Don’t Explain Away Your Power to Change

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Therapy is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used for good or ill. Too often, plumbing the depths of a problem leads not to a solution, but to a thicket of obstacles.

A few weeks ago, I was watching television and saw a trainer rebuff his client for backsliding on his diet. The trainer’s confrontation was direct: “The reason you ate was because you put food in your mouth!” I had two simultaneous and nearly opposite reactions. The first was “Way to go, trainer! You highlighted the client’s ability to choose and how it affects his progress.” At almost the same instant I had the thought “How ignorant! Surely you know that eating is influenced by many factors, only one of which is the client’s choice and willpower?!”

It didn’t take me long to relate this scene to therapy. So often my clients are haunted by the “why” question. Why do I drink? Why do I get so angry? Why do I obsess on inappropriate sexual fantasies? Traditionally, therapy, especially psychoanalysis, focuses heavily on the answers to “why” questions, and often does so in a way that highlights family history or past traumatic events. And since history is already written, there’s little impetus to try and fix what can’t be changed. One of the biggest criticisms of therapy in general and psychoanalysis in particular is that it takes years to work.

Therapists sensitive to the “therapy takes too long” critique responded with treatments categorized as “brief,” and “solution-focused.” These approaches were lauded not only because they were touted to be faster, but also because they were were “manualized,” which means that the kinds of intervention the therapist is expected to perform are closely constrained and very similar for all clients. This was a great boon for researchers, who need repeatable interactions that they can test for effectiveness. However, manualized therapy is almost saying “don’t tell me your problem, I already know what it is and how we’re going to solve it.”

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From where I’m standing, traditional psychoanalysis focuses on problems to the point where solutions are on the back-burner. Manualized treatment proposes one-size-fits all therapy that you can demonstrate helps a given population, but some members of that populations may not benefit optimally because they don’t “fit” the pattern the manual assumes.

So what’s a therapist (or a client, for that matter) to do?

Analyze your Problem for Weaknesses

Understanding a problem is essential. I don’t think there’s any way around it. But how you understand your problem can make a big difference in determining whether you defeat it or it defeats you. Sometimes it pays to think of your problem as an opponent you’re competing against. The best competitors seek out the weaknesses in their opponents and exploit them. In addiction, we ask clients to look for their triggers: thoughts, feelings, and events that increase the urge to use. Steering clear of the people, places and things where your cravings are the strongest is a great strategy. At the same time, there are “anti-triggers” that reduce urges. Many clients find exercise or pleasant distractions helpful. Finding your problem’s weak spots is a kind of analysis that aims you towards solutions.

Analysis Ends; Problem-solving Begins

Self-help guru Tony Robbins wrote “never spend more than 10 percent of your time on the problem, and spend at least 90 percent of your time on the solution.” (Awaken the Giant Within, p. 313. ) I think Tony was on the right track, but I would go farther and say once a problem is understood, you really need to spend 100 percent of your time on the solution. Keep in mind that just as you analyzed the problem in order to find its weaknesses, you can monitor the problem to see how it’s resolving, and that’s still focusing on a solution since the monitoring helps you refine your solution.

Alternate Reality

“Analysis paralysis,” getting wrapped up in a problem, turning it over and over in your mind, can keep you from finding solutions. But strangely enough, you can use the thought process to find resolutions. See if you can become obsessed with how your life will be with the problem behind you. What will be different? What will be better? The more vividly you can imagine it, the more motivation you will feel.

Once you have a clear vision of success, start visualizing the path you’ll take to get there. Imagining the solution can be a leap of faith. It seems much easier to imagine the problem you already have than the path to success. It’s true that you can never be sure that your imagination is realistic, but never mind that. If your solution is an unrealistic fantasy, let it be. You can always refine your solution later. And obsessing about your solution is a lot more fun than dwelling on the problem, anyway.

Your Turn

It is my hope that these articles provide actionable plans and not just a pleasant read. So I’m adding this “Your Turn” section to offer a concrete exercise to put the ideas above into play in your own life.

Here are some simple steps to stop analyzing and start solving:

  1. Pick a problem you have in your life. It doesn’t have to be a big problem, but if you’ve been working on it for a while with little success, so much the better.
  2. State the problem as clearly as you can. Better yet, write it down. Capture any details you think are relevant. Don’t stop until you’re satisfied there’s nothing more to be learned from analyzing the problem.
  3. Make a decision to stop your analysis. From now on, focus only on solutions.
  4. As vividly as you can, imagine what it would be like if the problem were solved. Notice you’re still not worried about how to solve the problem, just what it would look like to be solved.
  5. Now visualize the path to the solution. Do your best not to critique your solution overly, at least at first. It’s better to have an imperfect solution than a series of ideas that you immediately shoot down.
  6. Work your solution. Make your vision a reality. See if you can only think of your progress in the context of monitoring the progress of your solution.

If you decide to try this exercise for yourself, and you’d like to share your experience, please do so in the comments below.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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