Your Problem is a Solution

by Kobayashi Zeitguys on January 29, 2024


Realizing my problem was a solution, was a personal breakthrough.  Seeing problems as outdated solutions has changed how I view myself and how I work with clients.  Nothing wrong that needs to be fixed or banished, nothing to be ashamed of.  Rather an update required of an old friend who kept my younger self safe.  I can still invite those protectors along for the ride, calling on them from time to time, but they don’t get to drive the bus anymore.

I drink too much, or at least too regularly.  Also, there are times when I catch myself showing off how funny, smart, or interpersonally mischievous (socially incorrect) I can be to attract attention to myself, stay in control and maintain my status in a social situation.

I am aware of and have been working on both these triggered, habitual reactions to a perceived identity threat; leading to feelings I don’t want to feel.  Both reactive behaviours alienate me from those I love and/or need to be in good working relationship.

My automatic habitual reaction to dominate socially originally developed as a self-protective survival solution when I was little and powerless, in a social environment (my family, teachers, other kids) holding more power than me.

I now see that the solution of drinking helped me believe I was even more charming, entertaining, and therefore able to dominate in social gatherings.  Over drinking was also a solution to avoid feeling certain things, which I am still investigating, but imagine it has to do with counteracting a fear of being bored and lonely.

I was a big kid for my age, always with older, smarter, more mature boys.  I quickly learned that showing off was a behavioural solution for not becoming irrelevant and invisible around those with more power and status, more visibility than me.  I also learned early on, that charming and entertaining my potentially violent mother was a good way to calm her aggression toward me.  When she was laughing, she wasn’t hitting.  Drinking too much and showing off were sensible survival behaviours…once upon a time.

I have clients come to me for coaching who know (or have been told by others) they need to step out of the background into the foreground, owning and expressing their agency and authority, being bolder, to elevate their leadership effectiveness.  However, their quiet behind the scenes style has been an effective survival strategy and solution for much of their earlier life.  It has kept them safe and accepted in their family of origin and perhaps further on into their immediate community.  They got ahead by getting along.  A solution before, a problem now, in terms of taking the next step toward more effective leadership.

Years ago, when Elizabeth and I were curious about how to improve our relationship, we worked with a marriage counselor for a few sessions.  He challenged me on something, which triggered a rage reaction in and from me. Later, I apologized for overreacting.

“You didn’t overreact to my comment Brian, you just reacted to something from memory that happened long ago.”

This was when I realized that my reaction, today, was a liability in this context, when it had been a learned solution to keep me psychologically safe, probably with my parents and those older boys.

I have other clients who present their problem of being overwhelmed with work.  Work their subordinates could be doing.  They tell me they take on too much, don’t delegate appropriately.  They rescue others too much.  They don’t trust some of their directs to live up to their standards.  They are caught in the weeds and can’t ascend to the balcony, to look out beyond the day to day, doing their strategic, longer term developmental work.

Their “problem” of not being able to say no, not setting appropriate boundaries around their time and energy was once a useful solution.  They were known as go-getters, reliable, ambitious soldiers.  You could count on them to get stuff done.  They had learned to be pleasers as a guaranteed way for getting along and getting ahead.

My focus with you, Mr. Client, who is not delegating work appropriately, is not to teach you delegation skills, but is to help you see, even if you had the skills, you wouldn’t likely use them.  Let’s figure out how to take the foot off the brake.

Many of what we are calling today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions and therefore need to be honoured and thanked for the role they have played in getting us here safely. They are not wrong, but just outdated and need to be upgraded.  Assets that have become liabilities.  This was the breakthrough framing for me.  If we can hold those outdated solutions with care and respect, being thankful for the work they had done on our behalf, rather than seeing those behavioural impulses as shameful and hateful, they are easier to release.  We own them, rather than them owning us.

So, it is useful not to beat yourself up for your reactive habits of over-eating, bursts of anger, withdrawing, withholding information, etc.  All those behaviours came from the development of an early internal operating system that kept you safe and connected.

The question to ask yourself is do I need to upgrade my operating system (unconscious, automatic habits, beliefs, assumptions) to one more fitting with my current reality?  Updating your operating system contributes to freedom of choice with how you respond to the challenging situations you find yourself in.  Be both open-minded and open-ended.

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