What you're doing to get better might be making things worse.

Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA

When people walk into my counseling office, they often want to get rid of a problem. Perhaps it's a feeling of sadness, or an addiction, or a difficult relationship.

They are often surprised when I start out by showing appreciation for their problem. The thing is, we develop patterns of emotion and addiction and conflict because we are trying to survive. Somewhere, at some point, that emotion or that substance or that person helped us, or we wouldn't have turned to it in the first place. Those problems started out as solutions.

And now, the problems have become solutions by drawing our attention to unhealthy behaviors, thoughts, and relationships. Problems show us that our old ways aren't working, and give us opportunities to grow and change.

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So here's the less-comfortable part:

If problems are solutions, it just might follow that some SOLUTIONS are PROBLEMS.

Let's imagine that you are really, really good at coping with stress by detaching from the present moment. In any stressful situation, you are able to regulate your breathing and take your mind to a quiet, soothing place. This has done wonders for your anxiety and has made the quality of your life skyrocket. Your brain notices this, and slowly, detachment becomes your go-to tool.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So the brain begins to apply this solution to every stressful situation. Over time, calm detachment becomes the water you swim in. You might even fuse with this skill and decide it is a part of your personality.

Then, one day, you are called to your boss's office. She's been considering you for a promotion that you desperately want, and tells you that her decision has come down to you and one other co-worker. You feel slightly stressed at this pronouncement, so you do what you do best: you detach. You regulate your breathing and go to a calm place.

You get through the moment with wonderful calm---but you lose the promotion. Your boss decides to give it to your co-worker, because she seemed much more enthusiastic.

Let me make one thing very clear: it is AMAZING to have the skill of self-regulation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it as a tool.

The solution becomes a problem when we apply it willy-nilly, without the mental space to understand that it might work better in some situations than others.

The worst part about solutions that have become problems is that often, we are blind to them. We keep plugging away, applying our strength diligently to the problem at hand, unaware that we are actually making things worse.

Why? Because it hurts to admit that there are things we aren't good at. It feels much better to show our strengths.

So, when we are under stress, what do we do? We go to our strengths. We try to push through with that thing we are really, really good at.

But chances are, you wouldn't be in a stressful situation in the first place if the thing you are really, really, good at was the answer.

Chances are, the stress is coming from the fact that life wants you to do the thing that is harder for you.


Here's the good news: there are many, many ways to turn problems back into solutions again. All it takes is some willingness to

a) get curious about yourself and

b) accept feedback.

Start to notice what your go-to methods of dealing with stress are. Ask around: what am I really good at? What do you think I could stand to do more of? And listen to the feedback.

Write down the major areas of stress and suffering in your life and take some time to consider if your go-to methods of handling them are contributing to the problem, or to the solution.

The next step, of course, is to figure out what skill life is asking you to develop. Then, practice that skill, with self-compassion, until it becomes easier for you.

So if you're great at organizing every little detail? Practice the skill of enjoying the chaos. If you're really good at listening to friends? Practice the skill of asserting yourself. If you're great at putting your nose to the grindstone and getting things done? Practice slowing down and being present in the moment. 

Just to be clear, I'm not asking you to stop organizing and listening and kicking butt! They are all wonderful qualities. What I am asking you to do is simply to notice whether your problems are responding to these skills, or not. If they are, keep at it! If they aren't, your solution may be part of the problem.

We will be learning many skills for gathering feedback and information about our blind spots, as well as the skill of internal witnessing, in our upcoming group Permaculture and the Psyche. Learn more about it here.

And as always, I love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below or email me at innerlightasheville@gmail.com.