‘When I have a problem, all I want to do is solve it,’ writes Robyn Wilder. But she’s discovered that with mental health, that’s not always the right thing to do. Here’s why…
Whenever I’ve applied for a job in the past, I’ve described myself as “a problem-solver” – partly because I assumed that saying “Well I quite like to buy shoes online during my lunch break” isn’t the sort of truth prospective employers are really after, but also because I thought it was true. When I have a problem, all I want to do is solve it.
Unfortunately, I am not a problem-solver. I am a problem-worrier.
When presented with a problem, instead of gathering all my experience, resources and chutzpah and proactively seeking a solution, what I like to do is focus on a tiny, unhelpful corner of that problem, then sort of repeatedly nudge it around for hours, like unwanted peas around a child’s plate.
Obviously, this isn’t a productive use of my time. Nothing gets solved, and I end up wired and exhausted with my self esteem in the toilet – and, of course, a pile of unsolved problems weighing on my conscience. Which I then need to distract myself from during any quiet moments (say, my lunch break) when I might be reminded of them, perhaps by surreptitiously buying a boat load of shoes on the internet.
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realise that this is a negative, and learned, loop of thinking. And that I might be able to break the cycle of worrying and avoidance.
So recently I’ve just tried to change one thing: not distracting myself from the uncomfortable thoughts when all my unsolved problems come back to haunt me. Instead, I’m experimenting with just trying to *observe* them as they pass through my head.
According to psychologist Emma Svanberg, this is a bonafide psychological practice:
“Often when we struggle with anxious thoughts or frequent worry, our response is to dive into them,” Emma tells me.
“There’s a strong relationship between worry and difficulty in tolerating uncertainty — so if we don’t feel really in control then we worry more.
“Often we manage that by trying to regain control — we plan, and we set ourselves lots of rules to try and alleviate the anxiety — but in the end that gives us more to worry about. And we even end up worrying about the worry.
“Taking a step back from those anxious thoughts and worries takes the power out of them to some extent and enables us to see them for what they are – just thoughts. Mindfulness practices are a brilliant way of creating that distance.”
Personally, I’ve always found consciously chasing mindfulness a bit daunting, but guided meditation allows me to observe the quality of my thoughts without any pressure, as though they are clouds passing across the sky. And Emma’s right, simply creating a distance between myself and my thoughts, rather than constantly fighting them, seems to lend them less power.
But once I notice these unhelpful thoughts, what’s the next step in correcting my negative thinking?
Challenging its validity, says business coach Helen Campbell.
“Observing your unhelpful thoughts can be useful if, instead of becoming stuck in the negative, you are able to observe your self-limiting beliefs and ask yourself a few questions,” Helen advises. “Such as:
1) Who gave you these beliefs, and are they still helpful to you now?
2) What if the opposite was true?
3) What is the evidence to back up this negative self-belief?
Helen actually used this to address her belief that she’s a terrible driver.
“Who gave me this belief? A family member who wanted to protect me when I was 17, and stop me getting hurt as a (potentially) reckless young driver.
“Is this belief still useful to me now? No, I’m a 41-year-old woman with my own business, a mortgage and a decent track-record of driving safely.
“So, the association of being a terrible driver may have affected my confidence for a long time, but by checking in on my thoughts and listening to that inner voice, I was able to unpack what was going on, look at the evidence and re-assess my belief. I’ve driven tens of thousands of miles since I realised what was actually going on there.
I’m not going to pretend that sitting with uncomfortable feelings is a barrel of laughs. At times it can feel like you’re wearing a hair-shirt, you’ve got ants in your pants, AND you’re lying on a bed of nails. But start small, and it gets easier. And more rewarding.
I am a novice at this sort of thing, but this practice has already had powerful repercussions in my life. When I noticed, and then challenged my belief that I really was “just rubbish at everything”, because I’m forgetful and badly organised in ways my friends aren’t, it led me to seek a diagnosis of ADHD, which has begun a long journey of self-forgiveness.
And the more I observe and challenge my thinking, the more tiny pockets of peace and self-acceptance I’m finding.
Also, I’m saving a FORTUNE in shoes.