Got 99 Problems? You’ve Got 4 Possible Solutions

basket of dirty laundryIn behavioral science, we break down everything into simple terms. People sometimes laugh in my office because, on paper (and in discussion), most behaviors seem easy. If your friend hates her job, she should find a new one. If another friend keeps getting angry at his partner, he should leave him or her.

If only real life were that simple, right? Of course, the above options have consequences, and that’s why people sometimes seek out psychotherapy—to grapple with the different ramifications of those behavioral options. Life decisions involve a lot of complicated emotions, thoughts, and long-term effects on our lives.

But what if we could break down problem solving to a procedure, so we could map out exactly what options we might have and come to cognitive and emotional grips with one of those selected behavioral options? It is possible! Not simple, but possible.

Here are the available options when you have a problem, a strategy developed by Marsha M. Linehan, PhD (2000):

  1. Solve the problem: OK, this is the no-brainer and the thing most of us want to have happen. If my partner never does the laundry and that makes me angry every week, I want to solve the problem by getting my partner to do the laundry or … finding a different mate who will. While this one is the preferred approach, it’s also the least likely at times.
  2. Change my emotional reaction to the problem: This is often seen when I rationalize my partner’s behavior and take an empathetic approach. He’s busy, he does other things around the house, and so on. I am quite literally working to change the rage I feel at the dirty pile of laundry to something else (sympathy, understanding, calm, or other emotions). Maybe I learn to look endearingly at the pile of laundry or laugh when I see it, so I am instead feeling love or amusement.
  3. Tolerate or accept the problem: Sometimes it’s not possible to change how you feel about a situation, or you don’t want to. For instance, with the death of a loved one, you might be sad and might not want to change your emotional reaction to this situation. In this case, tolerating or accepting the situation (including your uncomfortable feelings about it) is the best option. This is also handy for some of the major life problems, such as a trauma in your past or surviving a natural disaster. There is no way to change the past, so tolerating it might be the only option. This also means not making the situation worse (say, by blowing up in anger or fuming about it, thinking about it over and over). For me to tolerate the laundry problem, I might have to take breaks from looking at it, try to do some relaxation or meditation/prayer while I do the laundry myself, and/or do something nice for myself following a run-in with it (reward or self-soothing). This is about being willing to accept the reality of a situation, not necessarily rejoicing in or approving it.
  4. Stay miserable: This is ultimately what a lot of us choose: maintaining the status quo. Do nothing, change nothing, accept nothing, stay exactly where you are. One of the things I love about conducting psychotherapy is the natural process that happens in our brains when we unpack a problem verbally and cognitively, which allows a gradual healing to occur (typically in line with options 2 and 3). Throughout psychotherapy, we also see option No. 1 occur, in many situations where a person learns assertiveness skills or other behavioral skills to address the situation. Fortunately, we don’t see the No. 4 option very much, but it might be that those people never even step into our office!

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Lebo, LPC, CADCI

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Thalia

    July 18th, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    For me my reaction has always been let’s either solve this or you are going to stay misearble, period.
    Whta good does it do to sit aorund and complain about something when obviously that is not going to change anything? You can talk the talk all you want but until you are also willing to walk the walk, everything is going to stay the same.
    Whta good is that? If you want some improvement in your life then you have to be willing to put a little something into it so that you can actually see those positive changes that you are seeking.

  • heidi

    July 18th, 2014 at 9:15 AM

    You could also ask others for help too. That’s always a good start when you have an issue and don’t know where to begin.

  • janeen

    July 18th, 2014 at 6:37 PM

    Awesome article. I really liked this and will definitely use it for “stuck” clients. Thanks!

  • Faith

    July 20th, 2014 at 5:28 AM

    Don’t you think that the best thing that we can encourage ourselves and others to do is to actually work to solve the problem?

    If we don’t encourage that behavior then there will be those who remian stuck by choice and who will revel in that just because that is how they feel the most comfortable with no real idea how much better they would be by working to ward solving a problem and succeeding.

  • cooper k.

    July 21st, 2014 at 4:12 AM

    There is nothing good that comes from complaining about any of this, right? Complaints get you nowhere, but action in a positive direction does.
    It isn’t up to anyone but you to make your life what you would like for it to be. I am tired of hearing from all of those who say how much they have been wronged by others. So what? You are now going to complain because you can’t do anything about them?
    Sure you can… you can rid your life of the toxicity and fill it instead with things that are important and make a difference to you.

  • Monica

    July 25th, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    Great awesome perspective. Easier said than done but so absolutely true. We are the architects of our own lives. Stuff happens and it’s ok to be down now and again, but always get up, brush the dust off and re-focus.

  • ElEnA

    July 22nd, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    Is there another way that you can look at things so that you can sort of it see it from a different perspective? You know, put a little shine to it so that eventually it doesn’t seem half bad?

  • marley

    July 24th, 2014 at 4:31 PM

    I am human and there will be those inevitable days where you look around and absolutley everything feels like it is a problem. The house is dirty, you hate your job, you need to lose five pounds, it all seems impossible. At those times I have to just give myself a little time out and think really hard about the things in my life that are going well and don’t need to change and if I can just take that few minutes to refocus and get centered again then things feel okay again.
    We all get off track, we all have these days, it is a part of human nature and if someone tells you that they don’t then I think that they are a big fat liar; but you do have to own up to the fact that they are for the most part your problems and essentially you are the ones who will change them, no one else because no one else has the same vested interest in them that you do.

  • Steve H.

    July 25th, 2014 at 8:32 PM

    What about financial difficulties? Forget about personal relationship problems, what happens when One doesn’t have enough Financial Resources to support oneself? And then come the problem to support a girlfriend who needs money for her and her baby, who is no even my own child? My solution was simple, kick her out of my life and let her deal with her own issues. I do not feel responsible for her child who was fathered by another man! She is responsible for her own behaviour and she should have made her man wear a Condom! That was not my fault, nor is my responsibility! Regards, Steve H.

  • Kathleen

    July 25th, 2014 at 11:31 PM

    Watch The Book Thief.

  • Cynthia

    July 26th, 2014 at 4:39 AM

    Sometimes those valleys of despair are important ingredients in becoming the best-version-of-yourself. I agree with Sarah, problem-solving steps present a road map to moving on, which is possible if chosen, not easy but doable, especially with the right supports in place.

  • Linda Wilkinson LPC

    July 27th, 2014 at 7:03 PM

    This strategy could be laid out in a four-square graphic on an 8×11 piece of copy paper held in “landscape” position, with each of the four options in each section. Then, when working with a client, you could ask what each option would mean in their life, and write it down as they talk about it. Taking the sheet home for “Homework” might help them to solidify their thinking and choose the best option for their life.

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