The third in our series, Making Life Easier, provides help with Problem-Solving. Life is so much easier when we go proactive and start looking for solutions.
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I held a Zoom counseling session with a young woman some time back. She was twenty-five. She had an MBA. She owned her own home. She drove a newer four-door Japanese sedan, and worked for a prestigious organization, and was already piling up retirement funds. She was polite, friendly, serious-minded about things that needed seriousness.
She was responsible, neatly dressed, not a heavy drinker, never had done drugs. She lived in the big city while her family and her childhood friends lived in a small town two hours away. The person she was closest to – her younger sister – had just left for college back east. She was renting a room to another young woman, whom she seldom saw because of their schedules. She worked from home for 40 hours a week – 8 hours every day on her computer. She cooked at home mostly, or bought take-out food and ate it at home.
So, do you see where this is going? Yeah, she was almost completely isolated. Some days she never saw another living human being. She also had recently broken up with an alcoholic young guy she had known most of her life. And she was still co-dependently attached to this guy, and at the same time, furious with herself for wanting to be connected to him. And, at the same time, she was desperately lonely.
To combat the isolation, she had resorted to food and was slowly gaining weight. All efforts to control her food intake had eventually failed to date. In her own mind, she was doomed to become obese. No one would want her. Her life was going to be miserable. She fully believed time was passing her by. She would probably never find anyone, never have children, never be happy, saw no point to her education, her good job, or even life itself. In a word, she was depressed.
I asked her if she ever went home on the weekends, and she said she did occasionally, but her mother had always been critical of her, so she didn’t enjoy her time there. I asked her about her friends from her home town. She told me that they always wanted to drink and she didn’t like to do that, so she was staying away from them when she went home now.
So, what would you do with that situation? What’s the underlying problem? I had to use some problem-solving skills to help her. But that aside, I knew that no amount of talking to her and talking sense to her was going to help. Telling her she was not obese, she was good-looking, she was fun to be around, she would be a good catch for anybody, etcetera would not help, because she believed otherwise. She knew in her own mind that she was defective, unworthy and undeserving.
Let me explain how all of that works. Human beings tend to go with what’s easy. And what is familiar is easier than what’s unfamiliar. So, she was sabotaging her own efforts to break away from this toxic guy, and her efforts to stop eating so much, and her efforts to spend time meeting more people. Deep down she didn’t believe she deserved any of those things. And, as she would approach success in any of those areas, she would backslide. The human brain does not like incongruence. Reaching out to others and losing weight were behaviors that were incongruous with how she believed about herself.
Talking wasn’t going to help. So, instead of talking, we did EMDR. That helped her rewrite all the negative things her mother had taught her about herself. She began to stop believing the lies she had believed about herself. I could see that she was happier and lighter, but she was still lonely, still eating too much. It was like the mind changed, but the problem behaviors were still entrenched as habits. So, to deal with those habits, we had to change course. We started working on problem-solving.
I started by asking her what she could do to ease her isolation. Masters degree aside, she had no idea. You don’t come out of a Masters degree with no problem-solving skills. So, she was stuck. Part of that was depression, and part of it was the habitual self-downing thinking that she was caught up in and had held on to for so long. That was a habit too. Although she was starting to see that those things weren’t true, but there was no room in that constellation of thought for change. So, no problem-solving was needed in her way of thinking about it – which is the title of today’s presentation, Problem-solving Skills – the third in our series, Making Life Easier.
Life is supposed to be hard. God designed it that way. And it does have its difficult patches, for sure, but we often make it harder than it needs to be. I have ten presentations lined up in this series. And looking back, I see that I have covered most of these in previous presentations. But this series is my effort to do two things. One, is to loop back to the things that people find hard to do – that would really make life easier – we all need to be reminded – and second, to put these strategies for making life easier all in one place so people can find them or go back to them more easily. So, this series is my effort to make one small contribution to making your life easier. So, we’re calling this Problem-solving Skills. If you look it up on Google, you’ll find that this term problem-solving skills was first related to solving problems in the work place, because there are many there. But later, it was found to be so helpful that the skills are being used anywhere there are obstacles.
I used this example in a previous presentation, but it’s such a good one, I wanted to mention it again. I was reading a research study that was a study about studies related to teen suicidal thinking. So, it had kind of accumulated all of the knowledge that had been gained on that subject. And they discovered that teaching and using problem-solving skills was one of the most helpful things parents or therapists or other helpers could do for a suicidal teen. So, what are these skills?
Well, first of all, there’s a four-pronged approach. One, identify a problem (or problems). Two, develop strategies to solve the problems. Three, employ the strategies. And then, four, evaluate to see if it’s working and then change the strategy or skip to something else that might be more helpful. Start over.
Now, you might say, “Duh! Well, everybody knows that.” Well, yes, everybody does. It just makes sense. It’s logical. You figure out what the problem is, you figure out what to do about it, and then you do it. But think about the young woman I told you about. She had a logical mind. She was really intelligent. But she was so stuck it never entered her mind to start thinking that way. So, these points are, though simple when you put them on a sheet of paper, hard to use if one is stuck as she was.
I remember a long time ago watching the movie Apollo 13, and they got to the part where the astronauts were in deep space and in real trouble because their ship got damaged, and they were running out of oxygen. The NASA engineers back on the ground in Houston were desperately trying to figure out how to get them some oxygen from another part of the ship. They had before them, laid out on a table, all the various things that these astronauts had with them that they could use, if they could figure out how to pipe the oxygen to them from that other part. But the engineers could not agree on how to do it and they started arguing among themselves. At that point, the chief yelled at them to stop, and then he said, “It’s all right here in front of us. So, stop arguing, gentlemen and work the problem!” So, that’s what these four steps help us to do – not argue, not get stuck, but to start working the problem.
First of all, let’s say we’re going to work on steps one and two right now. I remember years ago I went to an all-day training on what they called continuous quality improvement. I was with a group of teachers from an elementary school that I worked at as a counselor. We were all sitting at the same table, so we were given an assignment to use the four steps to make our school a better place to learn. So, after twenty minutes of discussion, these teachers decided that many of the parents were so critical of the school’s staff that their attitudes were affecting their kids and making it a bad situation for everyone. I was sitting back out of the fray – I wasn’t a teacher – but I agreed, too, this was a problem. I’d seen it. In the past – maybe I knew this and the teachers didn’t – in the past, when these parents were elementary age themselves, there was a federal program in effect, called urban development. And that was foolishly put into use by our local city planners, pushing many of the poor people out of the downtown area to clean it up and moving them all out to a new minimal subdivision way out from the center of town. As I went out there to work at school many years later, there was still just a really expensive gas station and a 7/11 out there with one phone hanging on the wall – probably didn’t work. And that was all the services they had without a ten-minute drive. So, the unintended consequence of this action was a deep distrust of government at all levels on the part of these people whose parents – they were the parents of the parents – and the parents of the kids as children saw all this happening and they sort of caught that attitude from their parents, so they were distrustful. They kind of considered – as I talked to them – they kind of considered the staff at the school just drones of the man, you know, because of their experience they’d had. They automatically assumed the school staff was mistreating them, or lying to them, or just avoiding.
So, once the problem was identified in our little group – and it was a real problem – they moved to finding a solution. A wild and free-ranging brain-storming session then ensued. We could all this exploring for a solution that is doable. That’s something that’s very important. The first suggestion offered was that the principal, once confronted by an irate parent, should send him to the school nurse for a mandatory Valium. And the next suggestion offered was that the principal should take one too. And that was soon expanded in a joking way to the entire staff. They all, pretty much, jokingly agreed that would be greatly helpful. So, after some more sarcastic joking around about wrist straps and gags and blindfolds for students, things got more serious. They decided that there wasn’t much they could do in the area of attitude adjustment directly, other than the magic wand or electric shock stuff, which they didn’t have. So, they began looking for what was within their circle of influence. What could they actually do? They identified the greatest source of frustration for parents as a lack of understanding on the part of the parents about what was going on, on a daily basis, at the school. They didn’t seem to be in the know. That returned a completely humble and helpful understanding that the school staff wasn’t communicating. That was something that was doable. So, that’s a good thing. One thing they figured out they could do, with not too much effort and expense, would be the production of a biweekly one-page letter that they would send home with the kids and post that thing all over bulletin boards at the school as well – and maybe put some stuff about it on the marquis out in the front of the school. They thought they might have a chance at starting that.
So, they started out with frustration and blaming and began looking at what the group could do to actually make things better. In this example – and this was only an exercise – there was no actual work done…. And, as I understand it, some of them went to the principal when we got back to the school and asked if this sort of periodic letter could be sent out, but the principal denied their request. However, when we apply these four points to our own lives, there is no one to deny us. We can make our plans and then carry them out. I remember it, because it was so hilarious, to watch the mood change, and people get more serious, and start thinking of things that actually could work.
But for steps three and four – that is, the actual work itself – let’s go back to the depressed twenty-five-year old. Once we did EMDR, it was much easier for her to see what the problems were. They no longer felt like they belonged in her life. She was seeing herself as she really was, instead of as her mother had taught her. And she could now see that her loneliness was caused by the isolation she was in. She never thought about that before. She would say she was lonely, but she never really ascribed that to the fact that she had no one to relate to. She later told me that it helped her when I said, “Anyone who is as isolated as you are would feel lonely.” Had I said that to her from the beginning, it probably wouldn’t have helped, but now that we opened the door of her mind with some EMDR, she was starting to understand that more.
So, here are some things that we talked about: going home for the weekend and seeing if the jabs her mother laid on her affected her as much as they did before EMDR; visiting her little sister, who was at college, on breaks – remember, she has money, because she has a good-paying job, so she could fly back east – going to a gym with the idea of meeting people, losing weight and staying healthy; taking walks in her safe neighborhood to get exercise, but also to meet the neighbors. And I told her about my wife, who would walk around our neighborhood, and she met quite a number of people during the time she was doing that. We talked about developing a hobby she could share at a club in town or on Instagram – preferably in town. We talked about doing some regularly scheduled volunteer work somewhere. We talked about staying in touch with her childhood friends on Facebook – not in person, because of the drinking, but at least to be sociable.
Next, I itemized some things that we talked about all interspersed together, but I separate them for this presentation, about weight gain. So, we talked about how to get more exercise, going to a gym, taking the walks we mentioned, and simple short exercises that she could do at home. We talked about something like meal-replacement shakes that would make her feel full and provide the nutrients, but not put on too much weight – not too many calories. Eating at home more, and eating at restaurants less. We talked about the smaller plate method, where instead of heaping up a big plate, if you heap up a small plate, there’s still going to be less food on it. We talked about a commitment to finding comfort in people rather than food. We talked about hiring a weight coach to keep her honest. With all these possibilities, I’m not sure all of them would work, but they were just things that we threw out. So, the idea is not to try to do all of it at once, but to select just one or two, in this case, to start with.
So, that’s how once we identified those two problems, we started talking about what could be done about it. And then, the next step is to apply those. So, that’s kind of where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? Now, remember, we all want to do what’s familiar and what’s easy. So, what we are already used to is the easiest. They say it takes three weeks to make a long-lasting change in a habit. So, I suggested that she start doing a daily journal on exercise, people contacts and dietary effort. And she should write down her thoughts and behaviors and record each of those – on each one of the things she was trying to change. And that would help her identify trends, monitor consistency and behavior more easily. She would be the one who was monitoring herself, not somebody else – at least, at this point. She also asked me to check in with her on these efforts. I mentioned that I would be happy to do that, but at $100 a session, I was rather expensive as a long-term monitor. So, we thought about she could join a gym or a workout club or a diet group for the long-term, once she got things straightened out.
Those are just the four basic points. But there are some strategies that go with it. What kind of strategies, and tools, and things you use to solve the problems vary a lot, because these four principles can be applied to anything – any part of life. It could be anything from quadratic equations to worming the dog. So, we can’t go into everything, but I’m giving it a nod toward solving people problems because that’s what I do for a living. It’s just impossible – because there are so many applications – to get extremely specific in every area, but there are few general concepts that go with all of this.
What is the real problem? Is it loneliness or isolation? We had to talk about that. Eventually, you have to work the problem. That’s another thing. It’s just like the time Jesus told people that unless they all repented, they were going to perish. How did He say it? He said, “Fruit trees produce good fruit – good – but if they don’t, then they’re going to get the ax put to them and they’re going to be burned. They had to figure out what to do. And his solution was, “Repent!” Brainstorming is not a bad idea. Working the problem is not a bad idea. And identifying what the real problem is – the underlying problem. And then using creativity to think outside the box.
It wasn’t recent, but a while back, I used an example of a truck that couldn’t get under an underpass. And a kid came along – there were all these policemen and engineers out there, and the people from the trucking company – and he suggested they let some air out of the tires to make it a little bit lower. So, outside the box! Sometimes, people that are not directly involved in the problem have a better view of it – or a fresh view.
Also, to consider your circles of control and influence. What can you do? What do you have control of? What might you be able to influence? Is the solution you’ve selected doable? What resources would you need? What would you need to learn in order to employ a solution? And how would you learn it? Well, everybody just says, “Google it,” now. And there’s a lot of truth to that. These are some general concepts that I always try to think about when I’m trying to help someone figure out what to do about a problem they have.
You’ll notice first, too, that before we even started this process, we did the heart work. We worked on what was causing her view of herself to be so negative, which was causing all of her problems. It’s pretty amazing…I mean, this girl was a very nice person, and she looked nice, she was articulate and well-spoken, she had money that she was earning herself, she was independent, and yet, because of her depression, she was completely stumped in the areas where she needed help the most.
Now, so far, we have not yet covered the most important step. If we leave it out, we can still fail. But if we include it and really mean it, we will succeed. And that point is to be poor in spirit. In Matthew 5:3, Jesus said that if we are poor in spirit, we will find the Kingdom of God. So, we have to realize that, in this life, it’s not just physical – even though we’re physical beings. It’s also spirit. The spiritual is outside the realm of understanding or control. We are all beggars when it comes to the complexities of the spirit in our lives. We have to rely on God for that. So, prayer factors into this – and also faith. So, let’s look at a few scriptures and see what approach to take when asking God to help us.
Let’s go to Proverbs 1:1.
Proverbs 1:1-7 – The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice and equity – to receive instruction in wise dealing – to give prudence to the simple – to give us a leg up on spiritual things that are normally outside of our awareness – knowledge and discretion to the youth. Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance – guidance from God about how to do things, how to be successful – to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. Fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Every important area of life is covered in the Proverbs from a spiritual perspective – not from a human perspective, but the element we all lack in – the spiritual. I saw a man on TV once who said that he read a chapter of Proverbs every day for two years. And since there are thirty-one chapters, that two years of reading caused him to go through the book of Proverbs twenty-four times. And he said that one of the things that resulted from his effort there was that he became wealthy. And he mentioned that he was also happily married and that all his children were thriving as well. So, who wouldn’t want that? But everything is covered there. And if we drill it into ourselves and think about all those things that are there – that are spiritual information for us – it’s going to help us with our problems.
So, God wants us to solve our problems. And He gives us a book to help us. But, there’s an implication there that we’re going to get to later.
Proverbs 3:6 is another one:
Proverbs 3:6 – In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths. What happens when your path is straight? Well, we know where to go. And we know where we’re going. And it’s easier. And we can see the end of the road better. We can see the goal. Things are less confusing and they’re not so mysterious when our paths are straight.
So, let’s look at another one – Philippians 4:6 and 7. This is not in the Proverbs, but in the New Testament. Paul said – and I think he’s probably quoting Jesus:
Philippians 4:6-7 – Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving – so supplication is repeatedly asking for the same thing – by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving – seeing the big picture and being glad for the things that you do have – let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I mean, there it is! Right? How can we ignore that one?
I try to sneak some of these things in when I’m talking to people that aren’t Christian in my practice – much like Steven Covey did when he wrote the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Steven Covey was a Mormon and his goal was to write a book about helpful Godly principles without ever quoting the Bible or eluding to it.
So, I mentioned there was an implication here. See if you can find it in this more plain scripture in Ephesians 5:15 through 16.
Ephesian 5:15-16 – Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
So, making the best use of our time and thinking about how we walk. Well, the implication there is that we need to be walking. We need to be doing what we can do. God expects us to read the book of Proverbs and start applying the principles in it, instead of expecting Him to do everything. Why is this important?
I learned quite a bit about this. I have a perspective on this that I got in counseling people that I never had before. There are some people who will come for help, knowing they need help, but knowing they are also responsible for the results. And there are others who come expecting to sit on my couch while I change them, and if they don’t change, it’s my fault, not theirs. Guess which one actually succeed. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it, when you think about it.
So, this is true of church people as well. There is a significant percentage of Christians who believe God is just going to change them without any effort on their part. I mean, think about this scripture in Matthew 7:16.
Matthew 7:16-20 – You will recognize them by their fruits. Oh, you mean we have to bear fruit? Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased trees bear bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits.
So, He’s talking about false prophets here, but that also applies to all of us. We are to bear fruit. God is not going to bear it for us. You know, this whole series was sparked by Paul’s discussion about fruits of the Spirit. We call on God to do what we can’t and to show us the way to do what we can.
Here’s another one in Hebrews 12:4 and 6.
Hebrews 12:4, 6 – “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood,” Paul says. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.”
So, God is not going to do the struggling for us. That’s our department. Jesus did that when He was here, and now it’s our turn. Everything that we discussed at first – all those strategies – well, they’re just as applicable to Christians as they are to anybody else. But, if we want to be successful in the spiritual part of our lives, as well as the physical, we need to include God in our efforts. That’s a mandate from God. We are responsible for the results we get.
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