What if your solution created the problem in the first place?

If you are stuck, look at what you have tried so far

Spinning the wheels will only dig you deeper

In their groundbreaking book ‘Change’ Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues shared a revolutionary idea: A lot of our problems are created by our solutions.

The process goes like this. You see a difficulty or something that is normal. You think it is a problem. You start trying things to solve it. It becomes worse. You try harder doing more of the same thing. Things escalate. Now you have a real problem in your hands.

You think this does not apply to you? Let’s look at some examples from different areas of life:

Sleep

Everybody has difficulty sleeping from time to time. The problem starts when you get stressed about not sleeping. You try hard to fall asleep. It only becomes more difficult. You start taking medication. Sleep becomes a cause of stress for you. Ta da! You have turned yourself into an insomniac.

Sex

Sleeping needs to happen spontaneously just like an orgasm. The harder you try to achieve them the more elusive they become. A lot of people’s sexual problems arise when they try hard to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ their sexual life.

Movies sell the utopia of passion staying the same forever. Porn creates unrealistic expectations about sexual behavior. Magazines put pressure to become more ‘skillful’ in bed.

You get performance anxiety. This is among the top psychological reasons for sexual dysfunctions. You try hard to solve a problem that did not exist in the first place. But, by now it has become real.

Relationships

You think it is difficult for you to get into a relationship. You try to solve this by working hard at the beginning of dating. Texts, romance, and following up. You need to make sure this time it works out.

In a lot of cases, it is this extra effort that scares your new partner off. The repeated pattern confirms your perceived initial difficulty of entering into a relationship.

Parenting

You think your child is bad-behaved. You ‘need’ to do something about it. It is your responsibility as a parent. You try to discipline her. Scolding? Time-outs? Punishments? You choose your favorite method.

Often we perceive as bad behavior what is normal for the kid’s age. Babies put everything in their mouths. Toddlers make a mess and do not share. Preschoolers throw tantrums.

After your ‘solutions,’ your child is running with an empty emotional cup. She starts behaving worse. You escalate the discipline because obviously what you did before was not enough. She behaves even more poorly. If you keep doing what you are doing, things can go out of hand.

Career

You think your boss does not like you. Your solution is to avoid him. Because you avoid him, he starts not liking you for real.

When does this happen?

How do you know that your way of dealing with a problem is the very thing that is making it worse? There are two types of situations where this can happen:

  1. You try to solve problems you should just accept as part of life. There is no solution for grief. Or for generation gap. Or for children being immature. Or for infatuation disappearing. Trying to solve them will create problems that did not exist in the first place.
  2. You apply the wrong solution to the problem. For example, spinning your wheels when you are stuck in the snow. Or, to give a more systemic example, prohibition to relieve the alcoholism problem. The solution created an even bigger problem than the one it was trying to solve increasing crime and corruption.

How to get unstuck

Reflect on your problem and your solution. Do you have unrealistic expectations or you are chasing a utopia? Is your solution making things worse?

If yes, stop doing what you are doing. As Einstein said:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Think about doing the opposite. Even if it seems nonsensical. For example, if you are an insomniac, try hard not to close your eyes. Trust me, it works. Instead of avoiding your cold boss, try to make friends. Or if you have been trying too hard to make friends, just give them some space. Give love to your children, especially when you think they do not deserve it.

I would love to hear your examples of getting unstuck by trying something different.


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Caterina Kostoula is an Executive Coach and a Global Business Leader at Google. Follow Caterina Kostoula on Facebook, Medium, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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