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Are Your Problems Actually Solutions? Finding Systemic Answers

“No problems.”

That’s what this sticker on an alleyway wall in my local neighbourhood is on about (in the photo, above).

It sounds like a pretty good proposition… No emotional meltdowns, no relationship dramas, no self-sabotage, no “failure.”

But is it too optimistic? A bit utopian, even? Something to strive for, maybe, but not completely attainable?

Well, a branch of family systems therapy thinks not.

In fact, from it’s perspective:

“the problem is the solution”

So what does this actually mean?

Well, it’s all about framing – how you perceive what you’re dealing with.

So instead of seeing, say, an addiction to a certain behaviour or substance as an individual person’s “failure” or “problem,” maybe this so-called “problem” is actually trying to be a solution for a more systemic issue. A fix. A salve. A diversion.

For instance, if you have a difficult or “problem” relationship with one of your family members (as so many of us do), it might be worth taking a more systemic look. Because it might not only be about just you or them. Or even just the space in between the two of you.

Instead, try to ask yourself if this behaviour, or this way of relating, could be trying to help the broader situation in the whole family. Consciously or not.

If that were possible, what would it be trying to fix?

Or trying to resolve?

Maybe the tension between the two of you actually serves – in a strange way – to bridge a gap of distance or pain. Maybe it’s (counter-intuitively perhaps) trying to connect you. To keep you attached.

Or maybe it’s deflecting attention from other areas, other relationships in the family. Other challenges that stay hidden. Or not spoken about while ever this more obvious “problem” keeps the status quo going. Maybe your “problem” relationship is protecting everyone in the family from having to delve into that deeper kind of stuff.

Similarly, perhaps you want to look at a “problem” of you and your partner arguing. Perhaps it’s the “problem” of them always emotionally retreating or distancing while you feel you’re always doing the pursuing.

Or even the “problem” of a habit you might have trouble breaking.

If you take a broader view of any of these things – and include the context and the other important people in the picture – could the “problem” actually be trying to solve something else altogether?

Is it trying to be a solution?

And if  it’s causing a lot of pain (as drama or addictions or difficult relationships often can), then maybe it’s worth looking more consciously at what it might be trying to solve. And re-jigging that a little. So there’s less focus on the “problem” and more on the whole system it’s located in…

Of course, sometimes in life, there are just things that turn up – like serious illness or maybe financial strife – that simply are problems. No two ways about it.

But maybe some “problems” can also sometimes be solutions in disguise… waiting for you to see through them.

What do you think?


Photo and text copyright: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.


Are Your Problems Actually Solutions? Finding Systemic Answers

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). Are Your Problems Actually Solutions? Finding Systemic Answers. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Aug 2011
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