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Problem Solving Vs. Acceptance

Dr. Scott Grover
Director of Clinical Services, Headington Institute

When Is Problem Solving Effective And When Does It Make Things Worse?

As a therapist, I am often in the position of hearing someone talk about a problem, and my job is to help them find a solution to that problem. Problem-solving is a skill, and in many cases, it can help to have someone to collaborate with as we navigate challenges in life.

Some solutions we either can’t see due to a variety of factors OR some problems don’t seem to have a solution.

Problem-solving assumes several important things:

  1. That you have identified the right problem
  2. You are motivated to change something.
  3. You have the resources and skills to enact the change.
  4. This is an important one – that the problem can indeed be fixed (yes there are some unchangeable realities in the world).

If one of the four assumptions above is not true in your situation, problem-solving might not be effective.

Have you ever felt that you go over a problem in your head again and again, and don’t get anywhere with it? Psychologists call that “ruminating” – our brains attempt to solve a problem that may be very complex and perhaps not solvable at all. So, when does problem solving just become rumination? And what do we do about the problems that can’t be fixed?


Is there ever a time to “give up” problem solving?

For some people that feels nearly impossible. For some, to stop trying to fix a problem feels like a failure or admitting defeat. However, for many it can be quite the opposite. In fact, sometimes there is great freedom and mental relief in fully and radically embracing “what is” or accepting painful realities or difficult circumstances in one’s life. Can you recall a time when you were straining and pressing for a solution and how it felt to step back from the problem and realize it won’t be solved (at least for now and in this way).

Acceptance can be a powerful tool. Notice what happens when you stop fighting reality. You let go of “it shouldn’t be this way” or “it isn’t right that….” Accepting something doesn’t mean that you have to like it. It also doesn’t mean you are passive and don’t take action. Accepting an unfair outcome or an attribute in yourself that you dislike – doesn’t mean you like it – or that you stop caring. However, truly accepting the problem, or releasing your demand for things to be different – sometimes this provides that critical space that you need to relate to the problem in a different way. Total acceptance can mean less emotional suffering and burnout in the long run.

An illustration may be helpful. Imagine you are on a beautiful hike. You come to a fork in the path. It seems that you have to make a decision. But, what if you didn’t want to make a decision? What if you wanted to just keep hiking? What if you don’t know where each path leads? What if one route is better than the other? If you insist on solving the problem of choosing the best path, you may not ever move. To continue your walk, you must fully accept that there is a choice to make and that choosing one route may involve you missing out on something else. The fork in the road just “is” – you can label it good or bad, and you can focus on why the fork shouldn’t be there, but it doesn’t change the reality of the fork. Total acceptance in this metaphorical example is accepting what lies in front of you – as it is – not as you wish it to be — on its own terms, and then making a choice …

What situations, problems or areas in your life do you think can benefit from a dose of some acceptance?


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