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How to Stop Problem-Solving And Start Evolving


When I was a young therapist, I worked pretty much the way a compass does, by helping point people and families in the right direction. I felt very confident because of my tried-and-true methods for creating successful, balanced and organized home environments.

Stressed family

That's why it came as a total shock to me when some families continued to freak out. One mother, who had been chronically overwhelmed with three young children at home all summer, surprisingly went into a state of grief when they went back to school. How could I help with that?

So I went back to school to get more advanced psychological training. But what I learned radically shifted my thinking; I never returned to doing therapy in "compass mode" again.

Here's what I learned: A completely tension-free family experience is never going to happen. There are two reasons for this:

1. There will always be conflict. We see things in more than one way, and often we want more than one thing. For example: We may want our child to do what we say, but we also want them to feel good, and the two don't always go together. The result? Tension.

2. Who knows? Sometimes, we don't even know what the conflict is. So what now? Instead of trying to come up with solutions, find out what's going on inside yourself and inside your family's heads.

Let's say your child doesn't want to do his homework. He may do really well with clear boundaries and expectations, but, then again, all that might stress him out. He may perform better if you just say something like, "Here's a snack. Let me know when you want to sit with me and work."

What's going to work? You're going to have to get more knowledge into your child (and into yourself) to find out.

The day I learned to stop trying to solve problems was when my therapy practice stopped being stressful because clients weren't doing what I wanted.

Instead, I got better at asking questions and finding out what was really going on. This is what I want you to do: Make a commitment to stop solving and start evolving. Here are three steps to help you make the shift:

1. Prepare

Give yourself a reality check. The reality is that family life is full of disappointment, frustration, power struggles and chaos. That's normal and healthy. Usually, we strive to avoid or solve these problems.

Take the pressure off. Evolving takes time. You may have to let your kid underperform, be late for school, not eat properly or otherwise wait on a solution until you figure out what's going to help. It could take a couple of weeks or more to get to the right solution, so give yourself time. Unless your child's behavior is dangerous to himself or others, be patient.

Admit confusion. There is no certainty when you switch from solving to evolving. But don't let that stress you out. Accept that confusion is a necessary side effect of having an open mind. You have to have an open mind to receive more knowledge.

Generate faith. Moving away from solutions towards deeper understanding requires faith that you will actually get to that deeper understanding. Try not to get discouraged.

2. Look Inside

Start with yourself. Talk to anyone who will listen, but seek to be heard, not fixed. We share our problems with people with the goal of getting an attitude adjustment or better perspective. Instead, just talk -- period. Feeling heard is what will help you understand your family's conflicts better.

Ask "why?" Ask it all the time. Why is your child shrinking from pressure? Why is your disappointment so intense when you don't get cooperation? Why does your spouse get in your way? Turn everything that thwarts your peace into a "why?"

Let yourself say and feel. All emotions have to be registered. This includes anger, frustration, disappointment, grief, annoyance, impatience -- whatever you're feeling. Usually we try to suppress or get rid of these feelings. But these are exactly the feelings that you need to inform and advise any custom-made solution for you and your family.

3. Act

Take a poll. Whatever the family tension -- whether it's a power struggle over eating right, getting organized, waking up on time or staying engaged in school -- ask everybody in the family what they think you should do. Ask your children, spouse, siblings and even grandparents.

Go deeper. Take stock of the feedback -- it will range from being more lenient, less lenient, setting more boundaries or setting less -- and go deeper in your questioning. Paint possible scenarios and otherwise explore how family members expect their advice would help the situation.

Inform people of your decision. For example, if your child is struggling, tell them what's going to happen. For a child who needs more boundaries, you might say: "If you don't wake up on time, I'm going to have to take away privilege X." Or, "It looks like you need more help getting up, what can I do to help?" We often forget to tell people what we're doing and just do it.

Readjust. There's a very simple way of gauging whether your solution is good or not. Don't force a solution that causes more tension. Switch gears. If you can't, start at the top, examining why you don't want to bend to something new. Remember, we all evolve in this game, not just your family members.

It took me a long time to shift from solving to evolving. To get to a point where I actually prefer to be in a zone of "not knowing," in which I could look forward to searching for deeper knowledge into people's conflicts and unconsciousness.

But am I glad I did -- it's so much more meaningful to search for this knowledge than to problem-solve. In the end, deep understanding is what clears up all the junk.

--Dr. Claudia Luiz

Claudia Luiz, psychoanalyst and award-winning author of Where's My Sanity?, is being called "a new voice in America for how change really happens." Connect with her at and on Facebook and Twitter.

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