Problem-Solving as Support

The holidays and tax season are the busiest times of year for many, and I am no exception. Overwhelmed with domestic and professional duties, I’ve hardly had time to sit and “breathe a spell,” as my grandmother used to say. Over the past few days I’ve been catching up on my readings for the Jungian studies program I’ve undertaken, all of them from Freud this month. We have no fewer than five books or book portions to read, and I’ve found Freud slow going.

Nevertheless, I’ve found some passages of Freud interesting and even provocative, among them Freud’s ideas on sexuality in infants and young children and those about neurosis. We don’t much use the term “neurosis” these days in the U.S., and neurotic disorders were removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association years ago, replaced by diagnoses of behavior that include depressive, compulsive, anxiety, and personality disorders.

Neurosis

In the case history that has come to be known as that of the “Wolf Man,” Freud wrote that neurosis amounts to a flight some problem or requirement of real life. We’ve learned before that neuroses and indeed most mental illnesses are treatment programs for the anxieties of life that individuals with weak ego strength employ so as to strengthen themselves. In other words, the stronger a person’s ego, the less likely that he will develop a diagnosable disorder of some kind, for the disorder is nothing more than a poor reaction to a problem of life.

C. George Boeree of Shippensburg University has published an interesting little article called “The Bio-Social Theory of Neurosis” that discusses lack of support as a primary contributor to subsequent disorders in the child, adolescent, or young adult. Other contributors are a hereditary tendency toward emotional instability and psycho-social stressors such as illness in a parent, marital conflict in the home, divorce and remarriage, war-time experiences, poverty, and so on. Even if a child has very loving parents, Boeree wrote, he may still fail to perceive this love in very stressful situations. Dr. Boeree explains:

A child is still in the process of learning the skills required to survive and thrive in the social world, and is thereby more susceptible to stress.  He or she needs both parental guidance and a degree of security.  The child needs to know that the parent will be there for him or her.  This reliability is communicated by means of the love a parent expresses to the child.  If the child fails to perceive that love (even if it does actually exist), he or she will be left with considerable and very general anxiety, as well as feelings of incompetence and unlovableness.

I was struck by Boeree’s comments about a child’s needs for support, security, and reliability from the parents, all of which communicate certain ideas to a child that, when transformed into habits of thinking, give the child a certain sense of strength. If problems and stressors are transitory and handled or solved efficiently and the over all atmosphere of the home is consistent and predictably safe, then the child develops the idea that the whole universe is similarly consistent and safe, its challenges and problems solvable. Over the course of his childhood, under the watchful eyes of supportive parents, he learns how to solve whatever developmental problems confront him. Ultimately, he enters adulthood certain of his ability to cope.

The Vulnerable Adolescent

Boeree points out that adolescence can be a tumultuous time that challenges the teen’s ability to cope, even if she’s successfully circumnavigated the problems of childhood. Perhaps parents think that adolescents need less support or guidance, and give them more freedom or responsibility than they can handle; the anxiety of having too much to handle too soon can overwhelm a teenager and lead to the development of neurotic symptoms.

I appreciated the reminder that children need emotional and practical supports until they are adults. Far too many parents drop the ball when their children are adolescents or entering early adulthood, offering no support at all, or confusing financial supports with real problem-solving support. I’m convinced that many adults do not themselves recognize the difference between solvable and unsolvable problems, habitually fail to differentiate between them, and as a result live in a constant state of anxiety. This constant anxiety in turn produces avoidance habits, which then lead to poor coping behaviors as a way of life.

Problem Solving

A good exercise is to reflect for a moment about where you feel your anxiety in your body. Put a hand where you feel it, or last felt it, and ask yourself what problems are causing you anxiety. What are you worried about? What unpleasant tasks or situations are looming on the horizon? What confrontations or relationship ills? Make a list if you have to, but identify the problem or problems. Now ask yourself whether the problem is solvable. Can you throw money at it and make it go away? If you don’t have the resources to solve the problem, can you get them? Is there anyone in your life who can help (remember that even a government agency or charity is a ‘someone’). What steps might you need to take to solve the problem? If the solution is too large to implement in one step, can you solve it incrementally?

If the problem is not solvable because it involves another person or persons you can’t control or change, what part of the difficulties caused by others are under your control? Remember that you can control yourself–where your body is, what you put into your body, what you live with, what you refuse to live with, what you listen to and react to, what you think and feel. If you discover you’re not in control of yourself, or can’t seem to control what you think or feel, then get professional help; that’s what therapists and analysts are for.

Everyone Has Problems

Perhaps because our culture is crisis- and spectacle-oriented, we’ve forgotten how to live lives of peace and contentment. Our fast-paced and affluent lifestyles in the U.S. require high maintenance and create challenges we accept uncritically. We forget that we can problem-solve, or perhaps we never fully learned how to problem-solve. Maybe we even think that we shouldn’t have problems or should keep them to ourselves; the texts, tweets, and updates that proliferate in our social strata don’t lend themselves to expressing any sort of suffering, much less of practical problem solving. If anything, they support the illusion that everyone leads carefree lives, that only losers have problems.

The fact is that everyone has problems, and that many problems can be solved. Those that can’t be solved can be accepted or transcended if we will only take the time to thoughtfully consider them.

11 responses

  1. Hey Eve, I’ve been totally out of the blog world for the last month, but yours is the first blog I have visited since then!

    This reminds me of the idea of building one’s house on a foundation of rock instead of sand. Children need us to be their rocks — strong, with firm edges, and dependable — so that they later can provide those qualities for themselves.

  2. Just wanted to say: Me too! This is a good reminder about how, fundamentally, one lives as a functional adult. I panic too often–and then realize that whatever it was I was panicking over is not the end of the world and may be remedied, actually, rather easily. And I’ve always had a problem with expecting perfection. It’s not that I myself am perfect, of course, that makes me expect it of the entire rest of the world. I think it has more to do with what I’ve seen on TV, and yes, Facebook now. In blogs, at least, I think there’s some acknowledgment of reality (that’s anonymity for you), but on Facebook, people get lucrative jobs, have happy babies, finish brilliant papers, have wonderful vacations… It’s too much of a shiny veneer, no grime or bruises or anything.

    Anyhow, I hope you have a wonderful new year, Eve, full of creative problem solving and a general rush of happiness.

    • Aunty, one of my favorite comebacks around the house is, “Is anything on fire? Any blood flowing?” I can remember when, in my youth, I could react to drama as if something was on fire, as if blood was flowing. It took time for me to learn that there are few true emergencies. When I did have a few true emergencies, I found that I had the wherewithal to handle them, and the grace of God caring for me. No need to wig out.

      I suppose I’ll continue to have a love-hate relationship with FB. It’s presents such a narrow picture of reality as to be nearly false–except it is just that: a narrow picture of a certain reality that tempts us to think it’s broader than it is. But of course you’re right: no grime or bruises or anything. I liked the way you wrote that.

  3. Such an insightful post. I too have missed your thoughts and your clever writing, Eve. I have always felt that people who are constantly in crisis seem to be people who can’t differentiate the solvable vs the unsolvable problems. They tilt at the windmills that they can not move and have no emotional energies left for the pragmatic things that can be fixed and enhance their life. I see this within my own extended family and thankfully, seem to be seeing a sea change in that person’s responses to problems lately. Gives me great hope for a better year for them!

    • Lee, tilting at windmills (as if they are dangerous giants!) is a great mental image; that’s exactly how some people live habitually. I’m sure I’ve done it myself in the past. And there’s always the temptation to do it again.

  4. My kids are screwed. I’m only now learning any of this stuff, although my therapist assures me that there is a trickle down effect that does help other members of the family. I sincerely hopeful that this trickle down effect works better than Mr. Reagan’s.

    Katie has moved and one problem has been solved. She is well cared for and relatively happy. My husband is moving out, one more problem solved. My mother has declined greatly but now has more supports in place. I have enough work to last me until April. The big problems of the last few months have been resolved. Maybe I am learning.

    My one big problem right now, learning to have healthy boundaries. One thing at a time. Baby steps.

    I’m so glad you’re back. I’ve missed your wise words and think of you often. Take care.

    • Deb, I understand the temptation to think the kids are screwed when we look back with new consciousness at just how young and dumb we were back then. I even like to extrapolate and imagine how old and dumb I am today! ;o)

      One balancing thought is to consider that support can be offered any time; think of what we’d like to hear from our parents, and imagine what it would feel like to actually hear something empathic rather than a blame or denial of responsibility; and then apply liberally to the relationship with your own adult child. It’s one way that our learning ‘trickles down.’ And (of course) we continue to teach by example.

  5. I found this meaningful and thought-provoking, most particularly:
    “…many adults do not themselves recognize the difference between solvable and unsolvable problems, habitually fail to differentiate between them, and as a result live in a constant state of anxiety.”
    “Remember that you can control yourself…–where your body is, what you put into your body, what you live with, what you refuse to live with, what you listen to and react to, what you think and feel.”
    ” the texts, tweets, and updates that proliferate in our social strata don’t lend themselves to expressing any sort of suffering, much less of practical problem solving. If anything, they support the illusion that everyone leads carefree lives, that only losers have problems. The fact is that everyone has problems, and that many problems can be solved.”

    Thank you for your thoughtful sharing.

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