Thinking that Problems Are Problems Is a Problem
Few people think what they think they think. Do you know what you think about? The answer is revealed by the life you lead. If you are happy and successful, you are thinking thoughts of happiness and success. If you are wading through an endless stream of problems and finding life painful to bear, it is caused by thoughts of doubt, failure, anger, helplessness, incompetence, and pain. In other words, whether you think life is miserable or great, you’re correct, for life is whatever you think it is.
This article is prompted by a reader’s question, “When you are facing one disaster after another, making compromise after compromise and failing your family time and time again, how does one keep getting up to face the next problem without losing the will to live?”
Let me begin my issuing a few warnings:
1. If you are so mired in problems that you are on the brink of depression, you may be unable to work things out without professional help. If this is your situation, visit a counselor or mental health professional at once. Your life is too precious to dawdle away.
2. Even if you have some semblance of control over your thoughts, if you are entrenched in dark thoughts, it may not be possible for you to see the sun unaided. In other words, the thoughts I share may fall on deaf ears. As Nietzsche said, “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” If you cannot hear the music, what I say will make no sense to you. If that is the case, seek professional help to get you to the point where you can start to help yourself.
3. When we face one disaster after another, it reinforces the false belief that the cause of our suffering is external events. Be careful not to get caught up in this lie. The problem lies within. It is your thoughts. And you can change your thoughts for the better. Positive thoughts lead to positive feelings, positive behaviour, positive consequences, positive beliefs, and a positive life.
4. When you are used to living a life of negativity, any advice you get may appear more like salt in the wounds than as help. That is, you are likely to interpret sound advice as a personal attack. Rather than help you, it may appear to you that the only thing your friends are interested in is in blaming you for your unfortunate circumstances. Because you interpret offers of help as personal attacks, you will resist and fight any thoughts that you are responsible and that you can change. Instead of changing yourself, you will insist that the world change for you, which it will not. The result is endless frustration, with no progress in sight.
5. When you become enmeshed in a web of negative thinking, you are likely to develop a victim’s mentality. You will cry out to be rescued. “Help me! Save me! I don’t want to change. I don’t want to accept responsibility. I don’t want to try and work hard. I don’t want to struggle. No, I don’t want any of that. All I want is to be saved. Won’t you rescue me?” All such pleas for help are made in vain. Don’t seek to be rescued. Instead, try to reach the point, with or without the help of others, where you will be able to rescue yourself. You are the only one who can do it.
Now, let’s look at what some of the brightest minds had to say about the power of thought:
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is the creation of our mind. Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts. But once mastered, no one can help you as much.” (Buddha)
“A man’s life is what his thoughts make of it. Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” (Marcus Aurelius)
“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (William Shakespeare)
“Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.” (Soren Kierkegaard)
“All that you accomplish or fail to accomplish with your life is the direct result of your thoughts. You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.” (James Allen)
You may believe that what you think about is unimportant, but your thoughts are the bricks you use to build your life. Negative thoughts build a prison. Positive thoughts build a comfortable home. But beware of intruders in your home. Beware of a home invasion. When a sudden disaster strikes, don’t let negative thoughts ransack your home; don’t allow these intruders to steal your happiness. Chase uninvited guests out of your home (mind).
So, what is my advice to our reader? Simply this: if you cannot help yourself, get outside help at once. And if you can help yourself, read, study, apply, and master the material found in the book The Power of Positive Thinking, which you can download for free here.
Welcome the challenges that face you. With effort and patience you can change your thoughts and change your life. After all, “There are only three conditions necessary for the acquisition of any physical skill, mental power, moral virtue or personal excellence. The courage to try something you do not know how to do, the patience to try again once you have discovered that you don’t know how to do it and the perseverance to renew the trial, as many times as necessary, until you do know how to do it.” (“The Five Western Philosophies from Plato to Christianity,” written in the 1920s) Finally, have faith in yourself. And remember the words of William Sloan Coffin, “Faith is not believing without proof, it is trusting without reservation.” Trust yourself. You can do it. Start today.
We mustn’t be surprised by calamities and hardship. Such obstacles are the admission ticket to life and a small price to pay to gain admission to the endless joy that awaits those with a positive outlook. Let’s abandon the attitude of a victim and replace it with that of a victor. So, when the going gets tough, keep in mind the following poem (author unknown):
I asked God to give me happiness.
God said, “No. I give you blessings. Happiness is up to you.”
I asked God to spare me pain.
God said, “No. Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to me.”
I asked God to make my spirit grow.
God said, “No. You must grow on your own, but I will prune you to make you fruitful.”
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
God said, “No. I will give you life so that you may enjoy all things.”
I asked God to help me help those weaker than myself.
God said… “Ahhhh, finally you got the idea.”
Problems: we’ve all got them in one form or another. It may be health problems, financial difficulties, relationship trouble, career worries, or something else. Yes, we all have challenges to face, puzzles to unravel, and hurdles to overcome. But is that so bad? Psychiatrist, best-selling author, and screenwriter Theodore Isaac Rubin didn’t think so, for he wrote, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”
Dr. Rubin made a good point. For the first mistake we make is to assume life should be free of problems. It’s like saying the ocean should be free of salt or the air of oxygen. Without salt, it’s not an ocean; without oxygen, it’s not air, and without ‘problems,’ it’s not life. The second mistake we make is believing problems are problems. They’re not; they’re opportunities. Can we grow stronger without struggling through difficulties? Can we make progress without defeating obstacles? No, problems are not ‘problems;’ they are merely steps we take on the road to a better life. However, if we are burdened with a negative attitude, the steps we have to take may appear as pebbles in our shoes and make any progress painful. The solution is not to change our shoes, but to remove the pebbles.
Having the right attitude, or being positive, makes a big difference. Through the eyes of a positive person, strangers are friends we have yet to make and ‘problems’ are blessings we have yet to unwrap. But why is it so difficult for some to see things in a positive light? Well, some make the mistake of identifying with their problems. They lose themselves by becoming what they experience.
For example, Tom feels sad. If he remembers that he is a person experiencing sadness, he will also remember he has options. There are things he can do to diminish or eliminate sadness. But if he identifies with the sadness he is momentarily experiencing, if he BECOMES sad by thinking I AM sad, he will lose all options. Only people have options. Sadness, depression, misery, and suffering have no options; they merely are. As long as you remember that you are a person having an experience, and not the experience itself, you will retain control over your life.
Another reason why some people cannot shake off their ‘problems’ is that they don’t want to. Oh, they will protest that there is nothing they would rather do than shed their problems, but they have made them their friends and don’t wish to part company with them. Why is that? Well, they may want to appear heroic; they may want to show how ‘strong’ they are to put up with so much suffering. They may be afraid that if they were to give up their suffering, they would lose their ‘heroic’ status and have nothing to talk about.
Yet another mistake some make is to ask themselves the wrong questions. “Why is this happening to me?” is an example of a wrong question. All that does is keep one’s attention on the problem, further entrenching it. How much better it is to ask solution oriented questions. Questions like, “What are my options? What is the worst thing that can happen? How likely is that to happen? What steps should I be taking now to prepare for a worst case scenario? How can this problem benefit me? What opportunity is hidden in it? Have others overcome similar problems? What do successful people do when they face the same problem? Are other people worst off than I? How am I better off than many others? What should I be grateful for? If it turns out that I cannot handle this problem by myself, where can I go for help?”
Everyone is looking for something. And our search becomes a habit. If we’re looking for the wrong thing, it’s a bad habit. What is the wrong thing? Misery! Why are so many straining their eyes in search of it? They love to report all that’s ‘wrong’ with the world. They gloat with each new discovery they make. Why do they insist on wallowing in misery? Just because they have a can opener, do they have to open every can of worms? True, they may derive a degree of masochistic pleasure, but wouldn’t true happiness be a better prize? How can we discover goodness and sources of joy unless we look for them? So, if we are not experiencing happiness, we need to change our habit of looking for the bad to the habit of looking for the good. For it is only then that we will find it.
Another big help is to approach our ‘problems’ with a sense of humor. When we can laugh at ourselves and our predicament, we will be free of stress, which paves the way for clear thinking and the discovery of solutions. You have as much chance to think straight when upset as you have to think clearly while clenching your teeth in frustration. If you want to make it easier to arrive at solutions, learn to laugh and how to relax.
Any human activity, including problem solving, requires energy. It’s not very helpful if you don’t have enough to dig yourself out of your current dilemma. Don’t try to run away from problems or suppress them, for all that does is deplete you of the energy you need to solve them. It is only by facing them squarely that we can examine them in sufficient detail to uncover their solution.
Another clue to problem solving was given by Henry Ford when he said, “There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.” In other words, each big problem is simply a series of smaller ones, each of which is easier to solve than a big problem. So, break down your problem and start tackling the easiest of the smaller ones and work your way up.
Pinning the blame on others, or circumstances, or life in general only perpetuates our problems. Once we acknowledge that there is something wrong with our viewpoint, we can do something about it. Once we see ‘problems’ as opportunities, things change. After all, if we want an ocean of opportunity, we have to accept the fact that we will be knocked about by the waves. And as we grow skillful, we will learn to ride them. At that point there are no more problems, for only thrills and adventure await those with courage and vision.
Summary and Takeaways
You may know or be a person in the midst of extreme hardship such as poverty, illness, pain, loneliness, unemployment, disability, homelessness, depression, or addiction. What shall we do when that is our lot? Well, we have three choices. First, we can struggle, resist, and do everything in our power to fight it.. Second, we can accept it. Third, we can embrace it.
The first choice makes sense if our struggle will improve the situation. Many people, for example, have lifted themselves from poverty after a long fight. As long as there is a dream, hope, and faith, anything is possible. Time after time, heroes have arisen who have fought against impossible odds. They changed what others believed was meant to be into what could be.
A major cause of unhappiness is to resist suffering without trying to do something about it. That is, some who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances beat their breasts and cry out, “Why me? Why is life so unfair?” Such questions do little to improve the situation. At best, they offer the complainers the comforting thought that they are not responsible for their suffering because they are victims. They may be victims, but not of circumstance. Rather, they are victims of their own negative thoughts, self-limiting beliefs, and false ideas.
Instead of complaining, it is far better to ask empowering questions such as, “What can I do about the situation? What are my options? What small step can I take now that will improve my lot? How have others overcome similar problems? What do I need to do?”
Complaining about suffering without doing something about it doesn’t help. It merely adds to the pain. We are not meant to be beaten down by life. We are not supposed to give up or surrender when the going gets tough. Rather, we are meant to get tough and get going.
At times, however, we encounter a painful situation that cannot be changed. Death of a loved one is an example. No matter how courageous we are, we cannot bring the dead back to life. But what we can do is to accept that death and suffering are both unavoidable and a part of life. To accept what cannot be changed is a mark of wisdom, to fight it is folly and a cause of unhappiness.
The third choice we have when we meet with suffering is to embrace it. This is a special path. It is the path of warriors, heroes, and champions. This special breed of men and women use their pain to understand how others feel and then dedicate themselves to lessening the suffering of others. Once aware of how others suffer, they have no time to think about their own pain.
One dozen more points to consider on the subject of suffering:
1. Suffering is part and parcel of life. Accept it. Those who are so distraught that they commit suicide have forgotten that life is also about change. Everything changes. Including our present painful circumstances. Many who came close to committing suicide, but balked at the last minute, were amazed how wonderful things turned out. They now rejoice that they waited. Remember, nothing is permanent, including suffering.
2. Besides accepting the inevitability of suffering, prepare for it. Do whatever you can to lessen the impact of disaster when it strikes.
3. Problems increase freedom and strength. For each difficulty you overcome, you push back the boundary of what you can bear. As your comfort zone expands, you grow in freedom and power. Like tea bags, we’re not worth very much unless we’ve been through hot water.
4. When troubles come, face them. For as Dorothy Fields said, “No matter where I run, I meet myself there.” That is, we cannot run away from our problems. Instead of spending valuable energy hiding from them, we need to use that energy for finding solutions. After all, the best way to escape from your problems is to solve or overcome them. And if you can’t solve them at this time, learn how to cope with them or manage them.
5. Break big problems down into smaller ones. Don’t let big problems overwhelm you. Break them down into small problems, and begin by tackling the smallest and easiest part. Baby steps are far better than no steps, and they will take you where you want to go. And keep in mind that every big problem was at one time a small one, so when new ones appear, nip them in the bud. Overcome them while they are still small and you will save yourself a lot of heartache.
6. Look forward to the satisfaction of conquering your difficulties. Problems present you with the opportunity to discover what it feels like to be victorious. Don’t stand on the sidelines admiring the feats of others, but taste the exhilaration of victory yourself by courageously defeating your personal challenges.
7. Transmute negative energy into positive energy. Your difficulties are not meant to dampen your desire for success; but to rouse it, to elevate it, and to let it soar to yet unreached heights. Your problems are life’s way of saying it has big plans in mind for you. Becoming the magnificent being that you were meant to be may be a bit scary, but the greater your fear, the greater the pride and joy you will experience at the moment of victory.
8. Learn from your problems. Here is a valuable tip from Rene Descartes, “Each problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems.”
9. You may need a break. You probably have more than one problem. So, if you get stuck on one, take a temporary break, and start working on another one. While you’re doing so, the solution to the first problem may appear.
10. Make the right choices. Choose happiness. Choose to have the right attitude. Choose to be victorious. Choose to draw upon your inherent power. Choose to become the miracle worker you were meant to be. Choose to live courageously. Choose to live the exciting life of a champion.
11. It may be a time for tears. You may have lost a love one or encountered a catastrophe at this very moment. Perhaps the wind was just knocked out of you. Life may have dealt you a knock-out blow today. If that is the case, you need time to heal. You will need time before you can summon your resources and regain your composure. Perhaps all you can do at this moment is cry. If so, take all the time you need. Allow yourself to purge the pain, but remain resolved that you will not allow it to defeat you.
12. Temper your trials with humor. Cultivate a sense of humor as it will lighten your burdens. To get you started, consider this advice from Sholom Aleichem: “No matter how bad things get you’ve got to go on living, even if it kills you!”
I’ll end with this thought, those who bask in success do so not because their lives were free of problems, but because they faced and overcame them. We can do the same.
Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything By Charles Conn and Robert McLean
Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Jim Rohn: How to Attack Problems