thumbAt any given moment, most adults and some children would be able to list a series of problems they have. These would range from external issues like a lack of money or problems in relationships, to internal problems, such as ways of behaving or issues with mood or thinking. Most of us are very aware of the problems we have. Not only are we aware of them, but we spend a lot of time thinking about our problems.

Being able to identify problems, weaknesses, or areas in need of improvement, is a good skill to have. It also represents a paradigm that we are operating within; we are negatively affected by problems and so should focus on them in order to do/feel/be better. However, the problem with problems is the way in which we focus on them, with an over-focus and doing so without creating a similar focus on strengths.

If you were to estimate a ratio of time spent thinking about what is wrong compared to time spent thinking about what you are happy with, what would it be? What we choose to think about is within our control, and has a major impact on how we feel and the thoughts that follow.

Adults and young people are now looking to identify symptoms, problems, issues that need to be fixed. Again, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this. My concern is with the focus on problems as opposed to an equal focus on strengths, abilities, acceptance, and the possible utility in the “problem.” Often times, the “problem” is a signal that an adjustment needs to be made in someone’s life. In that case, the problem is not the problem. I am not referring to severe mental illness or developmental disorders. I am referring to certain cases of depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems in young people. But in the case of more serious mental illness, an equal amount of focus should remain on the strengths that exist. Focusing primarily on the “problem” can increase the power of the symptoms, bring us into a space of helplessness or need, and can impede our ability to grow and strengthen through the process.

Thinking about a problem in order to address it through action steps, such as doing something about it or aiming to understand or cope with the problem is very different than thinking about a problem in a way that causes feelings of helplessness, guilt, or hopelessness. Those feelings don’t usually lend themselves to productive thinking and overall don’t do much for us. In that case, problems become problems.

We already have within us what we need to succeed. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need help or that there aren’t ways we can improve or grow. It does mean that we have a sufficient amount of strengths or sources of strength within us that we are able to tap into. When we focus on what is “wrong” as opposed to focusing on what we have that is “right” we affect our mood and our ability to problem solve. Shifting our focus can place use in a better position to utilize those strengths in order to address or manage our problems.

Are you able to make a list of strengths or sources of gratitude that is twice as long as your list of problems or weaknesses? If not, I suggest reflection upon your positive aspects. It is easy to think about what’s wrong, so make effort to think about what’s right. It may change your perception; you may even realize that some of your “problems” are also sources of strength.

Sound oversimplified? It isn’t. The quickest way to change how we feel is to change how we think, and vice versa. Our best thinking happens when we are in a place of empowerment, gratitude, or inspiration. Not only will a conscious shift in perspective affect us, but it will affect those around us.

Here are some ideas for ways to remain strength focused as opposed to problem-focused:

1. Place a time limit on how long you will allow yourself to think about your problems. It could be no more than 10 minutes at a time. Or, you could make a rule that there is no thinking about problems unless you are coming to a conclusion or making plans for addressing the problem. Otherwise- move on.

2. Pick three times during the day when you identify a list of 5 items that you are pleased with, happy about, proud of, or grateful for.

3. Open yourself to gaining perspective on your problem(s). Have they improved over time? Are you proud of how you have dealt with them? Would others choose your problems over the ones they have? Are you finding meaning in the difficulty or in the suffering? We don’t always create our circumstances, but we are always in charge of how we face them.

4. Engage in a meaningful activity that is centered on giving or loving. Using our strengths to help others is an excellent way to center ourselves and regain a realistic or positive perspective. Connecting with others is one of the healthiest things we can do.

5. Be open to the good that exists. It is already there if we are available to see it. It doesn’t take too much effort to recognize the pain and tragedy that exists. However, being able to laugh at anything, especially ourselves, makes it just as easy to feel able to manage whatever issues we have. Being open to experiencing joy will bring us to it, and it is hard to be problem-focused when we are feeling joy. We choose what we expose ourselves to and what we are open to.

Proud man image available from Shutterstock.