Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
If there’s one thing most of us have too many of, it’s problems. I’m not even talking about the weightiest issues like war, famine, crumbling economies, and the like. Just the thought of those global issues overwhelms us. No, the problems that occupy most of our waking lives concern family, work, health, money, friends, and enemies. And no matter how smart, mature, savvy, or wealthy we are, all of us are going to encounter problems.
Now, that’s the bad news. But chances are good that you already knew that. The good news is that you can do something about many of these problems that invade your life. Sounds simple and obvious, doesn’t it? But a lot of people don’t behave like their problems can be overcome. Instead they hope that someone else will bail them out. Or they play the role of the proverbial ostrich with their head in the sand, ignoring what’s going on around them. Both of these responses lead to feelings of helplessness and reinforce the false idea that choices don’t matter.
But choices do change things. And the only empowering way to deal with life’s problems is to be proactive or actually pursue a solution instead of passively waiting for it play out. Here are some ways to make that happen:
Take responsibility for your problem
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A problem is not solvable until you take responsibility for how it affects you and what you want to be different. You have to say, “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many people would rather avoid taking responsibility for their problems by blaming someone else. Let me give an example from a recent conversation I had with a man I’ll call Brian.
Brian went to great lengths to tell me about a problem he was having with one of his employees. This person was spreading false rumors about him to the district manager and other employees. Brian was understandably afraid this would ruin his reputation with the district manager and turn other employees against him.
I asked him whether he had confronted the employee who was talking behind his back. “No,” he said, “it wouldn’t do any good.” I asked him why he thought his efforts would be futile and he replied, “because that’s just the way this person is.”
Then I said, “But you’re the manager. If this person refuses to stop this behavior you have the ability to fire them.” To this he replied, “I just know it wouldn’t stop them from spreading additional rumors.” “Why don’t you go to the district manager and explain the situation to him?” I said.
He replied, “He likes this person and he would tell me it’s no big deal.”
“But it’s a big deal to you,” I said. “Isn’t that a good enough reason to bring it up?”
“No, because it would hurt me more than help me,” he said.
Notice that each time I suggest he take action, he counters me with an excuse of why my idea wouldn’t work. Brian’s main problem is that he sees himself as a victim. According to him there is nothing that can be done; he is helpless to change the situation. Yet, I’m convinced that had he taken responsibility for how the problem was affecting him the whole situation would have turned out in his favor. He could have felt empowered had he taken initiative to face the problem. This empowerment is an affirmation that his choices matter. You can experience the same feeling of empowerment if you are willing to own how the problem affects you and take responsibility for solving it.
Know what you can and cannot control
Some problems we simply cannot control: you lose your job due to downsizing; your retirement account plummets with the stock market; your boss is a demanding and insensitive person; you continually live with pain from a chronic condition. These are forces you would like to change but can’t, right? Well, it depends on how you look at it.
If your goal is to control your environment in order to minimize your problems, you are fighting a losing battle. Instead, put your energy where it will give you a payoff: focus on your response to the problematic situation or person. You do have control over what you think, say, and do in response to that layoff, loss of income, insensitive boss, or chronic condition.
For instance, while you can’t change the personality of your boss, you can diplomatically voice how his style of management affects you and the work environment. A cure for your chronic condition may not be available, but find the best ways available to manage your pain so you can continue living your life. Look at your layoff as an opportunity to explore a new place of employment or career direction.
In other words, live fully in the present moment. You may not be able to change the situation at hand, but you can influence the final outcome. It’s a matter of how you want to see it. If you find yourself in a situation you think is hopeless, you’re trying to control something you can’t. To break out of this emotional paralysis, ask yourself what options you do in fact have that you could act on. If you can’t think of any, get out some paper and brainstorm ideas or call a friend to help you think through options. You always have choices available to you, and these are what you can control.
Pursue a solution
It is essential that you accept ownership for your problem and focus on your response to the situation. But awareness of these is not enough. This knowledge must be turned into action. Action is the litmus test of whether you truly want change to occur in your life or merely hold on to it as a good intention. Being a proactive problem-solver means that you actively seek a solution. I can illustrate this further by sharing a portion from a counseling session with “Connie.”
Connie told me how unhappy she was in her current job and how it was affecting her family and her health. I asked her what she wanted to do about the situation. She felt she had no option but to stay in this miserable situation for the sake of her family. When I pointed out to her that there were other options, she seemed surprised. “What other options?” she asked.
I suggested she consider this an opportunity to start the business she had been telling me about for some time.
She stared out the window for a moment and finally said, “I can’t.”
“Why can’t you,” I asked.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it,” she replied.
“How will you know for sure unless you try?” I said.
Slowly, but as if it made sense to her now, she said, “I won’t.”
She left with a resolve to take the first step toward setting up the small business. Six months later she had built the business to the point where she could leave her unhappy work situation. All it took was a deliberate choice to pursue one of many options that was available to her.
This doesn’t mean that pursuing a solution always leads you to one on the first try. Many times pursuit of a solution creates new problems that must also be solved. But the same principles can then be used with the new challenges that present. The goal is not the elimination of problems, but to proactively tackle them before they tackle you. It’s not only an exciting way to live, but is inspirational to many around you who feel their choices don’t matter.
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