think, but you are now mentally prepared and can stop the endless, non-productive rumination.
Obstacle #3:You feel trapped; whatever you do won’t work
When you feel trapped you believe that nothing can be done, that nothing will work. This quickly leads to depression.
What to do:
The antidote to feeling trapped is taking action, any action that helps you move forward. If you feel trapped in your job because you think it is only job you can do, take the initiative to look for other jobs that may match your skill-set. If you are worried about the audit, go online and look up info on audits, or talk with an accountant, tax attorney, or legal aide. If you are feeling emotionally or economically trapped in a relationship, find out about shelters and support systems. The key is doing rather than dithering and better yet, finding support along the way.
Obstacle #4: You don’t know where to start
This is generally a combination of all of the above. When you feel overwhelmed or trapped, it all feels like a jumble, the problem feels so huge that you can’t wrap your head around it.
What to do:
You need to calm your anxious mind and then use your rational mind to break the problem down into smaller pieces. Drill down and see if you can uncover the core of what is bothering you the most: Is it about the job itself or your boss’ reaction? About money or the stress of an audit? About breaking up or about the loneliness you anticipate after? Figuring out what is the it of the problem can help you know where to start focusing your energy.
Once you’ve nailed this down, act. As you move forward, even with baby steps, you will begin to see what really lies ahead, the real problem and real solutions will become more defined, the path you need to take more clear.
Obstacle #5: You need to have the Right solution to the problem
If you are perfectionist and self-critical, or conflict-avoidant, you don’t move forward and take action because you are afraid of making a mistake, of not doing it right. Doing it right means you have to avoid getting the reaction that you most fear — your boss’ criticism, the government’s hardline response, your partner’s blow-back to your questions about the relationship. Instead of deciding and being decisive, you flip-flop and flood yourself with anxiety.
What to do:
Here, the problem is less about the external problem and more your internal one. Here it’s about overriding that worried, critical and irrational voice that is telling you have to get it right in order to move forward. In reality there are few problems in life that can’t be repaired; life is, by nature, about trial and error. Listen to your gut, figure out what you want to do, do it, and then see what happens next.
And if what happens next is not what you wanted or expected, don’t berate yourself for screwing up and making the wrong decision, but say to yourself that you made the best decision you could at time, pat yourself on the back for taking action, and realize that a new problem has popped up that you need to address.
The obvious path to overcoming all of these problem-solving obstacles is clear: Calm yourself down; realize what you can control from what you can’t; sort out the rational from the irrational anxiety; get support and perspective and take action.
Like a lot of life’s lessons, it is a matter not of personality and skill but of simple, everyday courage — the courage to move forward in spite of how you feel so you can change how you feel.