Mindful Problem Solving

Hello, my name is Melanie and I have a love/hate relationship with yoga.  As I sit here right now, in fact, I am playing a little mind game where I weigh the pros and cons of attending a yoga class that begins in approximately one hour.  Will I make it to the class?  I hope so, but I do know the next hour of sitting with my thoughts on the matter will be the determining factor here.  I’m trying to focus on how I will feel after the class when we are in the last pose that basically resembles lying on the floor and falling asleep (my favorite, by the way), and the mental satisfaction I will have after engaging in a little mindful exercise.  Mostly my thinking about whether or not to get myself to class will revolve around the actual process of contorting myself into various positions that I find uncomfortable and recognizing my own physical limitations while also challenging myself to stay in poses and breathe through the discomfort I know, it’s not a big thing to struggle with motivation related to exercise.  What is interesting to me is the crossover of yoga to the process of problem solving.  As a therapist, I have been trained to assist folks in problem solving while also encouraging them to tolerate problematic feelings.  This is no small feat, I realize, as my own tendency to solve the mishaps of life as quickly as possible to find a way out is something I struggle with.  Maybe it’s just to easy to call our various methods of split-second problem solving being “solution focused”.  Perfect, then we get to look like really efficient, successful people while avoiding some of our biggest challenges in life ;-).

I believe the reality here is our universal human tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Most of us are naturally reluctant to sit still with a problem or feeling because it is unpleasant and makes us feel weak and vulnerable.  I mean why would we willingly allow ourselves to feel prolonged discomfort or anxiety when it’s far easier to rush to a solution or mild diversion to take us out of our pain?  Stay with me here, because I’m going to suggest an approach to problem solving that may be out of your comfort zone.  Often times when I work with clients in therapy, I find that one of the hardest parts of participating in the therapeutic process is the act of sitting with our uncomfortable feelings and then learning to let them go.  This can be especially hard if our tough feelings are in part created from our perception of who or what hurt us.  I see this a lot with folks coming in for therapy to work through a difficult relationship issue.  Overall, we seem to have a great deal of difficulty holding our feelings and allowing ourselves to sit and breathe through the discomfort they bring up.  Perhaps even harder is allowing our perspectives to shift even the slightest to allow our anger, rage and disappointment towards other people go.

In the world of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), we learn that our feelings and behaviors tend to be controlled by our thoughts and perceptions.  If we are looking for different outcomes in our lives, we may need to learn how to examine our patterns of thinking that drive the way we communicate, make decisions, and relate to other people.  But this can be rather tricky to do if we are so determined to extinguish all negative feelings as quickly as possible.  Once we can learn to tolerate the act of sitting with our uncomfortable feelings and begin to change our belief that says “something terrible will happen if I don’t get rid of this feeling”, we find that our perception changes a bit.  We begin to realize an unpleasant feeling, while painful to tolerate, is not going to kill us.  Usually, it is then that we begin to engage in more mindful problem solving and seek to move through problems rather than around them.  Our problems exist to the extent that our thinking and perceptions about them are strengthened or weakened.  And while this more mindful approach to problem solving may seem more difficult and uncomfortable at first, we will find greater and more lasting solutions occur when we can learn to accept unpleasant feelings and let them go through shifting our thinking.

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