Are you addicted to your problems?
It sounds like a ridiculous question, doesn’t it? Who in their right mind would choose to keep having problems instead of enjoying a blissful life? Actually, almost everybody does. Having problems – I am not talking about tragedies but everyday problems – come with a variety of payoffs.
The payoffs of having problems
1. Having a problem gives you something to solve. For many, it is an engaging intellectual exercise. It can make you feel smart or powerful.
2. Having a problem makes the people in your life give you more attention and express more love and care. You feel more connected to your friends and family when they come to help you and support you.
3. Having a problem can be validating. You don’t feel alone anymore. You get to bond with others who have a similar problem. That is an instant way to belong to a new community. You may even join or create a club or support group.
4. By having problems, you look more “normal”, approachable, and friendly. It reduces the distance between you and everybody else. In a way, it improves your likeability factor. You are not threatening to others.
5. By facing a problem, you can demonstrate courage, persistence, resourcefulness, and other qualities that make you feel proud of yourself. You can be a martyr or a hero or anything in between.
6. Problems make life less predictable and more interesting. You enjoy the adrenaline rush and all of the mental exercises your mind creates. Problems make you feel more alive.
7. Problems can feel like entering a competition. They can put you in a situation where you will win and feel exhilarated. And you love that!
8. The way you handle problems can reinforce your identity. You may even choose to call yourself a survivor. Your problem gives you enormous pride and honor. If the problem went away, you would lose your identity. Who would you be without your story and your pain? You can’t risk that kind of loss.
9. Having an urgent or severe problem gives you a reason to spend your time learning how to address this specific issue instead of giving your attention to other areas of your life that need your intervention. What’s uncomfortable for you can be put on the back-burner for as long as you choose. You’ll eat healthy later, you’ll exercise later, you’ll finish your dissertation later, or you’ll unclutter the house later…
10. Having problems is also a great excuse to avoid the things you don’t have the courage to do or you don’t want to do. For example, lacking time or lacking money are two problems people use every day to turn down opportunities to do something new. It’s very convenient for people who want to stay in their comfort zone because it is so common and socially accepted.
In summary, problems can provide excuses, validation, intellectual stimulation, love, connection, pride, honor, excitement, power, and more. No wonder we’re addicted to them.
Payoffs explain why so many people have difficulty putting their problems aside, even for a day to enjoy the present moment and why letting go of old problems is easier said than done.
How to let go of old problems
If you have carried with you a specific problem for a long time and consciously you really want to let it go, here is what to do:
1. Identify the payoffs that your chronic problem offers. Differentiate the positive ones (e.g. receiving love) versus the negative ones (e.g. having an excuse to let yourself down).
2. For the positive payoffs, look for ways to gain them through a different vehicle.
3. For the negative payoffs, decide to stop making excuses and instead, become a better version of yourself.
4. At that point, you are ready to look at the problem without attachment to the payoffs. You can solve it, you can let it go, or you may even come to realize the problem was only a construct in your mind and it isn’t real.
Let me give you an example. Heather got a new position as Director of Student Services on the same campus she has worked for the last five years. She believes her staff members don’t see her as a leader because they have known her too well for too long. Heather looks at her situation and perceives the following problem: Her subordinates are too comfortable, they do not take her seriously, and she can’t get them to do anything they don’t want to do. Heather feels powerless and complains to her sweet and patient husband every single day.
Here is what Heather needs to do:
1. Identify the payoffs. The positive payoffs include getting love and sympathy at home and getting rewarded for her courage to accept a challenging position. The negative payoffs include having a reason to avoid stepping up in her new role, asserting herself, developing her leadership skills, setting a vision, motivating employees, facilitating change, and keeping people accountable.
2. Find new vehicles to feel loved and supported. Instead of connecting with her husband by having problems, she can strengthen the relationship by taking more interest in her husband’s life, spend quality time together, and find fun activities to do together.
3. She can decide to step up instead of hiding from the reality of her new responsibilities. Instead of thinking people won’t change, she can focus on what she can do to inspire them to change.
4. Now that payoffs no longer control her perspective, she realizes that her staff hasn’t given her reasons to feel disempowered. The truth is she hadn’t even begun to act as a leader and now she can.
If you have had the same problem for a period of time, ask yourself what benefits you get from keeping this problem. Once you become consciously aware of the payoffs, you can find other ways to get your needs met and solve your problem once and for all. Or might simply change your perspective and discover that the problem has vanished. Perhaps your problem is something that happened a long time ago and you are now ready to heal and let it go.
If the issue you are facing is particularly sensitive, or if for any other reason applying the four steps isn’t easy for you, I invite you to schedule a complimentary call with me. Inquiry processes like this one are best when facilitated by an experienced coach. Clients sometimes call me a magician because they think I make problems disappear. I may be able to do the same for you. Let’s connect soon.
About the author: Since 2010 Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.