Fix Your Problems in the Long Term by Giving Yourself a Break

OK, so the people who come to my office are not ready to take it easy. They are interested in problem-solving and usually frustrated by what they perceive to be their own failures in remedying their situation on their own.

In addition to teaching clients new skills, sharing important research on their goals and behaviors, and of course providing a listening ear, I think one of the most healing aspects to counseling is the fact that I am not part of the client’s negative view of himself and his failed attempts. Instead, I am an advocate for the strengths related to who they already are.

The trouble with most problems is that we’ve tried to fix them on our own using a critical mindset which results in a repetitive pattern of defeat. Here are some examples:

  • A compulsive eater resolves after a binge to do better tomorrow, but not until beating herself up over what she ate today and how she looks and feels. She tells herself, “No more disgusting behavior. You’re fat and need to get it together.”
  • A depressed student feels isolated and pessimistic about who he is and his future. He sees other students appear to be social, happy, and successful. He tells himself he cannot turn his situation around until he can feel competent around others. Each urge to join the rest of the world is met by his critic who tells him he’s not good enough to do that yet.
  • A mom worries that her son isn’t keeping up with his peers in school or will not make his desired soccer team. Her son otherwise seems well-adjusted, but she tries to support him and prevent him from any disappointment by scheduling sports lessons, extra play dates, and lots of pep talks. The more the mom does, the less she feels he cares and the fewer results she sees.

The problem with our internal critic is that it is usually misguided. We all need a conscience. We need an internal system of regulation to make sure we go to work on time, finish projects and take care of each other and our selves. However, people who are stuck in a problem mindset have been ruminating. This is the tendency to over think problems, and it is at the core of depression and anxiety.
Have you found yourself ruminating on something that bothers you? Of course. But this kind of excessive pursuit of the perfect solution or our “ideal self” leads to dejection. When we are too hard on others, or ourselves it distracts from possible solutions to our problems. We miss what is right in front of our own eyes.

Do This Instead:

  • Cultivate self-compassion. If you can’t do it, ask a therapist, friend, or family member for help. Note: this does NOT mean letting yourself “off the hook” for your goals. But in order to achieve any goal, you have to get out of the destructive cycle of self-criticism and dedication to a rigid regimen.
  • Remind yourself that humans are malleable. We are the skills that we choose to cultivate. If you are seeking a positive goal by cultivating self-critical skills, you are missing the point.
  • Practice gratitude. There are huge amounts of data that show counting your blessings even once a week result in better physical health and more positive relationships. Teach your kids to write in a gratitude journal once a week. Define gratitude simply as “wonder at things that are given to you.”