When The Problem Isn’t The Problem (2nd of 2)

Yesterday we began a two-part series on problem identification. It’s an important discussion because when a multitude of problems hit, it’s easy to believe we’re working on the most foundational issue – but it’s only Band-Aid work. And that’s a waste of time.

By the way, don’t you just love the image – that’s Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. The film series ran from 1939-1946.

Okay, so yesterday I shared a story about a man who’d endured decades of generalized anxiety and panic. He was in great distress when he emailed me. Seems he’d been unemployed for two months, sold his car to pay some bills, and took a financial bath after being ripped-off when he bought a replacement vehicle. So he has no car, and starts a new job in five days. Ouch!

The man believes his distress is based entirely in his car situation. But, yesterday, I proposed that isn’t the bottom-line. And, like all of us, if he doesn’t devote his attention to identifying and fixing his root problem, he’s going to miss a great opportunity for learning and growth. He’s also signing-up for more of the same down the road. Here’s a link to yesterday’s piece.

A great starting point for this discussion is a series I published some time ago about rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Here’s the link to part one. For our purposes, the gist of REBT, the predecessor of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is…

When we’re distressed, it’s easy to believe the activating event or person is the true source of the problem. REBT proposes, correctly in my opinion, it’s our belief system causing the aggravation; not the activating event or person.

Again, the man believes once he solves his car crisis all will be well. Well, let’s see if we can identify the deeper issue. So what are our clues (all you Sherlocks out there)?

  1. He has a history of generalized anxiety and panic.
  2. He’s making some iffy decisions and judgments.
  3. He’s angry as heck.
  4. He feels he’s alienated his daughter.
  5. At the height of his despondence he said – “Damn, I feel absolutely trapped – stranded! I can’t go where I want when I want! People need me – I need me! What if something goes wrong – how will I get help?”

Before we get into the clues, let’s bring REBT to the scene. Without a doubt, the man believes his car situation (the activating event) is the sole cause of his distress. And that tells us he’s totally blind to the involvement of deeper issues. Therapeutically, that’s important to know.

Okay, looking at our clues, #’s 2, 3, and 4, in my opinion, are manifestations of his anxiety disorders and the tremendous stress he’s enduring. As much as they contribute to his distress, they aren’t at its foundation.

However, #’s 1 and 5 wave huge red flags. What do you make of them?

They tell me the man is a victim of his anxiety and panic. Without a car, he’s lost all control over his circumstances; and he has absolutely no means of escape – even if that escape is simply knowing the car’s in the garage should he need it. He’s also feeling isolated and alone. Finally, like anyone enduring panic, he’s frightened he’ll somehow perish if he needs help and can’t get it.

In terms of problem identification, if the man focuses solely upon his car predicament, which he’ll likely cure fairly quickly, he looses the opportunity to confront and work on his anxiety disorders. And curiously, not only are they foundational in his immediate distress, they were likely involved in placing him in the midst of hell in the first place.

Do you see the importance of identifying and focusing upon the very root of a problem? It’s so easy to get side-tracked by the individual stars in our problem constellation, being duped into wasting time applying Band-Aids.

The man certainly can’t afford that, and neither can you or I. Let’s work smart, okay?

So how ’bout it, chipur readers, are we onto something? What are your thoughts about the man’s situation? Does it relate to yours? Please share in a comment (or two).