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How to handle a problem you can’t solve

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Life is hard. No one floats through the whole thing care-free,  drowning in love and friendship, having found passion and purpose, and in perfect health all the time! No, our boss can be unfair, our elderly parent may be sick, and the global pandemic is an ongoing challenge. Despite what is portrayed on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, we all have problems, big and small. Sometimes careful consideration can solve a problem, but what can we do when we come across an obstacle that we can’t solve? 

First, tell somebody. 
Verbalizing the challenge out loud can help you conceive the situation in different ways, and you may receive validation and empathy from the other person. It feels good to know that others see your problem, and perhaps have even gone through it themselves. 

Communicate your needs. 
Too many people think they need to “push through” or that they are the only one who can solve the problem. However, by letting others know that you are struggling at the moment you may receive help. Your co-worker may have the ability to assist you with that big project, but she has to know you need support first!  

Get more information.
Sometimes it is not the problem that is unsolvable, but that we lack the knowledge to solve it. Ask yourself, “Am I missing information that could create a solution?” If you are, try and get that info from online courses, books, or others who know more.

Keep it in perspective.
We all know a problem doesn’t improve just because we worry about it. Try and use the 10/10/10 rule to guide your level of concern. Will this problem matter in 10 minutes? 10 months? 10 years? 

Engage in self-care.
Take moments for yourself to do things that you enjoy and that are relaxing. Keep in mind there is a difference between rejuvenating activities and mindless distractions. While there is nothing wrong with bingeing Netflix or playing on your phone, it won’t reinvigorate you like a mindful walk, gardening, or even singing a favourite song in the car. Don’t distract from the moment, engage with it, mindfully, on purpose, in the present and non-judgmentally. The problem will not go away, but you will set it down for a few minutes and be refreshed when you have to pick it up again. 

Is this a system-level problem?
Some problems are big, really big, like system-level big. Racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, access to medical care and healthy food, ageism and sizeism. This list is nowhere near exhaustive! These kinds of problems are not solved by individuals, if you are struggling with one or more of these, getting involved in advocacy will let you work towards change and provide comfort in knowing that others are working to make these issues disappear too. 

Can the problem be solved right now?
As humans, we crave certainty and stability and problems are harbingers of chaos and change. Social workers say, “we must learn to sit in the mess.” This gives us a moment to separate from the issue and let some time pass in the hopes external factors (like a promotion or moving) will shift, allowing new options to present themselves. Sitting in a mess is uncomfortable; often we can only breathe, tell others, engage in self-care, and wait. And wait. And wait. In the meantime, repeat to yourself, “I’m doing the best I can.” And believe it.

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.