“The problem with problem loving is that we become satisfied with discussing the problem and uncomfortable with imagining solutions.” — Dr. Shawn Ginwright, author of The Four Pivots.
This keen insight from the book, The Four Pivots, really caught my attention. As a consummate “fixer” most of my life, I would dive headfirst into “problem-solving” mode for myself and others — without an awareness that I wasn’t being helpful in most cases. The root cause of my fixing pattern was — discomfort.
I learned this from my childhood. It was how I believed I was contributing in a positive way to my chaotic family environment. As a kid, I was “managing upward” trying to help co-regulate, calm and deflect my parents’ wildly uncertain behaviors. These childhood patterns often contribute to both our strengths and our roadblocks as we enter adulthood.
My problem solving pattern got honed in some very positive ways — I am resourceful, able to see both big picture and the smaller one at the same time, and I am highly attuned to problem prevention.
The roadblocks to my “fixer” pattern were that I often solved the wrong problems, disenfranchised people from their agency to solve their own problems, micromanaged others thinking I knew what’s best, and disempowered others from asking for the help they truly needed and preferred.
Add to this combo that I am a strong type A who is always busy and thrives on the “doing” and you can readily understand that I could become a steamroller with the best of intentions but doing more harm than good.
In his book, The Four Pivots, Dr. Ginwright brings into focus how doing our own self-reflection and self-discovery work shifts us to the healthier side of who we really are — growing up and growing into our more authentic, grounded selves. Released from the problematic components of our old behaviors, patterns, beliefs and biases, we can move with greater ease into our unique gifts and talents.
As both an enlightened and reformed helper, I often use this quote about teaching a man to fish as my anchor when I am interacting with someone who is in struggle or overwhelm. It serves to remind me that a bandaid is a temporary solution for recurring, problematic reactions or responses to life. How can I best support another person to find their own long-term solutions?
While reading Chapter 8 (entitled “Possibility”) of Dr. Ginwright’s compelling book, I had a rather profound “aha” moment. Reflecting on some of my experiences with others over the decades, I could now easily recognize that a core issue was in fact — problem loving. People often rebuke a possible solution or strategy to tackle a problem that just keeps happening over and and over again in their lives. Now I get it — there was innate satisfaction in discussing the problem, ad nauseum — and a lot of perceived discomfort by taking personal action to change. Two more quotes readily came to mind:
To admit that we might need to change, to let go out of outgrown armor and patterns, does require us to be honest with ourselves — and that is a very vulnerable space to enter. Just thinking about makes us uncomfortable. So we just might find it easier and more satisfying to stay stuck, to keep complaining, and to keep repeating the same patterns. Far less vulnerable to simply project onto others all the work we probably know we need to be doing for ourselves — and on ourselves.
Dr. Ginwright offers this profound truth: “No fundamental change has ever come from problem fixing.” If our focus is solely on what we don’t want, we only turn our attention to eliminating. By reframing “problem fixing” to “possibility creating”, we shift our focus (and our thinking) to imagining and articulating what would feel really good, supportive and meaningful to us.
Here again, Brene Brown’s teachings and Dr. Ginwright’s work intersect: Language matters! Dr. Ginwright states that we should be mindful and avoid defining the world we want by articulating what we don’t want. Brené Brown teaches us that “clear is kind” — it is far better to state calmly and clearly what our boundaries are and what are needs are than to hope that other’s will be mind-readers.
When our focus is on eliminating what we don’t want, we tend to lean heavily on negative words and terms: Things never work out. It’s a constant struggle. It’s an uphill battle. Why so confrontational?
If we reframe our situation and come at it with imagination and creativity, we not only paint a different picture for possibility creating, we more naturally use language that supports this more affirmative approach: What can we invent to make this easier? Can we turn this job into a playful game? What big idea can you contribute? What if we discover something better? We are open to possibility! What does support look like for you? How can I best help you?
I could not help but think about incredible difference this profound shift could make in family dynamics and in personal relationships. Leaning into a pivotal change — infused with imagination rather than resistance would become a pathway for cooperation, encouragement and teamwork.
The reality is that possibilities are limited when we aren’t receptive to trying new things, exploring a different approach, setting priorities and owning our go-to patterns. People are reluctant to invest their time and energy in us if we stay stuck in our status quo of problem loving.
What is so revelational about this reframing approach is that it quickly gets us to answer the all important question — what is the endgame? If we are just hitting the repeat button on the same pattern, is it working for us? Are we moving forward and making progress toward a goal, just treading water, or losing traction?
Rather than complaining about what is not working and turning our focus on eliminating problems, we can try this new approach. Re-imagine, re-frame and get creative. Positive affirmation along with a genuine commitment to meeting change with enthusiasm and ingenuity will also foster more cooperation, teamwork and support. People are more inclined to invest their time and energy into us and our relationships with this transformational approach.
Listen to this remarkable podcast conversation with Dr. Rick Hanson, Forrest Hanson and Terry Real, family therapist and best selling author, to learn how quickly Terry gets his clients to shift their relationship dynamic and embrace change in a positive light: