How is it that a nation of problem solvers has so many problems that it cannot solve?
Why do so many of our “solutions” turn out to make things worse instead of better?
One answer to these questions is that we have failed to identify the problem. We are seeing the consequences of our problems in the form of: addiction, child abuse, violence, crime, poverty, and so on. We are mistaking these symptoms for the root cause. We pour billions of dollars into proposed solutions and when they don’t work fast enough, we become impatient. Our frustration only compounds the original pain.
A second answer is that we try to apply the techniques of hard, rational science to soft, mushy problems that are subjective and emotional. We have a hard time being understanding and compassionate when we disagree over perceptions, feelings and opinions.
Our attempt to reason, when faced with a feeling is called appeal to logic, which is the delusion that people are like Mr. Spock, all logic. Many people respond to conflict with rational replies instead of acknowledging emotion. This doesn’t work. We have to consider emotions when dealing with conflicts in life.
A third answer is that we mean well. When we do not know how to solve a problem, we feel painfully inadequate. To relieve our pain, we devise a solution that sounds good – let’s pray on it, let’s put them in jail, lets tell kids to be nice, let’s study it. Then we wonder why nothing changes.
Advice is like cooking–you should try it before you feed it to others. Much of the advice you think is helpful, actually has the opposite effect. It makes the situation worse and causes people to feel angry or misunderstood. Below are some examples:
1. “No one can make you angry, unless you let them.”
This is an example of blaming the victim. Not only is the person who hears this remark angry, but this remark implies it is their fault. People are not immune or made of stone. We can respect ourself in spite of how others behave. On this basis, we are able to feel more successful and reduce we emotional hurt.
2. “Be a nice person or no one will like you.”
The message here is to value niceness above all else. Ideally, we are nice to everyone all the time. However, reality is not always nice. When someone says this, they are really setting others up to pretend to be “nice”, while encouraging them to internalize their anger until they blow a gasket. For example, we may need to express legitimate anger at someone who has threatened us. For “nice” guys that creates a conflict that they do not know how to resolve. Adherence to this advice results suppressing anger and exploding in an exaggerated way later on.
3. What will everybody else think?”
This is what we are told for example, when our spouse or children begin to yell. Those who accept this, place being judged by some anonymous passers-by ahead of our loved one’s distress. Their priorities are backwards. Our loved one’s opinions are more significant than the general public. This advice sets us up for a lifetime of living up to everyone else’s standards, not our own.
4. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
This single minded absurd cliché is often held by overachievers and perfectionists. This belief puts the world in terms of black and white, win or lose, which leaves you feeling insecure. The idea is that life is only pleasant so long as we are on top. From this perspective, every little setback is equal to a loss of self-esteem, which is painful. In turn, we have to try even harder, to prevent the pain of losing.
5. “You can solve any problem if you just put your mind to it.”
This is consistent with the ideals of independence and pragmatism. However, all problems cannot be solved rationally. Some problems of the heart do not show up on an EKG. They cannot be solved with lessons from the classroom.
Many people hear this “advice” from spouses, family, friends, and coworkers. The problem is that these advisers don’t tell us what specifically to do about our problems. They make us feel like there is something wrong with us for feeling the way we do and being the way we are. Take the cliché, “change yourself and everything else will change.” That’s the easy part, the hard part is knowing what to change from and what to change to. What’s harder is knowing how to bring about that change in ways that won’t turn out to be counter productive.
When we go to others with our tales of woe, they feel compelled to relieve our distress. Unfortunately, most people are not qualified to diagnose or treat these problems. They have no expertise, no competence in these areas. So when our closest advisers feel inadequate to cope and unable to solve our problems, they deliver a nonsensical “solution’. They think to themselves: “I have done something. At least I didn’t stand there like a dummy. I have once again prevented the humiliating exposure of my inadequacy to cope.”
As soon as we realize that the advice was given for them and not for us, we are free to disengage from it. We no longer have any responsibility to accept what is being presented. They are offering useless advice to maintain their own ego. The solution is phony; it does not exist. It is not a solution.
We have failed to do our homework. We have settled for treating symptoms, instead of the underlying condition. If we can penetrate the surface issues by identifying the individual’s specific pain, the symptoms will take care of themselves.