Whose Problem Is It Anyway?

I was writing the other day about the relationship between problems and solutions, and it set me off thinking more about problems themselves. Very often we behave as though problems were actual things, actual external things that exist independently of us. By ‘external things’ I’m meaning things like a book, or a coffee table, or even a person; things that can be seen, touched, picked up and passed around (think of a new baby being welcomed into a family gathering) and have their own existence. Problems aren’t like that, they don’t exist independently of the person experiencing the problem. In the same way as we might see a good book, a shabby coffee-table or a cute person, problems are an evaluation of something, made by a person involved with it. Hence, we have problem-situations and problem-relationships, the ‘problem’ part is an evaluation of the situation or relationship, and the evaluation is made by us.

I guess that’s why some people can be in the midst of a terrible problem, and some other people around them can be saying, “Problem, what problem? I don’t see a problem.” Problems are in the eye of the beholder. That might sound a bit rough, a bit like blaming people for having problems; but actually, there is a beauty to this. If we’re the one who sees the problem, then we’re the only one who can build a solution to it! Other people might be able to help, but anyone who is giving advice on ‘how to solve the problem’ is offering advice on how they would solve their problem if they were you: but they’re not you. Only you can solve your problem, other people might come close, but at the end of the day, “no prize”.

Many times in abusive relationships one partner will behave in a way that is domineering and dominating towards the other partner. The person who is being dominated may well feel they are in a problem relationship and may even complain about this, but their problem is rejected by their partner and often replaced by the partner’s problem. I’m thinking of the type of conversation that goes along the lines of, “I don’t like you bullying me all the time” (problem), “I only do that because you make me do it” (revised problem); where both partners spend so much time fighting about the problem that they never get around to looking at what is going to solve their problem. Notice that both the partners have a different problem (I’m not saying that both problems have equal validity in the context of a bullying relationship, just that both partners believe the problem is the problem as they understand it), but treat it as a shared experience, usually expecting the other person to be the one to do something about building a solution.

This type of logic isn’t unique to abusive relationships of course, it typifies many types of conflict and problem situations. A great many of our problems exist because ‘things aren’t the way we want them to be’ (problem situation – it might be an unhappy job, a life-limiting medical condition, or dissatisfaction with our life experience) or else because ‘someone isn’t acting the way we think they should be (problem relationship – it might be an abusive relationship, a domineering manager, or someone who isn’t doing as much as we are). In either case, we often feel that the solution lies in the situation or person changing. But, in fact, the only thing that can find a solution to our problem is us. Me. I. If I see it as a problem then that’s my problem, and therefore it requires my solution.

And that’s where solution focused living comes in. By asking ourselves, “What do I want?” “What will it actually look like when I have it?” “How much of it do I have already?” “How will I know when I’ve got a little bit more?” we help ourselves to shape, discover and build our own solutions; and they’re the ones that count.

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