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When problems don't go away

I come across problems all the time as a counsellor: it’s why people see me. Equally - though I often prefer to ignore this fact - I have my own host of problems. We can get fixated, obsessed even, on what the problem is. Analysing. Dissecting. Ruminating. Ending up feeling engulfed and powerless. Now avoiding. Because sometimes, the problem is not the problem. What’s problematic is how we’re approaching it: our relationship with it.*


Let’s try to capture two sorts of relationships we can have with our problems.


Compulsivity


Problems create psychological tension in us. This tension is an important and often overlooked experience. It helps us get to the heart of the problem. Incongruence or dissonance are words that helpfully capture the tension we feel; between how I’d like to be and how I am; how I’d like the world to be and how it is; what I thought was so and what appears to so; what I believe ought or must or should to be so and my experience of things or people or myself; between how my partner or friend of colleagues are and how I desire, wish or thought them to be.


A quite natural response to such psychological tension is a sort of compulsive attempt to fix or avoid. It becomes all consuming, either in our awareness ( to fix it) or trying to stay out of our awareness (to deny or distort it).


Some problems need a compulsive response, either because of their urgency or because another approach would be too overwhelming. Nevertheless, often such a compulsive response is what is actually problematic.


Let’s consider an example: I’m complaining, again. Others have done their level best to offer sympathy and help, but I don’t find it helpful. We’re all getting a little frustrated at one another. Now’s the time to wonder, ‘Maybe the problem isn’t the problem. Maybe it isn’t it. So what is?’. The following questions can help me here:


  • ‘What’s my deeper cry?’. Maybe my desire to ‘be a man’ is getting in the way of being able to attune to what my body really wants: some sort of understanding, closeness, holding, perhaps even some authentic gratitude for what I’m trying to do. Maybe want a really want is someone there with me to help me, not solve it for me.


  • ‘Is it that I can’t or won’t solve the problem? Am I actually quite attached to the problem and complaining about it?’’ It might well be the case I’m more attached to my problem than a greater fear I have. Fears about relationships, how life is changing, how there’s lots I can’t control, my capacity to choose how my life is, my getting older, some disturbing feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, anger, jealousy, grief.


  • ‘What’s the system out of which the problem arises?’ For me, this is my entire life I in part have received and in part have self-created: my family and work circumstances, my inter-generational history and values, my social location (race, sex, ethnicity, gender, spirituality), my physical abilities, the demands I experience on my time and energy, my body’s deeper needs, emotions, realities both in and out of my awareness. Perhaps the face-value problem is a symptom of something more systematic in my life; perhaps the problem is a call to face that. (And this may be as simple as the need to ask for help and for me to be OK with that!).


Exploring these, however, needs me to have a different relationship with the problem.


Curiosity


This is the approach of the scientist and of faith.


A scientist’s curiosity is enacted in analysis, experimentation and evaluation. The scientist treats ideas as hypotheses to be tested and so aims for accuracy about what is going on here and what will help, accuracy about what are the significant and insignificant factors in the problem’s manifestation. This may take time, particularly for complex and multifaceted problems, but the scientist is happy to chip away in the labs of life, remains in curiosity, staying open to new ideas and discoveries.


The curiosity of faith starts from a place that the problem and the psychological tension it causes are things we can trust. We can sit with then. We can sit with and ask the questions above. And, as we sit with them and ourselves, we can start to see into what they are symbols for. In this way, we trust that it is something leading us into a fuller awareness of how things are and a sort of wholeness in our experience and living. And, when certain problems are just intractable, we can accept the problem as it is which itself dissolves some, if not all, of the tension.


I call this a curiosity of faith because I cannot help but liken this to my personal experience of faith in the midst of personally significant problems. Carl Jung once wrote,

To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.**

Such things are problems. Jung’s invitation for me here is to trust God (or reality) in, even as, the problems I experience (though there feels much more here I’d like to explore here, perhaps for a future blog).


Finding a solution


Of course, different problems might need us to be more like a scientist or more like a person of faith. Often, we might need to be both: as we sit with them, we discern what the real problem is, and start experimenting with solutions and evaluating if they help or if the problem is something else or more. And, equally, we are likely to oscillate between compulsive approaches and curious approaches: that's normal, it might even keep us going.


But, I reckon that if a problem isn't going away, it's probably a sign that the “problem” is not the problem. And the solution is much more likely found when we can incorporate some curiosity. Curiosity about what it really is. Curiosity about what might be the cause and what might help - and the ability to keep trying. Curiosity about where we might catch God, or reality or something of our deeper soul’s needs and nature.


*Thanks to the This Jungian’s Life podcast Episode 236 – The Problem with Problems: solve or avoid? - This Jungian Life for many of the insights behind this blog.

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