A therapist agrees to work with a client on two specific problems over the course of a three-month engagement. In the first month, the two specific problems are solved. The therapist and client continue to work together for the remaining two months, solving an additional three problems. At the end of the engagement, the therapist asks the client, ‘How did I do?’
“You did an OK job,” the client tells the therapist.
“An OK job?” the therapist replies, incredulously. “You wanted two problems solved, and I solved those two and three more!”
“But I really loved those problems,” the client replies.
Why we love our problems
This joke, told to me last week by a family therapist, highlights the ways in which we sabotage our progress by loving our problems.
How many times have you heard a friend tell you of yet another failed relationship, yet another lost job, yet another poor financial investment? You’d think they’d learn from their mistakes. But no. They continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Why do our friends make the same mistakes over and over again, and why do therapy clients not want all their problems solved?
Let me answer these questions with a personal story.
23 years ago, I moved to Canada with a backpack full of clothes, a box of records, and a digital keyboard sampler. Since then, I’ve amassed a whole load of other stuff, some of which I use on a daily basis, some of which I use very rarely, and some of which is in the attic storage space gathering dust.
13 years ago, I met my wife. She has her own stuff, some of which she uses on a daily basis, some of which she uses very rarely, and some of which is in the attic storage space gathering dust.
10 years ago, we had our first child, and 7 years ago, we had our second child. They have their own stuff, some of which they use on a daily basis, some of which they use rarely, and some of which is in the attic storage gathering dust.
3 years ago, we started saying that we need to have a garage sale, to get rid of all the stuff gathering dust in the attic storage, yet here we are 3 years later, toward the end of the garage sale season in Canada, and still no garage sale.
I expect many people can relate to this story. It’s hard to get rid of stuff, when the default option is to do nothing. It’s much easier to let stuff gather dust in the attic than to decide what to keep and what to get rid of.
At some point, the pain of not having enough space in the attic will become so acute that we have no option but to do something about it. But we are not there yet.
This story illustrates how easy it is to get stuck with stuff that has outgrown its usefulness, and how only when the pain of hanging on to it is acute enough are we motivated to do something about it.
This psychological inertia explains why friends keep making the same mistakes over and over again – they’re not sufficiently motivated to change behaviors they developed many years ago, even when those behaviors are no longer working for them (and maybe never did).
It also explains why the client in the scenario above wasn’t pleased when his therapist solved more problems than they agreed to solve. That scenario is akin to someone coming in to my home and cleaning out my attic without my explicit permission. Sure, the problem is solved for me, which you’d think I’d be grateful for, but because I wasn’t the one to solve it I feel robbed of the experience of solving the problem – saying goodbye to old heirlooms, chatting with people in the street, and knowing who bought what.
More than that, although the outcome may be the same in both scenarios – I have shed vestiges of the past and now have an empty attic – my identity may not be. The process of saying goodbye to old heirlooms, chatting with people in the street and knowing who bought what, is identity-forming, an opportunity to reflect on my past, present and future. When the problem is solved for me – without my permission or full participation – I don’t have the opportunity to learn, reflect, and prepare for the new and uncertain future I’m thrust into.
How to stop loving your problems and start solving them
If we are naturally inclined to put off solving our problems as a result of psychological inertia, and at the same time are unable or unwilling to have others solve our problems for us, how do we avoid making the same mistakes over and over again?
The answer is to solve one big problem – the meta-problem of how to solve problems.
Only by solving this primary problem are we able to get other problems solved in a timely manner.
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