Problems as Bad Solutions

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Maggie thinks Dan is too dependent on pot and is worried. But when she brings this up with him, the conversation goes nowhere. Not a big deal, or leave me alone are his steady reactions.

Bill will admit that he is a control freak, but while he tries to rein it in and bite his tongue, it only works for a short time before he falls back into his old ways.

Maria procrastinates and this has gotten her in trouble on her job where she misses deadlines or winds up pulling all-nighters, or with her partner because he’s always on her reminding her about paying bills that turn into arguments or leave her feeling like a 10-year-old.

Whatever you see as a problem in someone else, or you may see as a problem for you is usually not the problem you need to focus on. Problems more often are bad solutions to others problems lying below the surface. This is where you need to focus if the problem is to be resolved.


Maggie has a right to be concerned because she cares about Dan, but her conversations aren’t productive because they leave Dan feeling criticized and micromanaged; they don’t address the real problem that makes his pot smoking a bad solution.

This is ideally what Dan needs to figure out and talk with Maggie about. He may be struggling with depression or anxiety; he may hate his job, or even feel trapped in the relationship; he may be constantly worrying about money. The pot helps him get these worries out of his mind, helps him relax. It’s not a problem for him because it helps him cope.

This shortcut to coping is true with any addiction-like behavior (drugs, alcohol, gaming, gambling, porn, etc.). To avoid sounding like a critical scolding parent, Maggie needs to turn the conversation towards the possible drivers of Dan’s behavior, and it’s fine for her to jump-start the conversation by floating a list of possible sources: Are you feeling depressed, unhappy with your job, are we doing okay, are you worried about money? She needs to be careful how she sounds, doing her best to sound concerned than critical.

Dan may still stonewall her or not know the answer at the time, but at least she is changing the conversation by asking the hard questions. Rather than pressuring him to stop, the conversation turns towards the real underlying source driving Dan’s behavior. It also helps Maggie see Dan not just as a pot-head, but someone who is emotionally struggling. 


While Bill seems less defensive than Dan and is acknowledging his problem, he is hitting a psychological roadblock because he’s trying to white-knuckle through changing the surface behavior and forcing himself to “let-go”. Instead he needs to drill down and find what is driving his controlling behavior. His control is likely a bad solution to his own anxiety; when he is in control-mode, he can emotionally pave over it. It’s when he is biting his tongue that the anxiety builds until he reaches a point that he can’t control it any longer, causing him to fall back into his well-worn coping style.

If Bill wants to fix his issue with control, he doesn’t need to rein himself in more forcefully but instead address the underlying anxiety driving it — be it with medication, meditation, therapy, or a combination of all three.


There are likely two possible underlying problems driving Maria’s procrastination. One may be that like Bill she easily gets anxious — the project at work, the mounting bills she can’t afford to pay leave her feeling overwhelmed and rattled, unsure where to start. While Bill tries to manage through control, Maria tries to cope through avoidance, putting off dealing with the things she feels so overwhelmed by. 

The other source for Maria’s procrastination may be an underlying attention deficit disorder, where procrastination is a common symptom. Here it is not about feeling overwhelmed but easily scattered and derailed, and hard tasks are hard because she has a difficult time mentally focusing on them. Only with a hard deadline from her supervisor, or drop-dead dates by a bill collection company may she be able to get more focused and do what is difficult.

Of course, Maria may be struggling with both anxiety and ADHD; they commonly are found together. But like Bill, the solution to her problem lies not in berating herself for not doing what she needs to do, or arguing with her partner to get off her back, but instead get support and skills in dealing with her underlying anxiety, or possible untreated attention-deficit disorder.

The theme here is clear: Whenever you identify a problem with someone else or within yourself, the next question you want to ask is, “If this is a bad solution, what’s the underlying problem?” This can be applied to children who struggle with homework, relationship affairs, angry outbursts, struggles managing money, any emotional / behavioral problem. Be curious rather than upset. Assume that you and everyone else are doing the best they can, but that there something else is driving this behavior that is not being addressed. You don’t have to have the answer but merely ask the question and be willing to pursue the answer.

Problems are never what they seem. How are your problems bad solutions?


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