The problem is the problem. What do I mean by this? I mean that the more attention we give to a persistent problem, the more we start to think of it as a powerful force in its own right, the more we believe that we’re stuck with it, and the less able we feel to eliminate it. When we fixate on a problem, we forget that other people may not have this same problem, so it never occurs to us to ask what they might be doing differently. We see everything in terms of the paradigm of this particular problem.
Probably the most relatable example of the problem being the problem is the example of the bad romance. I once loved a boy who was a liar and a cheat. He would cheat and lie, and then I would find out, and I would cry and feel totally nauseated, but then I would forgive him, and he would do it again. I’d rather not admit how long it took for me to realize that he was never going to change and that being with him was a trap. There was nothing I could do in the context of that relationship to be happy and satisfied. Middle-aged me looks back at dumb young me and wonders why I ever wanted that guy in the first place.
When I was in debt, it felt like I would be in debt forever. I didn’t earn very much at my job, and it felt like that would last forever, too. From my current perspective and my current income, it’s almost laughable how long it took me to pay off $1000 on two credit cards and a personal loan of $600. (My debt burden mostly consisted of student loans and a car loan).
When I was in pain every day, it felt like that was just my new reality. My doctors told me that my thyroid disease was genetic (maybe) and there was nothing I could do about it (false). Everything I read said that fibromyalgia was incurable (also false). Nothing I read or heard indicated that I could escape chronic pain through strenuous exercise, nutrition, and improved sleep.
When I was obese, I didn’t think I was fat at all. I thought I was just average, and in my circle of acquaintance, that’s probably true. I knew no athletes or even anyone who went to a gym. I didn’t think my weight had anything to do with anything. Now it boggles my mind that I could be 35 pounds heavier and not think it was a problem. It also astonishes me that I never realized the connection between my weight and my migraines, something that is clear and obvious to me after three years without one.
Almost all problems are universal. If other people aren’t facing a particular problem right this minute, they probably have at some point in the past, or they’re going to. Death of loved ones, illness, injury, job loss of someone in the family, gossip, rudeness, betrayal, injustice. We all feel the same emotions of grief, loss, disappointment, confusion, and hurt. As hard as it is to be crushed under the wheel of fate from time to time, it makes life even harder to tolerate the persistent problems in the background.
Follow the default lifestyle, get the default results. Complain and do nothing, hang out with other people who complain and do nothing, and ten years from now you’ll have the exact same problems. Hate your job, hate your boss, hate your coworkers, hate your customers, have constant power struggles with everyone close to you, and you are at the mercy of other people who control your happiness. That’s default. Complaining is a distraction. We seek out comfort, validation, and proof of personal loyalty, none of which are effective ways to eliminate persistent problems.
The real problem is that resolving problems takes 1. Decisions and 2. Actions, both of which will most likely be difficult and challenging. It’s the willingness to do difficult things that eliminates problems. But it will be HARD! It will take A REALLY LONG TIME! I’m NOT IN THE MOOD! A solution-oriented person understands that living with a persistent problem is harder in the long run than taking difficult action today.
Breaking up with the cheating boyfriend was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as living with the hurt and the indecision. Paying off my consumer debt was hard, but only for about three years, and from my current perspective I believe I should have done it faster with the resources available to me. Losing 35 pounds was hard, but if I’d known I could do it in a few months and be migraine-free forevermore, I would have done it years earlier. Living with chronic pain and fatigue was, well, it was dreadful really. It was complicated and it had multiple sources. If I knew then what I know now about picking apart my persistent problems and methodically eliminating them, I believe I could have beat it years sooner as well.
Root cause analysis is an engineering term that refers to the process of figuring out what is going wrong. It’s something that should be taught in every discipline.
Why does my foot hurt/oh, I stepped on a nail/because I walked through a pile of construction debris/and now I need to update my tetanus shot/and not walk there anymore/and look where I’m going.
I dated a cheater/because I never knew to set boundaries about exclusivity/or negotiate for my needs.
I’m late all the time/because I don’t know how long it takes me to get ready/and my stuff is disorganized.
I’m overweight/because I sit down with three cans of Pepsi and a can of Pringles when I study at night/and I have no idea what is the right amount for me to eat.
The first step to overcoming a persistent problem is to find someone who doesn’t have that problem, preferably someone who had the problem at some point in the past and found a way to solve it. I solved my cheating boyfriend problem after a conversation with a friend who said, “It sounds like he’s just being mean to you!” Ding! Why would I date someone who was mean to me? Dismissed. I solved my weight problem after talking to another friend who suggested that I keep a food log. Getting rid of problems means being willing to be wrong, being willing to receive annoying and unwelcome advice, and being determined to figure out a better way. The problem is only the problem if you believe the problem has power over you.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.