Friday, April 16, 2010

Waiting Room Wisdom

Wisdom is everywhere to be found, including in the waiting area of Stanford Hospital Spiritual Care Office. There, while waiting to process my paperwork for  No One Dies Alone volunteer program, I found this great little booklet called "Living With a Problem You Can't Solve", published by Christian publisher Care Notes. Full of tips for people who are stuck living with difficult people :

Don't make an "idol" of your problem:
You may discover that this problem has become to you "as big as all outdoors". You probably devote a great deal of time and energy to thinking about it. No problem deserves that place in your life. To let that happen is to make an idol of it. Lift up your vision above your problem until you get a larger perspective on it. Make the problem a part of your life, sure, but not the center of it. Even if the problem is life itself, viewing the larger perspective can help enormously. You may be tempted to turn each small annoyance into a massive catastrophe. Each aggravation reminds you of the whole issue and is likely to turn on all your alarm bells. Don't let every minor incident mushroom into a full-blown crisis. Don't let it ruin your whole day - or week. Say to yourself: "Here it is again! This, too, shall pass."

Realize that you can only change yourself:
Many of the problems we cannot solve involve the unacceptable behavior of other people. We sometimes organize our whole lives around cleaning up the emotional, spiritual, financial, and interpersonal messes these people make. No matter how much you plead, harangue, or pressure someone, no matter how "right' you may be about someone's destructive habits or choices, you cannot change another person. Though you may not be able to change someone else, you can change your own response to the situation. You can refuse to give another power over your happiness. You can refuse to let yourself be a victim to someone else's destructive behavior. You can stop rescuing the person from the consequences of his or her behavior. You can set your own boundaries and be firm in stating them. 

Consult with specialists:
Mental health professionals, professionals, physicians, substance abuse counselors, for example are likely persons to whom to turn. Don't worry about getting them "to fix" someone else. Rather, ask them if they have suggestions for you as to what you can do, quit doing, or forget about doing. Get a "checkup" on what you may have left undone in your efforts to solve the problem. You might also want to look into finding a spiritual director. A meeting at least twice a month with a rabbi, pastor, priest, chaplain, or pastoral counselor can bring the encouragement and enrichment of the spiritual life to you. Look for someone who can help you explore your plight and feelings of helplessness in a spiritual light. 

Stop fruitless thinking and talking:
"Thought-stopping" is another way of coping. You may feel as if your mind paces around and around the problem in a circular pattern of thinking that never allows you to arrive at a solution. Yet, remember, the mind doing its fruitless thinking is your mind. You are in charge of it. You can say to yourself: "Stop!" and shift your attention to issues you can resolve. "Talk-stopping" is akin to thought-stopping. You and your family members can easily get into the habit of talking about nothing else but this problem. It may dominate the conversation while other more productive issues are neglected. In fact, if an errant member of the family seems to be causing the problem, he or she often becomes the "identified problem", and other members of the family, especially children, may be neglected. Your family can discipline itself to avoid this. Try to not talk about the problem until some new events call for it. 

Count on others for support:
You may be surprised to find others in your church, your group of friends, or your community who are facing the same or similar problem. Seek out others who are struggling with a frustration similar to yours. 

Do what you can do:
You may not be able to do away with the problem that burdens you, but you can outwit some of its threats to your sense of equanimity. Occasionally your problem - whatever it might be - will change somewhat, revealing something you can do. For instance, if an alcoholic loved one develops an illness, you can see to it that he or she gets good medical attention. If a relative who hasn't spoken to you in months gets into a situation requiring your help, you can offer the aid matter-of-factly, as if nothing has happened to estrange the two of you.

Accept your helplessness:
We all live under the illusion that we can solve any problem. Yet we cannot change circumstances over which we have no control. We can't work miracles, particularly in our efforts to change other people's behavior . . . "to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." To the day's challenges, respond calmly, doing what you can reasonably do to deal with  the situation at hand. Then consciously enter an act of surrender. Push yourself away, put distance between the problem and you. 

7 great tips. 

Today, I remembered to  lean on my girlfriends, and made several calls, sharing my plight, and listening to theirs in return. Now, my heart feels a lot lighter, and my mind clearer. 


  1. Wonderful post! And timely for me in taking care of my sister recently - one of the "messy" people the article refers to :) It has been a challenging but eye-opening experience to be able to step back and just allow her to move through this experience in her own way. To just be there without falling back into rescuing. I have found that humor has been a great gift in doing so. And is good medicine for both of us! :)

    Thank you!

  2. Oh, yes humor . . . thank you for adding to the self-care toolbox.

    And Laura, thank you for beautiful sky photo essay in your last post. A much needed counterbalance to the natural tendencies of mind and heart to close.

  3. Great reminders, these words of wisdom. Strikes me, when I read them that they apply to almost any situation we identify as a "problem". I especially like the first one "don't make an idol out of your problem". I really identify with that one! It is so easy to devote a lot of attention to siutations we wish were different in an effort to solve "the problem". But as this piece points out, we end up doing the opposite, giving them more energy and power by our efforts! Ah, how easily we are confused.

  4. Thank you ZenDot :) I find it is a very fine line to walk, between not giving problem center stage on one side, and ignoring what demands attention, on the other side.

    The middle way . . .