What’s on your mind?
Is it a problem or a project?
Something I decided, when I was young and broke, was that I was better off struggling with a clean bathtub than struggling with a grimy bathtub. At least at the end of the day I could soak and cry in a nice hot bath.
When you’re young and broke, there are a lot more things outside of your control to drive you crazy. It’s one of the advantages of middle age that you know how to handle more stuff. You’re better at setting boundaries and avoiding the avoidable kinds of drama.
Ah, but what do you do when you don’t know what to do?
What if your problem is that a situation is out of your control?
What I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is that most of my problems are other people’s problems.
Then the problem becomes, Is there a way to help this person? Can I personally do that thing? Would they want me to?
Usually the thing to do is just to be a good listener. That doesn’t even count as a project. Simply avoid the long list of terrible, insensitive things that other people are known to say. Try not to create a new one.
It seems that the cultural rule is, your problem does not count. Only grievances, not trauma. Only anger, not sorrow. Do not expect comfort or sympathy under any circumstances, because that is weak and we practice individualism.
It’s easier - or at least slightly less hard - when you realize that most people are never going to say the right thing. If you gave them a printed checklist, they still couldn’t do it. Given many chances, they still will somehow bungle the opportunity and fail to say anything helpful.
This is when it starts to feel like a better idea not to confide in other people. At least then you can continue to view them the same way that you did before. You don’t have to mess up your impressions with the single worst thing you’ve ever heard them say. You don’t have to witness them failing at emotional support.
And this is where it can be so helpful to have a project.
I used to have a craft project that I would bring for awkward visits. I could avoid many hours of political debate or unpleasant topics by just being deep into my work. I could pretend to be a person with no opinion.
Nobody is entitled to my opinion.
It makes sense to me. Don’t try to talk about all things with all people. Don’t expect all people to be equally good at support, sensitivity, or rational discourse. Try to appreciate people for who they are and what they can give, without holding them to standards that they didn’t sign up for.
Sometimes what a situation needs is just time to think it through.
That’s another time when it’s helpful to have a project. It’s good to have your hands on something that you can do something about. Sometimes focusing on something practical is good for focus, when everything else in the world seems very much out of focus.
It’s also true that our external surroundings can play their own part in a stressful situation. For instance, it was hard to deal with a death in the family when our loud upstairs neighbors kept banging around from 6 AM to midnight every day.
All we could do about that was to move, which eventually we did. I’m sure those people are still banging around and keeping the same hours that they always have. They’re just doing it with different people living underneath them now.
The only guarantee with problems is that there is no upper limit to how many you can have.
In fact, problems tend to compound. One of the reasons for this is that we accrue the problems that pertain to our mindset, our boundaries, and what we are willing to tolerate.
A person who has trouble setting boundaries will probably be taken advantage of by various people, over and over again, until finally they realize they don’t have to put up with that.
A person with a high standard for domestic chaos will live in it.
A person with a blind spot around money will be in perpetual debt.
A person who is at war with the concept of biologically imposed limits will suffer preventable health issues.
Sometimes, a shift in mindset can basically cause a whole set of problems to evaporate. Change the behavior and the problem falls away.
Other times, it takes a bit more hands-on effort to resolve a situation. This is where the projects come in.
The tricky part is to make sure that the project fits the problem. Or rather, that the project will mitigate or eliminate the problem in some way, and not merely serve as a useful distraction while the problem continues.
(Although sometimes a useful distraction is all we can hope for).
I’d always rather have a project than a problem. It gives me something to do rather than sit and cry on my shoes. It also gives me something to talk about when I don’t want to tell anyone what’s really on my mind.
What project are you working on next?
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.
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