When Problem-Solving Becomes a Problem

Many people come to therapy wanting to know why they have certain problems. They’ve been struggling with this problem for a long time and they want to understand why, because if they could just figure out the cause of the problem, they might be able to solve it. They might say something along the lines of:

“I just always have these thoughts about how other people are constantly judging me and criticizing me, and even though I know it’s probably not true, I can’t help the thoughts from being there. I don’t want to have to worry so much about what other people think of me. Why am I like that?”

It’s not that there isn’t a reason. The problem is in the premise that if you were to have the reason, that either your problem would go away or at least you would finally know how to solve it. If your car stops working, your mechanic is going to diagnose the problem, and that is going to inform how he proceeds in fixing the problem. He’ll say, “Sir, you have no gas in the tank. Your car needs fuel to make it go.” Voila, problem solved, right? In this case, knowing the cause of the problem is essential in being able to solve it. But that is an external problem and this kind of problem-solving doesn’t work so well with internal problems. If you were to discover that the reason you worry about what other people think of you is because your mother was overly critical and you were often made fun of as a child, you might have a reason why you have these thoughts. Well, now what? Does having a reason get you any closer to a solution?

The second problem is in correctly identifying the problem in the first place. In the case of the person with the worried thoughts of people judging her, she has identified the problem as having the thoughts and her solution has been to find a way to stop having the thoughts. She may have tried distracting herself from having the thoughts. Maybe she turns to food or marijuana to get her mind off it. Maybe she just tells herself, ‘it’s not true.’ But no matter how much she tries to convince her mind that the thoughts are untrue, she continues to have the thoughts. She’s been trying to eliminate these troublesome thoughts for years to no avail and now she comes to therapy hoping the therapist has a way to get rid of the thoughts.

The problem with analyzing and attempting to eliminate or avoid your internal experience is that in order to do any of this, you have to attend to it. In order to push something away or struggle with it, you have to paradoxically grab hold of it. So the struggle itself keeps the thoughts in play. So should I just ignore it? Ignoring is another form of avoiding. If you try to ignore it, you have to know what it is you are intentionally ignoring and therefore, you keep it alive. Try this. Don’t think of a pink elephant. How’d you do? It’s impossible. The answer is in giving up the control agenda.

You may not be able to control your thoughts, but you can change your relationship to them. Think of your mind as a separate entity. Name it Bill, or Sheila, or Reactive Mind, and when you begin to have uncomfortable thoughts, say to yourself, “Hm. That’s interesting what Sheila just said. Thanks, Sheila.” I know how silly this sounds, but who cares? If it’s too silly for you, just say to yourself, “My mind is telling me those people are judging me.” The difference is that now you are creating some distance from what your mind is generating and you. You are not your thoughts. You are someone who experiences thoughts, just like you experience hunger. In Spanish, when you’re hungry you say, “Tengo hambre,” which literally means, “I have hunger.”  In English we say “I’m hungry,” but we don’t mean that we are identified with the state of hunger, like we are claiming to be this ravenous, salivating, chomping, thing. So our language makes it easy for us to be confused when we say things like “I’m depressed,” as if we are depression.

When we perceive the world through our thoughts, we become “fused” or identified with them. When you can observe your thoughts without getting fused with them, you are no longer influenced by them nor have the urge to react to them. Your thoughts are just information. Think of thoughts as if they were printed on a billboard as you drive by. Do you get wrapped up in every billboard ad you see? Do you click on every Internet ad that pops up? No, but you can if you choose to. And you can do the same thing with thoughts. This is not something that comes naturally and it takes practice. But if you didn’t have to expend all that energy struggling with or attempting to avoid all those painful thoughts, what would you spend your energy on? What do you want your life to be about? That is a problem worth solving.

Related Articles:
The Anxious or Agitated Experience of Depression
Can Therapy Affect the Brain?
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Kids, and Chronic Pain

© Copyright 2011 by By Jiovann Carrasco, MA, LPC-S, therapist in Austin, Texas. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • rae g

    rae g

    November 21st, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    there are some who just don’t feel right unless there is something wrong

  • Maarten Aalberse

    Maarten Aalberse

    November 22nd, 2011 at 7:59 AM

    Cool idea to give one’s mind a name…

    “Now why didn’t I come up with that myself?”

    ” Now that’s some question, Billy-Boy” ^_^

  • HT


    November 22nd, 2011 at 8:50 AM

    The car and mechanic example was a good one.Because the problem is internal,often we must help ourselves and not everybody has the same level of expertise in handling these things.And thus the problems with thoughts.

    I also like your idea of de-relating ourselves from what the thoughts say.I shall try to practice the same.

  • parsons


    November 22nd, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    The real issue is that too many people with problems such as this spend too much time focusing on the rong thing- they are focusing on the symptoms without ever trying to get to the real root of the problem

  • Jiovann


    November 22nd, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    @HT: The technical term for this is called defusion. It’s a made up word actually, but technical in the ACT community. It’s not the content of our thoughts that are the problem, but how “fused” we are with them, thus de-fusion. Thanks for reading!

  • Henry Bravo

    Henry Bravo

    November 23rd, 2011 at 8:13 AM

    Hmm…Interesting observations about how we connect with our thouights.While this could be a good thing when it is about good thoughts it can become quite destructive with bad ones,really..So do you also think our language of communicating with ourselves matters?Language as in ‘how’ we talk to ourselves,not English or Spanish…

  • Jiovann


    November 26th, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    @Henry, good and bad are evaluations and I don’t pay much attention to “correcting” those evaluations. Narcissists have lots of “positive” thoughts about themselves, right? I look at the function of thoughts, not whether they are true or false. If your thoughts influence you to behave in unhelpful ways, having the skill to step back and observe those thoughts, even the good ones, as just information can save you a lot of unnecessary pain.

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