Last week I paid money to be locked in a dark room with my wife and two other friends while strangers watched us on video displays as we tried to find a way to get ourselves out.
This is what we do for fun in 2016. For those you unfamiliar with “Escape rooms” as a trending adult amusement – essentially you try to solve a series of puzzles and challenges that eventually lead to a key or a code that will allow you to escape the room you’ve been locked in, but you only have about an hour to do it.
Most of the time I approach my life like it’s some kind of escape room: there are problems to be solved, there’s time pressure, and the end goal is escape. I’m constantly trying to get away from suffering and discomfort. Anything that seems aversive to me, whether it be negative feelings or something getting in the way of positive feelings I crave, evokes my alter ego “Mr. Fix-it”. That may sound bleak, but I’m almost certain that lots of you who read this have a similar lifestyle. Our focus gets locked in on solving the problems, whether they be on our “to do” list, or the barrage of unexpected new challenges like cars that break down or phone calls from someone needing something from us. It’s so easy to start viewing every aspect of our lives as some kind of technical issue that needs a solution from experts in the art of living well. We look to books and blogs and the other riches of the internet to tell us how to rest, how to eat, how to vacation, how to be happy, how raise children; anything that we might need to know in our pursuit of flourishing. The insidious metaphor behind all of it is that your life and mine are like a math problem that requires solving, or an equation that just needs to balance to produce the desired happiness.
Maybe some of you are like me. I tend to jump in pretty quickly with Mr. Fix-it armed with all the clever solutions my accumulated skill set can provide. Whether it’s a practical problem (my dishwasher breaks on twice yearly basis), a psychological problem (winter is always a challenge for me mood-wise), or somebody else’s problem (which represents all of my working hours), I rarely stop trying to solve, repair, diagnose, analyze, support, advise, or devise a plan to achieve a desired outcome.
Which is fine when it comes to broken toys, planning a vacation, or juggling a busy family routine. But when it comes to dealing with my own self and the inner world I inhabit, the problem-solving mode doesn’t seem to be so effective, and more importantly it doesn’t end up being very kind.
It’s popular in the self-help arena to talk about personal growth in terms of expanding one’s “toolkit” or increasing “coping skills”. These aren’t bad metaphors, but they slip into the assumption that people and their experiences are like machines that need to be fixed. It is helpful to have good tools. But you are not an air conditioner or a washing machine. You are a person. Bringing a hammer or a wrench to get rid of the grief you feel when your dog dies isn’t just silly, it might even be harmful. When our only response to personal experiences and struggles is the “5 steps to getting on with your life and being awesome” type of thing you might read on a blog or on a magazine cover in the supermarket check-out, we run the risk of treating ourselves as less than human. Machines get fixed when they break, but humans need to be healed. And healing is a complex relational process that involves nurture and care. It may result in similar resolution of the problem, but it runs deep into the reality that people are both rational and emotional creatures at the same time.
Your sadness is not a problem to be solved. At least, it’s not a problem in the same way as an unbalanced chequebook or that strange rattling noise in your car. Which is not to say that negative feelings and moods aren’t problematic; they for sure do cause great suffering and shrink our lives. But so does a newborn baby, and we rarely regard him or her as a problem to be remedied. We mostly welcome them and the challenges they bring with them, because we recognize that some things we find unpleasant or struggle with are not problems to be fixed. If the baby cries for hours and cannot be soothed, we might suspect it reflects a problem that does need expert attention. So please understand that I’m not suggesting a total resignation to all life’s difficulties.
It really comes down to our first approach to things that we consider undesirable in life. Do we fall into the habit of treating every difficult thought or feeling as if it must be exterminated? Does life become a very long and large escape room were adversity and discomfort are viewed as an unwelcome interruption in our pursuit of getting what we think we want?
Have you ever just sat with a problem instead of trying to fix it right away?
Yeah, neither have I.
I’m just kidding. I’ve actually been working on it in recent years (it’s a slow process). I’m learning to welcome my feelings rather than chase them away regardless of how unpleasant or unwelcome they initially seem.
After the election I didn’t want to feel the deep sadness or anger I had from empathizing with the millions of victims of sexual violence, racism, and bullying who felt like their perpetrators had been affirmed when so many people chose Trump. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do about the result, yet my problem-solving self wanted to come up with something that would fix the pain felt by so many. I didn’t want to feel it and still don’t. I don’t want to care so much but I couldn’t just shut down my feelings. As psychologist writers often do, I put enormous pressure on myself to make sense of it all and offer some kind of hope, some kind of solution for all the unpleasant emotions. Mr. Fix-it was frantically trying to come up with something, but for a few days I restrained him because I’ve learned that there’s real value in allowing myself to have these times when I ache for the world and it’s brokenness.
It is good for us to be sorrowful when we see hatred and fear take captive of so many people. We are wise to let ourselves ache for what has happened. There is a time for constructive engagement (which I wrote about here last week), but perhaps you and I can practice restraining our Mr. or Ms. Fix-it just a little bit and instead welcome those difficult reactions we’ve had.
My own Mr. Fix-it has posed a real challenge when it comes to my professional role. Sitting with others’ problems turns him into a hyperactive know-it-all adolescent who wants to jump in whenever there’s an opportunity (see Dr. Phil). But I constrain him when it comes to my work as a therapist because I’ve learned that elements like presence, kindness, compassion, empathy, and emotional intimacy are much more healing than a quick solution. Sometimes we forget that this is true in how we deal with ourselves as well. In the space that follows welcoming those difficult feelings, we have an opportunity to bring elements like compassion to ourselves and our own experience. If we ratchet up the problem-solving mode too quickly, we miss the chance to take care of ourselves and engage a healing process.
Life is not an escape room. The space where these problems exist is where life happens, not “out there” when you get away from them.
Put your Mr. / Ms. Fix-it on leash and get them to slow down a bit. Maybe you just need to be present with whatever it is you’re feeling right now and be kind to yourself in the midst of that experience. You might have to say out loud, “Not So Fast Mr./Ms. Fix-it!” If quickly getting through problems and moving on to the next one is your usual modus operandi, perhaps consider a different approach. Stay with this current problem and don’t work too hard to escape just yet. Be kind to that part of you that’s struggling just like you would with a dear friend. And remember that you are a person – worthy of the same love and care as any other living thing.