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EXTERNALIZING PROBLEMS



❝You are not the problem. The problem is the problem.❞ -Michael White

I'm driving my 1977 Ford LTD – which seats seven people comfortably – down the street from my house when I hit the brake to stop for the stop sign. Instead of the car slowly coming to a stop, the car slides sideways towards the curb...and all the cars parked next to the curb!


I’m 15 years old, learning how to drive, and it recently snowed. This is before antilock brakes were standard. Whenever I hit the brakes, I slide somewhere I don’t want to go. To say I am stressed out is an understatement. I am petrified that I’m going to hit somebody else’s car, so I drive really slowly.


Finally, I get back, park the car, and give up on driving. Driving is not for me! I can’t figure it out. Nothing anyone said could convince me to try driving again. What’s the point? I’m a bad driver!


What if I was able to shift my perspective? What if instead of “I’m a bad driver,” I could say, “I don’t have any experience driving and need more practice.” What if I could stop seeing myself as a problematic driver and start seeing that I am an inexperienced driver trying to drive in challenging conditions.


What if instead of viewing myself as the problem, I could externalize the problem?


THE NATURE OF THE HUMAN CONDITION


It’s natural to want things to go your way. Why would it be any other way? Our default wiring seems to think that having problems is a problem. We strive for a world where everything goes our way all the time.


Yet there’s nothing in human nature that suggests this is even possible. Life is nothing more than an endless stream of problems to deal with. Problems are guaranteed, and hoping otherwise is a source of misery. No life, not even the most seemingly perfect one, is problem-free.


We can think of there being two extremes. On one end, we hope for a world without problems and become upset when problems inevitably find their way to us. On the other end, we can learn to expect problems.



Expectations matter. We judge reality not in terms of the raw data of reality but rather in relation to what we expect to happen. This is true for both good and bad things. If something good happens to us, but we expected better, we will be upset. If something bad happened to us, but we thought it would be worse, we're glad.




Imagine pushing a boulder downhill. There's not much to that. That would be easy and might even be fun.



Now imagine pushing that same boulder up a hill. In isolation, that would be challenging in and of itself.



Now imagine how much more challenging pushing a boulder uphill would be if you thought you would only be pushing it downhill. In addition to the physical challenge of pushing uphill, you’ve now got the mental challenge of being tossed a problem that you didn't know you'd have.


Problems are guaranteed, and shifting our perspective to expect them can help us better deal with them.



FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL


A lot of things happen in the world, and we judge them as good or bad based on our values.



But not everything that happens is in our control. In fact, many argue that most things that happen are not in our control. And even if something happened that resulted from your actions, the fact that it already happened means that it is outside of our control because the past can’t be changed.


The universe is chaotic, unpredictable, and largely out of our hands. And as scary as that sounds, we always have the opportunity to focus on what we can control.


You can’t control what happens, but you can control what you pay attention to, how you relate to what happens to you, and your choices.



We can take that a step further and say that not everything that’s in your control matters. You can control, for example, how much attention you give to what your neighbor has, but ultimately that doesn’t matter.





The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire measures your level of mindfulness among five interrelated components. These components are observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment of inner experiences, and not reactivity to inner experiences. They can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the areas of mindfulness in which you may want to focus.



REFRAME YOUR EXPERIENCES


If you have a photograph and want to display it on your wall, you can put a frame around it. The frame you use impacts the overall feel of the photograph. It impacts how you and others interpret the picture.


Similarly, how you frame a situation impacts how you think about the situation. If you frame something as an opportunity, it will feel different than if you framed it as a challenge.


Reframing is taking a different perspective on things that happen in your life. There are different ways to see the world, and these different ways are called frames. If one person sees a problem through the lens of their circumstances, they may form particular conclusions.

Another person seeing the same situation through a different lens will see it through a different frame and come to a different conclusion.

Reframing is about trying to get a different perspective. It’s taking a different view and using these different views to come to a conclusion.


Here are some examples:

Think about the things that you have to do on a particular day. You might have to go to work, pick up your kids, or go to a dinner party.


In the above example, your frame was “have to.” What would it look like if you reframe these as things you “get to do”?


“You get to go to work,” instead of “you have to go to work.”

“You get to pick up your kids,” instead of “you have to pick up your kids.”

“You get to go to a dinner party,” instead of “you have to go to a dinner party.”

Think way back to when you were just learning how to walk. You likely won’t have any actual memories of this time, but try to imagine what it was like. When you were learning how to walk, you fell…a lot.


One way to think about this would be, “I still can’t do it.”


Another way to think about this is, “I learned a couple of things I shouldn’t do.”

This brings us back to our expectations of problems in our lives. We already learned that expectations matter, and if I expect no problems, I will be disappointed when I encounter a problem. Another way to think about problems is to reframe problems as challenges.


Instead of expecting a problem-free existence, we can reframe this to a world where problems are not intruders but expected visitors, allowing us to solve a challenge.


EXTERNALIZING PROBLEMS


Viewed through these lenses, we can start to break away from the idea that we are a problem. Feeling that we are the problem is akin to identifying with our problems. If we are identified with the problem, thinking of ourselves as a problem, we are more likely to give up. After all, what’s the point? I am a problem!


Externalizing a problem is to separate the problem from yourself. It’s the difference between “I am scared” and “I feel scared.” If you externalize the problem and see the problem as something else, then it gives you an empowering way to think about how you might solve the problem.

There is one point of clarification here. Externalizing the problem does not mean blaming somebody else. That is still viewing a person as the problem. Instead of trying to solve the problem, you are just in a blame game.

Externalizing a problem means treating a problem as its own entity. You can think of it as a visitor who shows up to offer you problems to solve.

When a couple has a problem, rather than each partner viewing the other partner as a problem, they can start to see the problem as being separate from them. This transforms it from you versus me into you and me versus the problem.

Externalizing problems involves separating problems from ourselves. "My anxiety" or "my depression" becomes "the anxiety and dealing with" or "the depression I'm experiencing. This shift in perspective can change our experience, allowing us to reframe what we're going through.


You are not the problem. The problem is the problem. And when you externalize the problem, you empower yourself to face, challenge, and overcome it.


You get one life; live intentionally.


 

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REFERENCES AND INFLUENCES

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain Harris, Dan: 10% Happier Harris, Sam: Waking Up Hefferon, Kate & Ilona Boniwell: Positive Psychology Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face Kabat-Zinn, Jon: Wherever You Go, There You Are Kinder, George: Transforming Suffering into Wisdom

McAdams, Dan: The Stories We Live By Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor

Wilson, Timothy: Redirect



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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.

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