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  • Cameron M. Clark

Of Problems and Choices

Few things are as certain in life as the fact that some things are just not within our power to change. We don't control the weather, we certainly can't control other people in any meaningful sense, and worse yet, we often feel like we can't even control important aspects of ourselves - like the strong emotions that are stirred by inclement weather or the inconsiderate actions of others.

The existence of that bright line between what we can control in our lives and what we cannot is the foundation of ancient Stoic philosophy: Epictetus (50-135 AD) “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

Recognizing the difference between what's in our control and what isn't is also a cornerstone of more recent western thinking on wellbeing, as echoed in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892-1971) 'serenity prayer': "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference"

Perhaps it should be no surprise then that paying close attention to what is and isn't within our power to change is also central to modern theories of psychotherapy. For example, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is an evidence-based therapy used to treat a variety of conditions including depression, anxiety, and even anger management. The technique encourages people to accept the difficult circumstances they may find themselves in, while also encouraging them to apply new approaches should they choose they want a different emotional result. Looking at your problems through the lens of DBT may help generate solutions you wouldn't have otherwise even considered.

When you encounter a problem, DBT suggests you have four basic options:

1) Solve the problem

2) Feel better about the problem

3) Tolerate the problem without trying to fix it

4) Stay upset about the problem (or make it worse)

These are fairly straightforward options. However the key is in understanding them to be just that - options that you get to choose between for each problem that comes your way. Experiencing the problem itself requires serenity and acceptance (i.e. it's not within your control), but choosing how you want to respond merely requires courage (i.e. it is well within your control).

To help take control of your choices (or better yet, to help you remain mindful that all of your reactions to problems are choices) DBT offers a few particularly helpful strategies:

1) Redirect your attention to the present moment when you find yourself stuck in a negative loop - perhaps involving regrets about the past, or worries about the future. I like to think of the past and the future as 'mind magnets', or things that simply tend to draw you in if you are not careful. 'Grounding techniques' can be particularly helpful in resisting these magnetic fields, such as focusing your full attention on your breath for a brief period of time, or focusing on the sensations that arise from your clothing against your skin.

2) Perform the behavior associated with the emotion you want, rather than the emotion you have. Want to feel happy? Try simply doing one of the activities that you would do if you were feeling happy. Clearly this won't solve the root of your problem, but what it does is help reduce the severity of the negative emotion you may have been feeling. It puts some control back in your hands. You get to choose what to do in the face of any difficulty. Attitudes are skills, and skills can be developed.

3) Intentionally practice 'radical acceptance' of the circumstances you have been handed. Remind yourself of the basic truth that you are not able to control many aspects of what life throws at you, but also that your inability to control what happens to you is not synonymous with unhappiness or despair. You can resolve within yourself to feel better about a problem that you decide not to solve. Don't ask that the jungle be paved, but rather get better boots.

This week's sharpthinking question is:

What problem do you currently face that will not benefit from more thinking?


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