A wise therapist once told me that there were three universal solutions to any recurring problem. To help his clients, he would start by describing those three solutions. Then he would ask, “Which of these would you like to apply to your current situation?” Let’s try this right now! Think of a recurring problem you have—with another person, with yourself, or with a situation, a thing, a place, a feeling. Some examples of persistent problems might be:
- You often lose your keys, then panic about where they could be.
- When you think about your future, you tend to imagine the worst. Your mind becomes so full of negative scenarios that you suffer mentally—even though nothing bad has happened yet.
- Your friend is often late for your dates. Although she usually has good reasons, you feel taken for granted. You sometimes brood over this situation for hours.
What is the recurring problem situation in your life? Got it? OK, now I’ll describe the three general methods you might use to cope at a better level. The first two might sound familiar, but they are not always what they seem. The third is definitely unusual. As you read, ask yourself, “Which of these solutions would I like to apply to my situation?”
Got a problem? Who doesn’t? It might help to know there are five ways, and only five ways, to solve it. Isn’t that reassuring? Aren’t you glad you’re reading this? Run through these five alternatives and you can take care of any problem that comes your way.
1. Solve the problem. Sometimes it’s as easy as that. Let’s say you have a “to-do” list that’s way too long. You can fret. You can resent it. You can wish it were different. Or you could just start taking care of things one by one until they’re all done. Problem solved.
Or let’s say you and your partner are always fighting about money. It’s become such a big issue, neither one of you wants to touch it with a 10-foot pole. Well, you could just sit down like the two adults you are and hash out your differences. I didn’t say it would be easy. But two creative, smart people who love each other can usually come up with a compromise once they bite the bullet and start to have a reasonable conversation instead of a fight.
If, however, you and your partner never resolve your fights about money, you could be headed for divorce. Getting rid of the partner gets rid of the problem, but it might not be your first choice.
2. Avoid the problem. There just may be some things on that to-do list that will go away if you wait long enough. Let’s say repairing a kid’s shirt is on your list. Wait long enough and the kid will outgrow the shirt. Problem solved. Or maybe you want to paint your house this summer. Wait long enough and it will be October, when it will be too cold or wet for the paint to dry. Problem gone!
3. Cut the problem down to size. Sometimes the best way to manage a problem is to figure out a way to do it in stages. That to-do list wouldn’t feel so daunting if you set out to do three things a day. The fight about money wouldn’t seem so insurmountable if you and your sweetie came up with a way a compromise so neither feels cheated. Perhaps funneling a certain amount of money into one account for savings and another account for expenses would ease the anxious partner’s mind. A certain amount of play money could then be put into each person’s wallet. It often doesn’t have to be much. Spenders just like to feel they have control over some money to spend as they please.
4. Address an underlying issue. Maybe the problem isn’t that your to-do list is too long. Maybe you really are taking too much responsibility for too many things. In that case, it’s not the list that’s the problem. The problem is your inability to say no. Maybe your money woes aren’t because you’re a saver and he’s a spender. Maybe the problem is that you each use money as a way to communicate control issues. Maybe one or the other of you spends when anxious. Maybe one or the other of you rebels about the need to budget. If any of those possibilities ring true, then all the compromises and separate accounts in the world won’t solve the problem. The larger issue has to be addressed.
5. Cope with the problem. Some problems just have to be managed. There’s no simple way to solve, avoid or minimize them. The problem isn’t a cover for a larger issue. It’s just a problem. You have to deal with it.
If you’re a single parent, you especially know what I mean. The to-do list is long because it is. There’s no one else to do many of the things necessary to take care of your home, your children, and your job. Yes, you can prioritize. Yes, you can eliminate some things. But some days you just have to cope. That means do the best you can. Take a break. Go for a walk. Breathe deeply and count to 10. Pray. Whatever it takes to just manage the stress is the best you can do.
Sometimes the problem with money is that there really isn’t enough to go around. You and your partner do make the budget, agree on a plan, and work as a team to manage it. But if the end of the money still comes before the end of the month, all you can do is cope the best you can and encourage each other while you look for ways to increase your income and decrease your outgo.
Try again. The problem with problems is that they often loom large. As one of my favorite teachers used to say, “When people know what to do, they don’t get upset. It’s when they don’t know what to do that they get overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed.” Solve. Avoid. Cut. Address. Cope. Tools such as these guard against anxiety and depression by giving us a few more ways to confront a situation and begin to resolve it.