The most common question I’ve heard, in person and in emails or comments, is this: “I have these serious problems. How do I fix them?” Or a variation of it, like this: “I read your article on [problem X]. It’s very accurate, but what do I do about it?”
In today’s article, I will try to explain why it is so difficult to answer this question. We will also look at the various ways people try to deal with their psychological problems, and the core differences between them.
The General Model
In this section we will look at the general model of how people approach their psychological problems.
The first step to resolving any problem in life is identifying it. For that, we need two things. First, to be aware and honest enough to recognize that we have problems. And second, to accurately identify the problem.
Some people are in denial about even having problems (“No, everything’s fine! My life is perfect!”). If a person is either unwilling or unable to recognize that they have problems, actual healing and growth is close to impossible.
But most people know that they have problems, although many of them see it in a superficial way. For instance, they blame someone else for something that is clearly more of their own issue. Or, they don’t quite understand the depth and complexity of it.
I notice that most people, including those who explicitly ask how to fix their problems, don’t really understand their problem. They became more aware that they have problems, recognized some manifestations of it, but then immediately want to skip this step and jump to “solutions,” often wanting quick and easy fixes that don’t exist.
That’s why talking so much about various problems is useful since understanding the problem is key to resolving it. Yet, so many people rush past it thinking that they already understand it, and now they have to hurry, hurry, hurry, and fix, fix, fix—and quickly! But if it were quick and easy there wouldn’t be so much suffering in the world, everyone could do it, and there wouldn’t be a need for professionals.
In my experience and observation, the comprehension of your psychological issues happens mainly on two major levels: intellectual and emotional. And while a person may somewhat understand the problem on an intellectual level—“My childhood was rough, therefore I have these issues,” or, “People made fun of me as a child, therefore I am sensitive to criticism”—there’s so much more to it. Especially on an emotional level. Moreover, all these issues and their effects are interrelated, which an average person doesn’t quite see.
Really understanding the complexity of your problem, both on an intellectual and emotional (and sometimes even physiological) level can take weeks, even years or decades. That’s why this is the work people often do with the help of a professional.
Working on It
Whatever it is, you can actually work on some solutions when you start understanding it better. This is where you can categorize people into two main groups. The first group are those who try to cope and manage, and the second are those whose goal is healing and growing.
It’s worth noting that the methods the person chooses are often unconscious. In other words, they don’t make a conscious decision to choose coping over healing or vice versa. They simply try to deal with the issue as best as they think they can in the given moment.
Coping and Managing vs. Healing and Growing
Coping, or managing, means that you are doing what you can to get by, to survive the day, to manage your symptoms. Healing, or growing, involves actually getting to the root of the problem and resolving that.
In short, coping is more about managing your symptoms, and healing is actually dealing with the core issue. Coping is more like a band aid or a painkiller (sometimes literally), while healing and growing can be incredibly slow, difficult, more painful, often quite lonely, uncertain, and very individual.
Generally, coping is much more socially acceptable, even encouraged. People cope in various ways, some of which are healthier than others. The most common coping techniques are drinking, smoking, doing drugs, watching TV, the Internet, food, sex, shopping, sports, work, etc. Pretty much anything can become a coping mechanism.
Coping makes it easier for others in your life, too, because the relationship dynamic doesn’t change much and they don’t have to see your deeper pain. It also doesn’t create more conflict. And, mostly, this is what the majority of people are doing anyway, which is another reason why it is socially encouraged.
Healing, on the other hand, involves a lot of introspection and can create some social friction. It requires resiliency, emotional strength, patience, empathy, courage, curiosity, and persistence.
Not many people actually want, have the resources for, or are capable of delving deeper, examining their upbringing, feeling the pain and hurt and other buried emotions, questioning their relationships, and doing what’s necessary to truly get better.
But that’s also why so many people are not doing so well. Yes, most do get by and are functional, but there is no real progress, and they may regress and face other complications later.
Summary and Final Words
In order to resolve our psychological problems, whatever they may be, first we need to be aware that we have them, then we can try to understand the issue. Truly understanding it takes a lot of time and effort, and most people don’t or won’t do that. Whether we understand the problem or not, we try to deal with it somehow.
The common way is to manage the symptoms by using various coping mechanisms: substances, distractions, activities, self-harm, anything to distract ourselves from our enormous, often chronic pain that we feel deep down inside. The better way to approach your issue is to go to the root of it and do the work necessary to actually resolve the emotions behind it.
When people ask what they can or need to do to actually get better, many look for coping mechanisms, and only a few understand that such complex problems don’t have quick and easy solutions. Of those, there are even fewer who are willing to do the work necessary for healing and growing. Sadly, there are no shortcuts here, there are only temporary band aids, at best. You have to actually do the hard work.
Coping and managing is common and relatively easy, while healing and growing, in contrast, is incredibly complicated and requires a lot of resources and dedication. That’s why the majority of people, including many professionals, choose and encourage coping over actual healing and growth.
However, coping doesn’t really further us along our path, and we don’t really grow by only coping. It’s about pain management. It’s stagnation at best and regression at worst. While healing is chiefly about true growth and development, and it leads to progress and authentic happiness.
I’ll leave you with this thought: Imagine a world where true healing and growth are encouraged. Just like exercise and healthy living is encouraged today. Where you are not isolated and alone on this path. Where people support and cheer each other on for doing it. Where people understand the importance of one’s childhood environment. Where people don’t traumatize their children. Where these children don’t grow up and traumatize their own children. Where there’s more empathy, understanding, and help for your fellow human beings because people are healthy or healed enough to truly empathize with others. It would be something, wouldn’t it?
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.