Ah, problems. At some point in life, we all have to face and work through them.
I was a teacher for a long time. One of the tasks of that job was to observe people (children and grown-ups) as they worked through problem-solving scenarios.
Some were dealing with a bad break-up. Some were trying to get a job and couldn’t find one. Some were trying to figure out a way to tell the teacher that they were not able to do their homework and others were undergoing serious battles with illness. My job as a teacher was to stand by them and help them understand how to find a solution.
And then I started a certification course on Philosophy for Children. The method, developed by Mathew Lipman, states that kids should be able to understand what’s going on around them and make informed choices. In order to do so, children are introduced to several stories; most of them with a moral or ethical content, from which they are invited to draw questions. During the months that I was taking the course, several things became clear to me.
1) We don’t ask enough questions.
We go through life trying to figure a way to navigate our own struggles but we usually stop at the universal “Why?” (with several variants like “why me?” “why now?” “why this?”)
2) We try to avoid conflict.
The harder the problem gets, the more we try to run from it. And this leads to several, bigger problems like addiction.
3) We are convinced that our current situation is permanent.
We don’t allow ourselves the possibility of change.
4) We get so attached to our problems that we begin to think that we are our problems.
(Hint: we can cause our own problems, but we are not actually the problem)
5) We fight our feelings of anger and sadness which often only makes them more intense, whether we realize this or not.
6) We usually imagine the worst, but we don’t go deeper into the reality of what the worst thing that can happen is.
For example, I had a student who was not going to be able to graduate with her class. She came to talk to me and I asked her: “What’s the worst that can happen?” I knew she had a tough semester, and that staying on for a little longer would make her graduate in a more mature way.
But she answered: “I think I will die.”
The more I began to understand how we as humans faced problems, the more I was baffled when I looked at my students struggling into huge maze-like thoughts that only made them feel like failures.
So I came up with a list of steps for effective problem solving:
1) Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed with something, I breathe.
Focusing on my breath for just a few minutes allows me to stay mindful, and in the present moment. By doing so, I don’t allow myself to delve into the past or to jump into the future.
It helps me understand that now is all that matters.
2) I ask a lot of questions.
It took me a long time to understand that I needed to get past the why and start with the how and the where: How does this work/doesn’t work? What rules apply to this problem? This is especially useful because by asking more questions about my current situation, I am able to see things that I had not seen before. I come up with more ideas about how to find a solution.
3) I focus on the problem.
My first response to problems or conflict used to be running from them/it. By doing so, trouble just became stronger. I have understood that facing what’s bothering me, from the beginning, keeps things real and present. I focus on my problems or conflicts from a mindful perspective (in the here and now) and it’s easier for me to find solutions.
4) I Embrace the feelings.
I get mad, I get sad, I allow myself to be angry and curse. But I try to avoid doing so in a way that may hurt other people. I write it down, or draw a mean sketch. I understand that nothing wrong has ever come by writing down “F**k this sh*t”. I just work on not getting attached. I allow myself to feel what I feel and let go.
5) I try to get perspective.
I go for a walk, or draw something. For a little while, I allow myself to just be there, enjoying the sun or the colors in my notebook. I Breathe and let go. When something seems unbearable, maybe it is, at that exact moment. So I try to give myself the chance to understand when I am not ready to deal with something. There’s a catch though: giving myself a “time out” moment is not the same thing as running away from my problems. I enjoy my time out but I know I need to get back to what bothers me.
6) I practice self-compassion.
This one was not easy. Whenever I had a problem, my mind turned from “This is crap” to “I am crap” really easily. The thing is, no matter how wrong I may have been about something, it’s the action that was wrong. By understanding that, no matter how bad I f*ck up, I am not the problem, I feel better equipped to deal with the consequences of my actions and find better ways to solve my issues.
7) I acknowledge the transient nature of reality and try to be ready for new insights.
I repeat to myself, several times a day: “this sh*t shall pass.” I have pen and paper at hand and I write down everything I can when it pops into my mind. I label my thoughts and feelings and I am able to let them go.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge that some problems are what I like to call “points of no return”—sometimes, I can’t fix it. There is no solution.
When this happens, I follow the exact same steps, and I honor my mistakes by learning from them. Points of no return, the kinds of mistakes from which we emerge as someone new or the ones that change everything around us, are great teachers.
So I deal with my feelings, the consequences of my actions, and prepare myself to not make the same mistakes again.
Author: Jean Pozo
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: hernanpc at Flickr