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The Problem Is Not Actually the Problem: Here’s Why

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With my understanding of the Three Principles, which is deepening month-by-month, I’m becoming more curious about whether the ‘problem’ that we think we have, is really a problem. Not for one second am I dismissing a persons’ experience; I’m human after all and I encounter challenges and what I think are ‘problems’ just like the next person.

However, I know that when we get lost in our thinking, we can create problems that aren’t problems. If a problem was actually a problem, then we would all react to the ‘problem’ in the same way. However, it is our perception of our external reality, our thinking about what we perceive to be the problem. As we don’t all react to the ‘problem’ in the same way, the problem is not the problem. I’d like to explain this further, to help you see that this is the case.

I’ve worked with many people over time with such a broad range of presenting issues. I remember the heading ‘Presenting Problem’ being a prominent part of assessment tools that form part of the admission process across the range of mental health and addiction services.

Typical presenting problems have included:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Work pressures
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Assault
  • Progressive drug or alcohol use and possibly using substances via higher risk routes
  • Homelessness
  • A range of related physical health issues – DVT, Cancer, Diabetes, Asthma

I’d like to just briefly highlight some of the presenting problems that I’ve mentioned and show you that, through conversations that I’ve had with clients (respecting confidentiality of course), how we can learn quickly that the initial presentation is not the problem. Not only that, when the individual has realised this for themselves, it has changed their life.

Problem #1

‘Simon’ had a diagnosis of depression and was now starting to avoid social situations as he didn’t feel confident enough in groups. Through a conversation I learnt that Simon was just about holding down a full time job and was experiencing a lack of confidence in it – their boss was telling them that they need to improve their performance and was providing support systems in the workplace to do this.

We learnt together that Simon had once been told he ‘wasn’t good enough’ by his step-father and he carried that statement with him for almost 30 years. He’s generally been able to carry on with his life and feels confident most of the time.

Simon realised though, that the feedback from his boss had reminded him of being told he wasn’t good enough by his step-father many years ago. Simon gained an understanding that his feelings were as a result of his thinking in the moment, that he had carried an opinion from someone (which is not based on fact) over time and it had become part of his belief system. He had spent most of his life looking for confirmation to validate a statement made by one person.

This is why the comments from his boss (who he otherwise described as being very supportive) seemed to reinforce his step-father’s statement. He gained an insightful understanding that his experiences were actually coming from himself – his thinking.

I wonder if this is something you can relate to on any level?

Problem #2

Michelle was presented as suicidal and had recently experienced a miscarriage with what would have been her second child. Through a conversation, Michelle explained that she had become pregnant following a sexual assault. She had decided to keep the child, against the wishes of everyone in her family – including her husband. While they tried to be supportive, she felt they never really understood her and why she had wanted to keep the child.

Michelle realised that she had wanted to keep the child as a way to avoid ‘grieving’ following the sexual assault. She desperately wanted to have the child as a way of making something good out of the bad that had happened to her. She hadn’t had an opportunity to talk with someone who was listening impartially to her story. She felt that the miscarriage was now forcing her to grieve and she was scared of the feelings attached to the grieving.

Michelle gained a new perspective and realised that her feelings (all coming from her thinking associated with her situation) were natural and they were meant to be like that. She realised being fearful of the feelings were actually heightening her anxiety.

Problem #3

Peter presented with daily alcohol consumption and had recently started binging on cocaine on weekends. He was experiencing what he called a high level of stress and he felt the substances were helping him to cope with it.

During the conversation, Peter explained that he had inherited the family business following his fathers’ death. The business wasn’t new to him and he explained that he’d run the business for a long time whilst his father had been alive. The business had been in the family for over 40 years. 

Peter realised that the pressure was coming from himself to perform. He understood that he had been able to trust himself up until this point (he was now in his 50’s). Peter was able to see all the evidence, which pointed towards knowing that he can rely on himself. He had experience over many years running the business and didn’t want to let anybody down.

Through the insight, he found that his substance misuse behaviour totally changed and he became completely abstinent.

What’s really the problem?

On each of the examples I’ve mentioned, I’ve only briefly broken the conversations down and with that, tried to help you to see that what we think is our problem, might not be. It could be a symptom of the problem and very likely will be the case.

It is not that we need to delve into the past and talk about those issues to heal the now. That’s not my message. It’s more a case that we can realise we’ve carried certain feelings – attached to thoughts, which aren’t true. Catching on to that understanding is life changing. It was for me and also those clients I have reflected on.

It’s also not about being a positive thinker, which of course is great, but that would sound quite judgmental towards someone if they are being negative thinkers. It’s more than that, it runs deeper. It’s within you – it always is, always has been, and always will be.

By our design, we are meant to feel a particular way in relation to certain things and quite often fearing how we’re feeling about the problem, can be the problem. 

Consider a stream of water as a useful metaphor – or our ‘stream of thought.’ The end of the stream, if you like, being the presenting problem. By moving further up the stream – through a heartfelt and correctly guided conversation, the further we go, the closer we are to finding where the stream starts (or where the problem really is). We might also find that the problem we thought we had is not a problem.

Actually, all we need to remember is that everything is created with a thought and we can choose to think about those thoughts in a different way in any given moment.

What about this article resonated most with you and why? Share your thoughts with us below!

Dave Knight helps to change lives through a conversation that guides people back towards their innate health and wellbeing. With a background in mental health, addictions, business and sport, his time is being dedicated to educating people through Articles, his Bulletproof Yourself products, 1:1 work with clients; small groups, as well as articles. The focus of the work is to help people feel bulletproof against any area of challenge in their lives.

Life

What Les Misérables Taught Me About Our Values

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Who am I? The ultimate question many of us try to answer. When I think of values, I think of Victor Hugo’s 1862 book, “Les’ Miserables”. In Hugo’s book, Jean Valjean, is used as a protagonist to highlight the power in redemptive love and compassion. Valjean goes into prison for stealing a loaf of bread, entering as a simple and decent man. His time in jail seems to have an unrepairable effect, where he emerges from the chain gang as a tough, bitter criminal who hates society for what it has done to him. (more…)

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7 Ways You Can Increase Your Concentration Right Away

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In today’s world, an overabundance of information and a large number of distractions is making it increasingly difficult to concentrate on performing the necessary tasks. In this article, I propose 7 simple methods that will train your ability to concentrate, while not taking you from your usual activities. (more…)

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5 Simple Hacks to Help You Develop the Habit That Will Transform Your Life

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It’s excruciating when we know what’s killing us but we can’t do anything about it because as you know, it is not easy to pull the brake on a high way. According to Napoleon Hill, “remember this always – the best (and one might say the only) way in which old habits may be removed is to form new habits to counteract and replace the undesirable ones”. (more…)

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Why Do We Have An Unconscious Bias and How Can We Manage It?

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When I hear someone using my name once in a while throughout the conversation we are having, I cannot stop myself thinking “this person must have read Dale Carnegie’s books or must have been influenced by someone who read them…” Have you just recalled a similar moment and it felt nice?

As Dale Carnegie famously said, “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and the most important sound in any language”. Why did Dale Carnegie highlight the importance of an individual’s name to that person in his “How to Win Friends and Influence People” book published in 1936?

Each and every one of us wants to feel special and unique. I guess he recommends using the person’s name in the conversation because that is one of the easiest ways to grab that person’s attention so that we can enhance the chances of getting our point across. However, I am more interested in this from the other side; hearing our names directly addresses our individuality, our need or desire to feel special and unique.  

Let’s park this one for now and we will come back. 

Categorization is essential to our survival

There is countless scientific research telling us about how our brains recognize similarities and put things into categories, which has been crucial to our survival in evolution and still helps us with a lot of things from learning new things to coping with the continuous influx of massive amounts of information through our senses. 

The continuous influx of information is mostly handled by our subconscious mind rather than conscious. It is estimated that our brains receive about 11 million bits of information every second through our senses, of which only 40-50 bits can be processed by our conscious mind. We process more information than we are aware of. The magic here is the subconscious mind.

An example is when you are at a very loud party where you hear a lot of words flying around without you recognizing each one of them, then suddenly, you immediately catch it when you hear your name. Your subconscious had been processing all of those words, without your awareness, but informed your conscious mind when your name was out there because it was relevant to you.

In order to most effectively process this much information and inform the conscious mind with only the relevant ones, our subconscious employs categorization as one of its strategies.

When our ancestors encountered some deadly predators in the African savanna, their subconscious prompted their conscious mind to immediately fight or flight by categorizing the information gathered through their senses into “predator / life threat / take action”. Most probably we are not descendants of the ones that were frozen rather than fighting or flighting! 

Although it is a completely different situation, the same strategy applied in remembering lists. Let’s look at the below two lists.

  1. lion, eagle, shark, leopard, hawk, whale, panther, falcon and dolphin 
  2. lion, leopard, panther, eagle, hawk, falcon, shark, whale and dolphin

The second list is easy to remember because it is reordered into relevant groups even though the content of the both lists are identical.

Subconsciousness is the magic and categorization is one of its key strategies. It is essential to our survival, learning new skills and processing information as well as bringing back the information we had processed and stored. 

This amazing skill has its drawbacks

As a result of our brains’ categorization strategy, we also categorize people, especially if we don’t know them as well as our closest ones.

Imagine I am sitting at the table next to yours while you are having your favorite coffee and working on your computer or reading your novel at your neighborhood coffee shop. I stand up, very calmly grab your bag, and start walking away. Your reaction might be quite different depending on my outfit. It could be much more vocal and harsh if I have a dirty T-Shirt and a pair of torn jeans on. However, if I have some navy colored, 3-piece suit and well-pressed white button up shirt on, you might even say something like “Excuse me, you might have picked up my bag by mistake”. (There is an experiment done by social psychologists which reported similar results)

Similarly, I would not be surprised to hear that my co-worker’s spouse is very skilled and knowledgeable in English grammar and literature because he is an English teacher. However, I would not expect it from my co-worker herself because she is an outstanding chemical engineer.  

This is defined as unconscious bias or stereotyping, as a result of our subconscious brain’s categorization strategy. The outfit I have at the coffee shop impacts your response to my action, because it puts me into a different category in your mind depending on my outfit. My co-worker’s and her spouse’s backgrounds make me put them into different categories, which might mislead me sometimes.

Just like we categorize things, it is very natural that we categorize people.  

The key question here for me is; how do we truly treat people as individuals so that they feel unique, just like as they would want, while we know that our brains categorize people

We can overcome unconscious bias 

Leonard Mlodinow, in his enlightening book “Subliminal”, suggests that “if we are aware of our bias and motivated to overcome it, we can.” That doesn’t mean that we need to fight our brain’s categorization strategy. We just need to employ our conscious mind more when we are working or dealing with individuals. 

Our unconscious bias might tell us scientists are bunch of technical nerds who cannot understand abstract concepts that marketers are talking about or it might say that marketers are some daydreamers who need to be grounded by scientists to the real world all the time. I am an engineer and I love thinking in abstract terms and I worked with quite a lot of marketers who thought primarily in factual and concrete terms. 

Spending some effort to learn more about individuals will help overcome unconscious bias. Gathering more information and qualities about them will make it easier for us to treat them as individuals rather than a member of the category we put them in our minds. 

The moral of the story here is to recognize the fact that our brains do categorize, and it is essential; but also, to recognize that every individual wants to feel unique. When we appreciate these two and keep reminding them to ourselves, we are one step closer to figuring out our own way to overcome unconscious bias and treat people more like individuals. 

What was the most interesting part of this article for you? Share your thoughts below!

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