Where does the problem live?


This essay may be a challenging read for many people. Over the past few years, I have attempted to explain the thinking of this essay and have constantly been met with a similar reaction [maybe its time I change my explanation methods!]. I have had people getting quite upset with me over the information presented. I have also noticed that people who do start seeing things in the way the essay presents the topic, go through a period of back and forth bargaining with this perception. I too struggled with this thinking  and am compassionate to the process.

I have a problem. My problem is simple. I have not been able to solve this problem though. Have I been looking in the right place? Do you mean to tell me that a problem has a location?

Lets start with a generic case example, I have a problem with a family member for example. Lets call him John. John annoys me and has hurt me in the past on several occasions. Lets focus on emotional pain rather than physical pain at the moment. I have tried to tell him what he does and still no change. This relationship with John is and has affected my life. I would like a change and have been unable to solve this problem.
Lets start by labelling the problem: “I have a problem with John”. So there it is, said simply, I have the problem not John. John has very little to do with this problem!
Lets label the problem differently: “John is causing me to have upheaval in my life”. Again, I have the problem, John is no cause of any problem. How can John be separate from this problem you may say? While the problem originated in a relational context, John is fairly isolated from this problem and the reasons for this are quite simple. Firstly, who is complaining of the problem? I am, therefore I have the problem. Secondly, who is observing this problem? I am, therefore I have the problem. Thirdly, who is feeling pain from this problem? I am, therefore… you know the rest. At no point in time was John’s view of this case presented. John has not presented us with a problem, thus he may firstly not even understand the extent of how he is affecting me. He may know about my issue but not even care, or he may know and care but does not know how to fix it. John is external to the problem that I have. While John possibly may too have a problem, it is not the same problem that I present. My problem is different to his [if he has one].
An important point is raised at this juncture, people often have a problem which is relational and just assume that the other parties share the same problem. This is a fallacy. In order to solve the problem, we need to know what the problem is. General statements and definitions just make it more difficult to solve. Sometimes just reframing the problem helps in providing a solution.

The problem has a home and it lives there:
Lets start with me. How do I know I have this problem? Well, I have thoughts and emotions linked to this problem. I behave in a certain way owing to this problem. Would it be fair to say that the problem lives in my head? My thoughts and emotions are in my body, not John’s. My behaviour is a function of my state of mind, not John’s. Thus my problem could be seen as a combination of neurological pathways that represent this issue. If the problem does live in my head, how does it survive? The problem survives in my mind and obtains sustenance from my mental attention when I focus on it. Thus, on a physiological level, the more mental energy given to this problem, the stronger it becomes, whether solved or unsolved. Does this mean one should just try to forget one’s problems? Even attempting to forget, is just trying to filter the problem by use of another thought process. Psychology research has shown that attempting to stop one’s thoughts such as thinking about chocolate, has reverse effect [reference here, surname :date—social psych book].  Thus attempting to forget does not solve the problem and that problem still lies awake in my neurology. In conclusion, the problem lives with me, it’s a function of my neurology, I feed it, I house it and I live with it.

How to not solve the problem:
The focus of this essay is on relational problems. Many people believe that their problems sit outside of themselves. This can be problematic as in order for change to occur, something or somebody needs to be changed other than the person who is experiencing the problem. It is not easy to change another person. The other person needs to want to change and also would need to change in the way that suits you in order for your problem to be improved! This is rare, it is far easier to work with one’s self rather than focusing all efforts on changing another person. When listening to people talk about their problems, it is common to hear them talk as if the problem is situated somewhere else. For example;
If my wife would just treat me better, everything in my life would be better.
If my boss would just be nicer to me, everything in my life will be better.
My husband is cheating on me and is causing our family to fall apart.
If my child would just get a job and start being self-sufficient, all will be well.
The language is important in terms of problems. From the above few phrases, we can quickly see how the problems have been spoken of in a way that is independent of the talker. In the above cases, if the person keeps thinking that for change to occur, someone or something outside of them self needs to change first, they will probably be waiting for a spontaneous change which is rare.

Taking responsibility:
If problems live in my head then am I not the one who is responsible for my problems? This is a tough one to accept. If I accept this I can no longer blame anyone else for how I feel. I cannot justify resentment towards other people any longer. I am the one who has the problem and have been choosing to live with these problems of mine. Yes while my problems may be triggered from people, I am the one who is having the emotional response, I am the one with the pain, I need a change. Where do I start? I start with myself. Firstly I am responsible for my own feelings, and equally responsible for my own behaviours. Thus, if the problem persists, I can no longer hold anyone ransom to my problems. I can no longer blame anyone, and can no longer live a life believing that I am a victim of circumstance. Does this mean that everything is my fault? We go through life and learn as we go. Yes people will lie to me, people will take advantage of me and I will be fooled. But when I realise this, I can make a change. Yes there are people in extremely tricky circumstances whereby change seems an impossibility. One case is where a married couple with children are experiencing abuse. Maybe the husband is beating his wife up and his wife has little or no support system. She has no financial resources and would very much like to have things different, but cant take the risk of making a change. In the short term this would make sense as she has a lot to lose by making a change, but long term it is not an enjoyable way to live and would need to initiate a change. Easier said than done, you may say. The first step is to ascertain if a change is required. This may come as a surprise. Abusive relationships require at least two people and thus each party has a part in the abuse. The same way a sadist needs a masochist, a masochist needs a sadist. Thus in order for someone to abuse you, you need to be present for this abuse. At some level you are cooperating with the abuse. I have worked with many abuse cases and have found that some people genuinely want to get out of these relationships and make changes, others don’t. The same applies to solving problems. The longer the problem persists, the longer you are cooperating with this problem. Unfortunately, we don’t readily do things that we don’t know or have not learned to do. Thus, the problem situation is now familiar and may be easier to live with than the alternative. If a change is required, new thinking is needed including new behaviours. How does one suddenly learn new behaviours? It starts with new thinking. Thinking differently may sound easier than it is. If we have become used to our lives in a certain way and think accordingly, how does one suddenly think in a way that translates to a solution? A well known book and movie (The Secret) speaks of the power of an individual’s positive thinking that can result in life-changing effects. Many people have read the book and yes they have received the results they require. Many people do not. The reason for this is simple. How can I think differently to the way that I have been living and currently live? My knowledge and understanding of my world is mirrored in my past and my current status quo. Thus, if I have always been a pessimist, how do I now become an optimist? How do I attract the things I want if I don’t have this capacity? How do I create the capacity to have a change in thinking? This requires re-learning and re-living. I am a product of my lived experience. My brain neurology maps out my life in a certain way. I can imagine that I am a medical surgeon but I would advise you not to be the patient to whom I perform my first operation. I just don’t have that capacity as I have not lived a life whereby I know how to perform medical operations. Can I get that capacity? Yes I can, learning through living. Thus to create a change , time and effort are required alongside the establishment of new neural capacity.
It is a common feeling to experience that there is no other alternative to my problematic situation. I ponder on the problem and no solution. I go through this process many times. How does one escape? Firstly logic says that everyone has different problems. Thus, even though I believe that my problem is unique, which it is, it is possible that someone else could solve it. The same applies when I see that I can solve another person’s problems and thus the saying, “I wish I had his problems rather than my own”. Why is this? My thoughts are a product of my past experience. Someone else’s thoughts are a product of their unique life experience. Since we do not share the same life experience we look at life differently. Thus, some people constantly find them self in a problematic situation that seems to be reoccurring. Maybe its an abusive relationship, maybe it’s a job where there is always some issue with the bosses. Whatever it may be, the circumstances surrounding our lives are related to our own way of thinking. Thus, if I want to be an alcoholic, you would find me drinking a lot of alcohol. If I want to be a party animal, you will find me partying. The more I do it, the more experienced I become at it. Thus, if I have a problem and want to change it, I need to start with changing the home of this problem which includes my thinking and behaving. If I cannot solve my problems alone, I can seek assistance from people. In terms of ecosystemic psychology, I like to use the term “change agent” as a person who can assist in bridging the gap between my problematic life to my life with less problems.

Giving the problem a new home:
I have a problem, the problem lives with me. What do I need to do to solve my problem? Well I firstly acknowledge that the problem is mine. Its like property rights. If I own my house then everything that happens to the house is my responsibility. Lets say I have a burst pipe. This is not the plumbers fault just because he is a plumber. I approach him and tell him my problem and see if he can assist me in solving my problem. Maybe he can, maybe he makes it worse, its still my problem though. A plumber wont miraculously just appear and fix my burst pipe without my first calling him up to do it.
In terms of relational issues, if I approach someone believing that they are the cause and reason for my problem, I am resting my wellbeing on their actions. What if their actions are not suitable for me? Then my problem remains with me. While I may need people to assist in solving my problems, when they leave, the problem stays with me. It stays in my thoughts, in my mind.
The context provides the content with meaning. When analysing a problem, the problem is a problem in a certain context. A change in context changes the terms and rules of the problem.
If I build a house with a high roof, then when it is finished, it will look like it has a high roof. This is obvious. The point is that structure determines function. Thus if my brain neurology is wired for seeing things in a certain way, I will see things in that way as determined by my structure. If I learn new ways of being, learn new ways of behaving, I effectively am changing the home of my problem as I am changing the context [or the neurologic structure].
For example, my first time in the deep end of the pool was a scary encounter. It is easy to forget the first times of the things we take for granted. The first time you rode a bike, a motorbike, went on date and so on. How did we get through those experiences? We tried new behaviours and have the results to prove this.

We are often told to think outside of the box, think laterally etc. This is like telling someone to think like they don’t normally think. How do I think differently? I cannot think outside of my own experience and thus this can be a frustrating statement for many. The only way I can think outside myself is if I am someone else. Thus, to change my thinking I may need to gain further knowledge, either from people around me, books and so on. It takes learning and effort. I need to see my problem differently. There are many tools, and like any engineer will tell you: “One needs to learn how to use a tool before it provides us with a desirable function”. The more we use the tools, the better we are at solving our problems.



Written by
P. Baron (June 2009)