Steps 1-4: Problem Analysis

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1. Understand Your Problem. You must understand the issue, problem or symptom you are experiencing before you can realistically try to figure out what to do about it. As a first step towards self-help, take steps to understand the nature of your problem or issue. Watch for any tendency you might have to externalize your problem (e.g., to see the cause of your problem in someone else's actions rather than your own). Own up to any responsibility you may have for creating or maintaining the problem.


Understanding your problem requires that you take some time to identify the nature of your problem; what might be causing that problem and why and how it has become an issue for you. Because mental health and life issues are usually troubling and anxiety provoking, there is a tendency to get emotional while thinking about them. It is easy to get distracted or fooled by self-defensive feelings when you get emotional, and also easy to act on mistaken perceptions. In your "panic" to avoid dealing with your problem you may minimize it inappropriately (concluding that it is less of a problem than it really is), or exaggerate it (making a "mountain out of a molehill"). You may not want to admit your own role in creating or maintaining the problem, and instead, inappropriately blame others for your own failings. Think carefully about the nature of your problem rather than just going with your first impression or urge. If possible, talk with trusted others about your problem to gain their (hopefully unbiased) perspective. Do your best to relax, to be honest, and to not be defensive about your situation. Letting go of your emotion (anxiety, depression, panic, etc. when thinking about and reading up on your issue (as much as this is possible to accomplish) will help you to learn whether you are really motivated to change or not and whether you would be better off seeking professional assistance vs. trying a self-help approach.

Example: Bob recognized his anger and the reason for it (e.g., Sam's borrowing the toolbox and not returning it when he said he would). He also admitted to himself that he was still mad about past times Sam and borrowed things from him, and he hadn't said anything about it to Sam those times.

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2. Break The Problem Down Into Small Parts. Even when you understand what your problem is, it may be too big and too well established for you to figure out how to fix all at once. Instead of trying to tackle the entire problem all at once, break it down into manageable parts. Then, make a plan for how you will fix or address each part separately.

Example: Since Bob knows he really is in control of his anger enough to talk with Sam, and that he still values his friendship with Sam, he decides to talk with him about the borrowing rather than yelling at him or starting a fight. Bob is calling on his strengths in this situation; his ability to talk with Sam and to do so reasonably and calmly even when angry, while also recognizing and honoring his feelings of friendship for Sam. Although this example is not really a very complex problem, Sam has still taken the time to break the problem down into multiple separate parts. He needs to figure out a way to 1) stop feeling upset, 2) get his tools back, and 3) preserve his relationship with Sam if possible. Separating out his varying goals and desires for how the situation should come out has helped him to decide how to best handle the situation. This same knowledge will continue to illuminate what his next steps should be, if more are needed.

3. Define Problem Goals. For each of your small manageable problem parts, figure out what your goals are; where you want to end up at the end of the self-help process for each part of your problem. If you don't know what you are working towards, you will never know when you've arrived there.

Example: Bob has identified three goals; 1) to stop the distress his feeling of anger at Sam is causing; 2) to get his toolbox back from Sam on time; and 3) to maintain his friendship with Sam.

4. Decide How To Measure Progress Towards Goals. Find ways to measure progress you make towards accomplishing each of your problem goals, so that you will always know: 1) what your problem starting point looked like, 2) how far you've come towards meeting your goals at any given moment, and 3) how you'll know when you've met your goals and are done.

Example: Bob's first opportunity to measure his progress towards meeting his goals comes when he talks with Sam. Whether or not Sam gets upset with Bob is out of Bob's control, so Bob cannot legitimately measure his success by how Sam reacts. Instead, he determines that he will have met his goal if he is able to say what he wants to say in a clear, calm and firm manner while doing his best to not alienate his friend. Whether or not Sam returns the missing toolbox is another opportunity for Bob to measure the success of his communication with Sam. Bob can monitor how well Sam does at returning tools he borrows on time in the future. If any of these events don't go well, then Bob will know he needs to not lend Sam anything he needs to have back in a timely manner.

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