Look Where the Problem Isn’t
I have a problem. Or I am … insert problem here. The examples below illustrate how we view problems.
- I have a food problem. I’m obese.
- I have a motivation problem. I am lazy.
- I have a procrastination issue. I’m a procrastinator.
- I have an addiction. I’m a smoker.
- I have an avoidance problem. I’m a TV junky.
In effect we either take possession of a problem by making it our own. Or we define ourselves by it, making it part of our identity.
What’s wrong with that?
The more relevant question is what’s right with that? How is it helpful to us in any way?
Here is what happens when we either take possession of, or identify with a problem.
Defending and protecting possessions: When we own an object, we want to protect it, take care of it, and defend having it. The same applies to emotional and mental ownership. We defend a problem usually by looking for ways to validate it and make it more real.
Defining who we are and what we do: Anything we add after I am is something we consider part of who we are. We live with the belief that we are the problem. We think there is something wrong with us and we need to be fixed. Or,
We fear shedding that part of who we are, so we justify having it as mentioned above.
Myopic and unrealistic perspective: It’s not that we wear a darker shade of glasses, it’s more like we attach dark lenses to our eyes that we never take off. We only focus on ways for the problem to present itself in our life. And we ignore everything to the contrary.
We perpetuate the same so called problem and allow it to shape every experience and interaction we have with the world. The problem leads and we follow.
An alternative: Look for where the problem isn’t
The simplest approach is to break the automated habit of focusing on the problem. Start, consciously, looking for situations and moments in your life where the problem doesn’t exist, or at least is not as dominant.
Let’s look at a few examples.
I am a TV junky. Assume you sit in front of the screen for 5 hours a day. Yes that’s too much TV. But … you’re not watching TV for 19 hours of your day.
I’m a smoker. I have an addiction. Say you smoke 20 cigarettes a day. Which consumes approximately 100 minutes of your time (20 x 5 minutes each). Let’s round it up to 2 hours per day. You’re not smoking for 22 hours of your day.
I have a procrastination problem. If I feel I don’t want to start a project or I’ve stopped it and can’t restart again, I see myself as a procrastinator. But there are so many things that I do without delay. I get up every day, show up for appointments, take care of my body, spend time with my family, read and meditate, brush my teeth. So the procrastination does not cover every aspect of my life.
Benefits of looking for where the problem isn’t
Focusing more often on the time and situations where we don’t have a problem helps reverse the painful effects of owning or identifying with the problem. So we can expect the following benefits.
Less attachment to the problem: This means we don’t go out of our way to defend it or prove that it’s an important part of who we are. When we separate the problem from ourselves, we’re more likely to find creative ways to deal with it.
Being okay right now: We don’t need to constantly suffer because of an issue. If things are okay in this moment, we won’t have the compulsion to fixate on a single problem that’s not currently present.
Expanded awareness and view of reality: Looking at life every moment as it is refocuses our attention on the reality of the moment—not the magnified (un)reality of a problem. We open up and appreciate more. We judge and complain less. And we let go of an old pattern that doesn’t serve us any more.
Before we get into the practical stuff, let’s talk about the perceived downside.
Objections to not focusing on the problem
If we focus on what’s working and where we don’t have a problem aren’t we escaping or denying the issue?
A couple of issues that might come up are:
Denial: If I constantly focus on where the problem isn’t, then I’ll delude myself and I won’t deal with the problem.
When we look at life without a nagging issue, we’re not denying the existence of the problem. We’re acknowledging where the problem is absent, which means we’re aware of where the problem is as well. That’s not avoidance or denial. It’s reality.
Taking problems lightly, or not seriously enough: If I don’t focus on the problem, I won’t be able to take it seriously, and I won’t solve it. This is the default mental program most of us have. If I keep something on my mind, then I am dealing with it.
The reality is: we keep something on our mind till we give in to the false magnitude of a problem, and build an inner complaining and resistance mechanism that ensures we’re stuck with the problem. When we put distance between most of our life and the problem, we’re better equipped to deal with it.
If you’re in agreement with what has been discussed so far, let’s put it into practice.
How to practice looking for where the problem isn’t
The tools of application are simple. They’re mostly about establishing a new behavior and doing it consistently.
The main thing is to be diligent, and do the best you can every day.
Remind yourself every day, preferably in the morning, that you’re going to focus on what’s working in your life. Write a note to yourself and place it anywhere you can easily see it. Or use an image, a rubber band, or anything else that serves as a reminder to do it.
You can also have reminders on your computer, or phone. Set an alarm for every hour or so, and when it goes off, look at what you’re doing and how it’s working out.
If an anxious thought interrupts your day, go back to the reminder the moment you become aware of it. And repeat as needed.
At the end of the day, use a journal or just sit down and reflect on your day and experience. What are the things that worked and where the problems were? Can you do things differently tomorrow?
A combination of reminders and reflection will probably work best as you practice during the day, and review later.
We all want to grow and be the best we can. Focusing on what’s wrong and our perceived limitations is not the best way to move forward.
When we embrace what is and the totality of who we are, we can do things differently. We free ourselves up from the shackles of a false problematic identity, and open up to life.
The best things usually happen when we’re least expecting them. We’re more likely to find intuitive and smart ways to deal with problems when we’re not focused on them.