We all face problems in our lives on a daily basis. Sometimes, though, we seem to hit an immovable block. Something we just can’t get past and this can impact our decisions at home, at work or with what we might choose to do in our leisure time. In this article, we’ll look at some of the ways we can deconstruct this particularly stubborn type of problem and how, by making small changes, we can help ourselves to overcome them more efficiently.
We all face problems in our lives – that’s an obvious statement! Sometimes, we take them in our stride – they might just manifest as a niggling thought that we can quickly reason our way through or even dismiss out of hand – but then there’s the other type of problem. We all know them: the ones that present as an impenetrable wall. The type that is a final and decisive stop, beyond which there is no progress to be made. These can crop up in many areas of our lives and we’re surely all familiar with them: perhaps you’ve always wanted to try a new activity – say, running, paddle-boarding or bouldering – but you feel that you ‘just couldn’t do it’. That same formula can present itself in your day-to-day life too: It’s the same anxiety that might stop you from applying for a promotion at work or signing on to an evening class. On a more fundamental level, this kind of block can present itself when you consider your general mental health too: You might feel that all your efforts are doomed to failure or that you’re somehow a fraud and regardless of how many examples to the contrary you can present yourself with, you still can’t shake that feeling.
The examples above are all very different, but at the same time, they all share the same formula. Whilst outwardly very different, they all present the same ‘hard stop’, that sense that all options have been exhausted and that there’s no way forward. It’s a mechanism that sets a limit on what we think is possible – what we believe we can do. We must all be familiar with this feeling in one way, shape or form and there’s no doubt many of us have truly been held back by these worries. Beyond the initial block, these thoughts can spill over into our wider life. At worst, they can leave us with a general sense of dread or that we’re somehow not good enough. This can have a very real impact on how we interact with others, approach work projects and even spend our leisure time.
Ultimately, and no matter how you may experience this anxiety, it can be seen as a mental health issue and certainly it can be defined in the language of psychotherapy. We can generally strip back the problem to find underlying Limiting Beliefs or instances of Imposter Syndrome, Catastrophising or Fortune Telling – a search on any of these terms will reveal plenty of academic texts on how these feed into our wider mental health or, perhaps more appropriately, lack of it!
The online self-help world is awash with advice on this matter. There’s no shortage of influencers who pay lip service to mental health in their Insta bios sharing motivational memes about confronting your fears, striving for more and letting us know – in no uncertain terms – that we can all be whoever we want to be and achieve whatever we want to do if we can only put our minds to it! It’s a shame that most of this advice is useless! That might sound brutal, but let’s be honest: anything that tells you that you can achieve anything you want to, without telling you how to do it isn’t in fact offering a solution. It’s just underlining the problem. At best, it might motivate us to go out and research a solution on our own, but at worst, it just makes us more aware of the problem. Well intentioned as much of this advice is, it can and absolutely does, unfortunately, make some people’s problems and therefore life experience worse!
So, do we have a solution? Is there some way we can break down our mental barriers and truly be who we want to be, free of our limiting anxieties? Well, sadly, the answer isn’t a decisive ‘yes’, but it absolutely isn’t a clear ‘no’ either. The online world of mental health is full of guaranteed fixes and quick strategies, but if you speak with a mental health professional, you’ll quickly realise that these promises are no better than snake oil. In the world of professional mental health treatment, there are no magic bullet quick fixes, no black and white. It’s rather about coping strategies and grey areas. That may sound very downbeat, but it absolutely isn’t: coping strategies can be incredibly powerful tools and can, with time become unconscious – invisible – to the patient. In short, they can provide something that can look exactly like a cure. The downside is that it can take a lot of work to get there, however, we must consider any time investment in our mental health against the alternative. If you put the time in, you might find a solution, or at least a partial solution. If you don’t, you won’t, and the problem may even get worse. There are no guarantees of success, but on the flip side, the problem is unlikely go away on its own if you ignore it.
Before we continue, it’s important to say that seeking help via Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or psychoanalysis with a qualified professional is a great way to tackle any mental health issue. You may think you know yourself best, but time speaking with a professional can truly be beneficial if you find fears and anxieties limit your ambitions and it can be absolutely life-changing if you find those fears and anxieties have a major impact not just on your ambitions but also on your day-to-day life. Sadly, access to such healthcare is prohibitively expensive in many countries.
The good news is that on a day-to-day level there are several strategies you can use to help yourself tackle immovable problems. As we said before, these won’t magically make the problem vanish, but they can help break a monolithic block down into more manageable pieces or stop the sense of being overwhelmed by anxiety or worry. It’s not a cure, but it can leave you better than before – and that’s progress!
Lifting the Curtain
One useful strategy is to deconstruct the worry to see what’s going on below the surface. If we can analyse the problem objectively, then we’ll often discover that that the mechanism that’s driving it – that is, the mental process that’s causing us to interpret certain thoughts or ambitions as problematic, will be rooted in an identifiable analytic concept. Perhaps it’s Imposter Syndrome, which is the act of doubting your abilities and feeling fraudulent, regardless of the evidence you can suggest to the contrary. Or perhaps it’s Catastrophising, which is a tendency not just to assume that the worst will happen, but also to fixate on the possible negative outcomes to a situation. This alone can be a very helpful tactic – it can, at best, define and depersonalise the problem: rather than seeing the problem as a personal failing, we can see that an underlying process beyond our conscious control is at work. And this can give us a starting point for change.
Building a Strategy
Progress is often made in small steps and not giant leaps. As we pick apart problems we can start to identify tactics we can use – not necessarily to solve them – but perhaps to ease the severity of the overall problem. ‘Marginal Gains’ is an expression some of us may be familiar with from the competitive cycling world. The idea is that small – sometimes almost imperceptible – changes made in many places can have a big cumulative impact. Such an approach is also a valid way to tackle an immovable problem you may face. As we break the situation apart, we can start to see component problems, worries or anxieties that we can work towards addressing. The idea here is to tackle the bigger issue in a round-about way: if we can ease pressure in certain parts, than the whole becomes easier to address. The implementation of this is, of course, far more easily said than done, and it may well feel that you’re somehow lying to yourself as you do it, but there are tried and tested strategies or tools that can be put into place that can usually be adapted to help.
Evidence and Fact vs Assumptions and Worries
This is a powerful tool and a great way to shift the power dynamic when confronting worry and anxiety. There are likely many situations where you’ve confronted and overcome problems before. Can you see how your skills, ingenuity and experience has got you through difficulties before? It’s easy to forget all of this when confronting a worry or anxiety. Of course, it’s natural to be anxious when undertaking something new and of course you cannot be 100% assured of the outcome, but if we fall back on our past experiences, we can often see that we’re more prepared than we may think.
Fixate on Outcomes not on Obstacles
It’s all too easy just to see problems. However, problems have solutions and if we can shift our thinking to concentrate on how to achieve the outcome, rather than how to avoid the obstacle, then this can have real benefits. In practice, this is particularly valuable if you can link your problem to Catastrophising. You might be fixating on all the terrible things that could go wrong or the assumed dreadful, inevitable consequence of your actions. But what if you can shift the way you think to address the actual problem that needs to be solved rather than fixating on the consequences if it all goes badly wrong? You can ask yourself if you are thinking productively or are you fixating or ruminating on the consequences? This does not mean dismissing negative outcomes! Of course, things sometimes go badly, but a focus on outcomes still helps us tackle these setbacks in a productive way should they arise.
Declutter and Focus
This doesn’t mean cleaning up your desk or giving away your belongings! We’re talking about it in a more metaphorical way. Often, indecision and insecurity develops from trying to balance too many thoughts at once. Balancing spinning plates is a cliched analogy here, but it actually fits the bill perfectly. Now, it’s presumptuous to assume you can just clear your schedule and delegate tasks. Of course, most of us can’t do that! But what if we could focus on one task at a time? Once again, this can be tricky to implement. We might think that everything is urgent and everything needs attention ASAP, but realistically, we don’t produce our best work or make our best decisions this way. Can you instead look at working on one task at a time? You may need to force yourself to do this. This can bring a surprising level of clarity and it can be helpful in terms of making more considered decisions, even if some of them are tough or choices you might not want to make.
You’ve Got It!
We all face challenges in our lives and often, these will push us beyond our comfort zone or existing experience. But there’s different levels of challenge and some risks we take are more calculated than others. This sounds like the opening paragraph to a hiking guide, but it’s also very relevant to problem solving! Can we assess the risks involved with a problem and link them back to our experience? How much risk, exactly, are we taking and we can we make allowances for this? Can we build in time to try again if the first attempt isn’t successful?
Take or Invite a Different Perspective
Just as this method can help us deconstruct and identify the processes behind our worries, it can also help us when it comes to more practical problem solving. This might include asking others for their opinions, but it can also mean tackling problems yourself in a different way: Are you approaching this problem as you are because you think it’s how it ‘should’ be done? Would a different approach give you the results you want? Obviously, there are situations where this approach is totally inappropriate, but for certain problems – especially when it comes to creative projects or trying to break down physical challenges, a different approach – and that may mean reassessing the goals – can be very helpful.
As mentioned above, none of these strategies are intended to fully solve an insurmountable problem, but alone or together they can help chip away at it and perhaps clear some of the background hum of worry that often makes these situations seem so impossible.
We are used to conveniences in our lives – things we do to make our lives easier. Could you imagine life without your kitchen appliances or even the address book on your phone? Small conveniences build up to make our lives easier – in theory so we have more time to spend on ‘the good stuff’ – whatever that may be. But we shouldn’t just have to limit this help to our physical lives. If we can implement some, or all of the techniques above – and perhaps even develop some of our own – we can have the same conveniences available to help our planning and decision making, ease our anxiety and benefit our mental health.