We know that in order to solve a problem we need problem-solving skills. Intuitively most people are aware of the steps that they need to take when facing a problem.
How do we recognise a problem in its early stage and before it is too late?
1. Even if a problem is not in our awareness, our body will signal it either through a bodily symptom or through an emotion: stress, anxious, tired, irritable, annoyed. Some people report that they can’t stop crying 'with no apparent' reason. Notice what the body signals without aiming to get rid of the signal. The general heuristic when it comes to resolving a problem is getting rid of the problem (one step solution). It makes sense that if we touch a hot surface and we experience pain, we want to get rid of it (removing our hand makes the pain stop/problem solved). If we see the signal (emotions, bodily symptoms) as the problem we are running the risks of taking one step approach to get rid of an uncomfortable emotions or sensation. Remember the problem is not an emotion or a symptom. All emotions are allowed. Symptoms in isolations are not illnesses that need getting rid of. Often people fall into the trap of removing a problem by avoiding situations, people, places
2. Complex problems such as social interactions require complex steps rather than one step approach (moving away/avoidance). A vital ingredient in problem solving is the problem-solving orientation which is a set of cognitions, beliefs, emotions arising from previous experiences. A negative problem-solving orientation is seen as a consequence of a negative cognitive set/negative childhood experiences.
The negative problem-solving orientation consists of:
- an appraisal of self as the agent of change (helplessness). A sense of being able to effect change in one’s environment is absolutely crucial in solving problems. It is present from a very early stage of our life when we shake a toys to effect noises. It gives a sense of ‘I can’. It then develops into more complex responses such as asking, seeking to meet our needs by verbalising them, seeking to express a difficulty in order to get help. ‘It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to say what I need’. Many childhood experiences will distort such adaptive learning, generating negative beliefs that stay in the way of acting as an agent of change.
- the tendency to view problems as threatening, as barriers or obstacles (persistent negative thinking) rather than opportunities for learning. Many social problems/conflicts are ambiguous, vague, unclear, uncertain and, therefore, the outcome of a solution is hard to estimate. An important step is defining the problem: what is it that is bothering me right now? Where do I want to be with the problem/situation? Taking action without knowing the outcome, allowing space for failures and mistakes make a problem less threatening when it occurs. ‘Keeping an eye’ on the opportunity for learning increases the confidence in approaching a problem that makes us uncomfortable. If I set myself to go on a journey of 10 km, and I am at 1km point, I can look at it in two ways (2 perspectives): 1. I have 9 km to go, or 2. I am 1 km closer to where I want to be. Which perspective is the more attractive, motivating one? ‘Keeping an eye’ on 'what we have rather than on what we don’t' saves us from investing effort and resources that are fuelling negative feelings.
- doubting ability (rigidity of rules and beliefs): What do I need to do? What options do I have? At this point, it is more adaptive to consider the best choice given the data available rather than the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ choice. Often people get trapped into acting in line with codes of conduct (what is ‘nice’ or ‘right’ thing to do): staying in a relationship of betrayal because it is the right thing for the children; not raising a concern with a boss because it is not nice to complain. We make the rules and the standards; we do not want to become the slaves of our own rules.
- a negative vision of the future will never encourage action toward the problem (hopelessness). It is important to encourage ourselves to move forward with the problem even if we do not know the outcome.
These notes are concerned with seeing the ‘standard’ problem-solving (I CAN DO/identify a problem; clarify, alternatives, narrow down solutions, implement and review) differently by assigning importance to the problem solving orientation (self as agent of change, problems as opportunities, seeking the best solution at that time rather than the perfect or right one and considering an engaging and motivating vision of the future in the absence of knowing with certainty).
Article written by Veronica Grigore - Brighton
I am a cognitive behavioural therapist (CBT therapist) specialised in the treatment of depression and anxiety related problems. I have thousands of hours of clinical experience of working in NHS. I am also reaching out to people who do not have a disorder or suffer from a mental health problem, but... [read more]