Transcending the Grip of Problems

Everyone has problems. If someone tells you they don’t have problems, they’re just liars or Eckart Tolle junkies–not that I don’t love his stuff… I really do… I’m just sayin’–to be human is to sometimes resist life on life’s terms.

When this occurs, we experience what feels like a “problem.” Now, there’s only one time in a person’s life when they’re guaranteed to be problem-free, and that’s when they are dead. So until that inevitability comes to pass, it’s safe to assume we will never totally transcend having problems. The question is not whether or not I can prevent or avoid problems, but rather, how I can respond rather than resist, in the face of what occurs like a problem.

Why is that some people seem to deal with their problems with more grace and enthusiasm than others? What’s the difference between someone who wallows in their melodramas like a beetle on its back and someone who seems to move through and beyond them with no loss of empowerment? As a Marriage and Family Therapist I have helped many people move through and beyond this process, from chronic wallowing to consistent grace, and I would like to offer one of the ways I’ve witnessed my clients successfully achieving these victories. To offer this in a useful way, I will present it to you in the form of an experiential exercise.

Consider a problem you currently have. For this exercise, the bigger the problem or struggle, the better. But don’t worry if you can’t come up with a really big problem. Anything that you have been worried about, struggling with, frustrated about, or grieving over, will be useful to work with.

Now, get present to the basic “complaint” of the problem. For example, I had a client who was grappling with the problem that her child was being oppositional and refusing to cooperate with her on many occasions. So the problem could be boiled down to what I refer to as a “complaint statement” — one simple sentence that captures the gist of the issue. This client’s “complaint statement” could sound something like, “My child won’t behave the way I want him to.”

Once you have stated the problem as a simple “complaint statement,” you can search for a very specific characteristic within the statement. Notice that the statement occurs as a problem because of the particular *point of view* from which the statement is coming. Human complaints are always fundamentally self-centered, because we are only considering the one opinion that we deem accurate and true. And there is nothing wrong with being self-centered. It is an occupational hazard of being human. Our default setting is “Self-Centered.” But rather than feeling guilty about this, there is a much more productive approach to take with our fallible humanity. We can stop pretending we aren’t self-centered, and instead, use our self-centeredness as the very vehicle to transform the disempowering experiences in life.

Simply put, if we are willing to use our complaints as the mechanism to empower us in the midst of difficult circumstances, we will discover that our complaints say much less about the external circumstances, and a lot more about the point of view of the person who owns the complaint. And the good news here is that while external circumstances are often not within our control, our point of view about it is entirely within the realm of what we can do something about!

So in the above complaint statement, “My child won’t behave the way I want him to,” my client turned the focus away from the external behavior (her son) and was able to use the complaint itself to gain insight into her own perspective — the part of the problem over which she had power. She discerned that she was seeing her son’s behavior as problematic because from her point of view, there was an expectation for how her son “should” behave, and any time he did not fulfill on that expectation, she defined this as a “problem.”

With courage and humility, my client was willing to drill down into the circumstances, to discover the way her basic, default human self-centeredness was shaping her view that her son’s behavior was wrong. And once she related to him as though he were “wrong,” a resistance/persistence pattern set in (as Carl Jung first pointed out: that which we resist, persists!). The more she related to her son as being “wrong,” the more he dug his heels in and asserted his independence (resisting her resistance), insisting on his own self-centered perspective — that his behavior was not wrong at all, but in fact, that it was right.

She could clearly recognize that continuing to see him from her self-centered point of view and refusing to consider her son’s position would keep feeding this vicious cycle and provide the same results. So if she wanted new results, she would have to be willing to stop doing the same thing. Turning her perspective around, my client was able to see that her son’s behavior was simply behavior – and that when she felt it was a problem, she was resisting the way reality currently was presenting itself, in that moment. Resisting life on life’s terms was the fundamental ingredient in her defining of the situation as a “problem.” And she realized that if she no longer experience the situation as a “problem,” she could learn how to stop resisting.

Now, let’s get back to your problem. Look and see if you can distinguish the self-centered nature of your problem. Remember that this doesn’t mean you are a bad person. I am not suggesting you are being rude or disrespectful. Self-centeredness is just the inability to see something from a perspective other than one’s own. Notice if you are relating to your “problem” as though it should not be happening, or if you are taking it personally – interpreting something outside of you to mean something about you.

Ask yourself: “Who am I to think that I know how everything should be?” This question is confronting, but believe me, what’s on the other side of letting go of thinking we are the center of the universe is an IMMENSE experience of freedom! When my client did this, she realized she had been feeling profoundly burdened by the belief that her child should behave a particular way. After all, whenever he didn’t measure up, she had to confront this self-defined “problem” which was completely outside of her control! And when she interpreted his behavior to mean something about her, she was placing the source of her self-worth outside of herself! This struggle inevitably exhausted her and chronically doomed her to feel “not good enough.” When she realized that she had been inadvertently discarding her power, she saw that this pattern could halt completely. In releasing herself from the belief that her son’s behavior meant something about her, she was able to take back her power and release her son from those very limiting expectations/beliefs that happened to be feeding her son’s resistance.

Now, take your problem and use this formula to describe it:

“Whenever ________________ occurs, I create it as a problem because I make up a self-centered story that it should be the way I want it to be, and I am not able to powerfully deal with life the way that it is.”

The next step is to discern for yourself what part of this situation you have power over. My client could see clearly that she could not make her son change his attitude toward her. But in seeing that this is where she has put all of her focus all this time, she was also able to see clearly that this misguided attention had totally thwarted her ability to take power over that which she did have the potential to control! And when she focused on what part of her problem she actually had power over, she saw that she could provide consistent consequences when her child was difficult with her.

Now, ask yourself what part of your problem you have control over, and notice what you do not have control over. Notice that you may have been focusing on the aspects of the problem that you are powerless to change! And allow yourself to see how futile this is. See how this focus has totally distracted you from the power you actually do have over the circumstances.

Lastly, take the problem and look at it from a radically different viewpoint. Try on looking at the situation–the one you previously deemed as a problem–as a privilege instead. Sounds crazy, right? Just try it out! Consider that all of the time you have been defining the situation as “problematic” (because it didn’t meet with your self-centered story), you missed the opportunity that the circumstance has brought you! You will see this if you are willing.

My client used this last part of the exercise to see that, in fact, hiding inside this problem was actually a huge blessing. The mere existence of the problem meant that she had a child! Years earlier, she and her spouse were told by a doctor that they would not be able to conceive. Having a disrespectful child meant she had become a parent! A MIRACLE!

It also meant her child was healthy enough to push the boundaries that normal kids push! A dear friend of my client’s was, at the time, dealing with a child with leukemia, and rather than going through the usual adolescent developmental “testing”, that child was going through chemotherapy. My client was profoundly grateful when she allowed this perspective to penetrate her old view of the situation. And finally, my client could frame the situation as an opportunity for her to practice being a consistent and loving parent – something she did not feel very skilled at being. She had a history of giving in to her child’s demands and then resenting him for it. The opportunity for her to stretch herself out of her own comfort zone and learn to take new actions was right in front of her! But she had been missing it all along, because she was disempowering herself by focusing on the part of the “problem” she could do nothing about!

Look now, and distinguish the opportunity or gift that this situation has brought with it. You just may discover some brand new actions, or a new way to view the circumstances which leave you free from the “problematic” way you saw it before! When you free yourself in this way, you will discover that you are no longer a victim to your problems. And yeah, like Tolle’s awesome books teach us, perhaps life’s problems will transform before your very eyes in this moment.

Remove the limitations your "point of view" has assigned to your circumstances and you will discover your "problems" give you something to jump for joy over!
Remove the limitations your “point of view” has assigned to your circumstances and you will discover your “problems” give you something to jump for joy over!

Let me know what you discover!