Solution-Oriented Thinking Solves Nothing

by Amy Shaw on February 29

Amy -- Solution

Personal development is full of solutions, and it seems like everyone these days—whether it’s in books, life coaching, courses, articles, techniques, or podcasts—is trying to sell us one.

In the blogging world, to take one example, our entire marketing enterprise depends on the problem/solution model. In an article’s headline or metadescription, you’re supposed to raise a problem, and in the article, you offer a solution. Another way to market your blog? Write “How to” articles. “How to . . . ” is one of the most commonly searched phrases, so answering that question can be profitable for bloggers.

What can we learn from these two examples? That many people have problems they want to fix, and more importantly, that a high number of them will want to engage with you if you entice them with the promise of a solution.

It’s easy to see why the problem/solution model works, especially in a personal development context. Humans have problems. We’re insecure. We’re weak-willed. We give into our bad habits more often than we’d like. We’re all a mess in some way, but if we’re into the idea of personal development at all, we believe that we can be better, so we go about finding ways to do just that. We drink our Kool-Aid of choice (don’t worry, I have my Kool-Aid too!) and hope that it will do something. Sometimes, we feel like it does.

But—and I say this with no disrespect towards the people I know personally in the PD world who offer their services—I’m starting to think the whole problem/solution model is a sham. Not that other people’s knowledge can’t benefit you, but that it can fix you, or that any of this stuff possesses magic bullet qualities.

I don’t want to be beat over the head with a solution when I’m having a hard time. I want empathy. It’s not that I think others can’t help me, or that only I know the answers. But when I seek the help of others, I want to know about their journey, the details, how they felt. I want to know the color of someone’s pain—the particular shade of anger they felt, not how they overcame it. I often question whether there even is such a thing as “overcoming” an emotion.

Personal development often goes about solving emotional afflictions this way, by suggesting it’s possible to “solve” bad-feeling states, but I think this mindset can be damaging. It teaches us that what we feel is not okay, which leads to greater feelings of inadequacy when we find that someone else’s approach isn’t working for us. I’ve seen this in the raw food world, especially, where people will tell others they “aren’t trying hard enough” or “not following the diet exactly” if they feel less than amazing when they go raw. Instead of boosting others up, being open to their experience, we force our own conclusions on them, which isn’t exactly helpful.

Sometimes it is appropriate to help others in a “how to,” solution-oriented fashion. For instance, if you want to know how to change a tire, this is a fairly straightforward question. But this is personal development—and personal development deals with matters of our humanity, of who we are. I think a less mechanistic approach is needed.

While the advice of strangers means little—what works for one person may not work for the next—the experience of strangers can mean the world. There’s a difference between giving someone advice and sharing your own experience. When you offer advice, you state what you think the other person should do. Oftentimes, when we’re experiencing negative emotions, the last thing we want to hear is a drill sergeant, barking simple platitudes like “Don’t worry! Just be happy!”

By contrast, when you offer your experience, you simply share what is true for you. It becomes impossible to project your experience onto others because the topic of discussion is yourself, not someone else. You actually help someone more, I’m convinced, when you share your experience instead of advising because it is a totally non-threatening approach. There’s no “shoulding” involved and no haphazard projection.

Okay, so sharing my experience is a good way to help others. But what about me? This is personal development, after all. But this line of thinking—experience over solutions—extends no differently to the self than it does to others. Just as important as listening to others’ experiences is listening to your own.

You have to establish a real, raw, and honest relationship with yourself. You have to confront yourself over and over.

You don’t need a yoga mat to confront yourself (although they can be nice!). You don’t need a special affirmation. You don’t need a coaching session. You just need you!

Oh, crap. This is starting to sound like a solution, isn’t it? “Just accept yourself as you are.” We’ve all heard that one before. So, let’s try this.

Confronting yourself means figuring out what your problems really are. Sometimes, they’re not what they seem. How often do you find yourself snapping at a loved one, only to discover later that your irritation had nothing to do with them? Perhaps you were hungry, or stressed about something at work. But because you didn’t pause to experience that emotion, it bubbled forth uninvited at an inconvenient time.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling down, I have to do a lot of self-inquiry to get to the source of my emotions, and I’m amazed what I find there. Sometimes I find nothing, so I just leave it alone and simply try to identify the emotion. Simply putting a label to what you’re feeling can help . . . and if you’re creative, expressing the emotion in artistic form instead of labels can accomplish the same task.

Confronting yourself means giving into your own darkness. We all have darkness, but we hide it away. Nearly every day we have to suppress our emotions for the sake of our jobs, our loved ones, and our livelihood in general. This is simply the nature of living in a society with other humans; we stifle our own idiosyncratic feelings to abide by social conventions. We don’t lose our tempers at work (hopefully), or we sacrifice our desire for more Netflix because we have to be up early. This happens all of the time—and it’s not necessarily bad—but giving ourselves the time to process all of that repressed junk is pretty necessary if we don’t want to eventually get dragged down by it.

But the PD world often doesn’t let us give into our darkness. If we feel like we get angry too much, it’s a “problem.” If we are grieving over a breakup, it’s a “problem.” If we have trouble being assertive, that’s a “problem,” too.

We have got to stop pathologizing our emotions. Next time you’re in a bad mood or experiencing any kind of negative emotion, just be with it. Feel the particular texture of your anger. Don’t try to change it. Try not to judge yourself for your emotions, but if you do, accept that, too.

My perspective on this in part derives from Buddhist thinking. In many schools of Buddhist thought, emotions are not the problem or the solution, they are simply the content of our experience. In fact, Buddhism undermines entire problem/solution dichotomy by suggesting that both concepts are sides of the same coin. This resonates with me because I have often felt it’s not our “problems” that cause us suffering, it’s our hunger for solutions, the way we wish things were different from what they are.

So next time you read (or write!) an article, be mindful that not everyone likes to be beat over the head with advice. I guess the drill sergeant approach works for many people because certain PD gurus have built their success around this type of voice. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and it can even be harmful to someone who doesn’t have a strong relationship with themselves, first and foremost.

Be real with yourself. Find your own truth. The rest will follow.

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Amy Shaw

Amy is a part-time teacher, part-time freelance writer and editor, and full-time building a life out of her passions. Always seeking new, fresh ways to improve herself, Amy's approach to personal development has shifted over time: she has been influenced by everything from Tibetan Buddhism, to New Age spirituality, to Mark Manson's "slap you in the face" style of self-help. She claims no status of guru-ship, but she hopes that you can find yourself in her down-to-earth, reflective writing. Amy is Spiraling Up's editor, and she can also be found at Fiction Edit. She loves cooking meals from scratch, drinks espresso multiple times a day, and plays in a rock band called Dr. Martino.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jelena Ostrovska February 29, 2016 at 1:18 pm

What a great article Amy! Thanks for sharing it!


Lisa Torres February 29, 2016 at 6:24 pm

This perspective is very refreshing! I love it! 🙂


Lorraine Menza February 29, 2016 at 6:26 pm

It is about changing old thought patterns and working in new ones. All about changing your paradigm!


Nestor February 29, 2016 at 8:43 pm

Great article. That is true about being OK with your emotions. Sometimes we can get so overwhelmed about being perfect and not feeling any negative feelings, that it makes it even worst! We must realize that everyone, even the most successful people have negative thoughts and make mistakes.


Amanda March 1, 2016 at 4:16 am

YES to the importance of empathy in helping us humans to go near and experience the tricky and dark parts of our self and our emotions.

We all need the helping hand of empathic other(s) to go on the journey with us (in addition to finding a way to offer ourselves empathy from within). A much better solution than jumping too quickly into fix-it mode.

Thanks for a great article Amy.


David Thompson March 1, 2016 at 8:24 am

Thinking is too much ego based which is usually always lingering in the past or projecting in the future. Be present and in the moment of now and you will be more in sync. Things flow better in the now moment.


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