Why We Cling To Our Problems

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One of the biggest reasons people fail to solve their problems is that we don’t actually want to. We may sit and complain about how bad our problems make our lives, but make no action to rid ourselves of them. And even when we do take action it may be inconsistent, or as soon as some progress is being made we undermine ourselves and undo all our hard work. Why would we choose to keep our problems and suffer? We do this because, like all things, our problems have benefits too. There are a number of different ways in which they can serve us:

Some people just enjoy complaining, and the sympathy they get. They may also enjoy the power they get over others; they will ask you for so much help so they can get better, and then complain that they aren’t getting better because you aren’t helping enough, even though they are doing nothing to help themselves. The only way to help these people is to stop helping them and ignore their whining.

Some people keep problems around just to have something to do. *cough* politicians *cough*.

Sometimes we undermine ourselves because we have made the problem part of our mental self-image, and since our brain is wired to protect our self-image we resist efforts to change ourselves in ways that will conflict with it. If this is you I suggest you check out this video on how to use self-talk to separate your problem from your self-image.

A common reason is that we use our problems as an excuse to get out of doing something. Many of us grow up being forced into activities we would rather not be doing, and often being ill is the only excuse that works. So when a problem starts to sprout, instead of nipping it in the bud, we nurture and cultivate it so we can get a free pass out of whatever it is we don’t want to do. This can be pretty extreme too, there have actually been reported cases of the spontaneous remission of schizophrenia after the patient’s mother died [1]. As an adult we might use our problems to evade our responsibilities, a convenient excuse as to why we cannot live up to the expectations of others.

We may also be keeping our problems around as a security blanket or as a potential scapegoat. This is common for perfectionists. We can pin all our failures onto our problems, after all who can blame you for failing when you’re so ill? Accepting responsibility for our defeats is very painful blow to our ego, so we protect it by saying “I would have been able to do it wasn’t for my problem”. In this way we can always deflect any criticism off ourselves and onto our problem. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes our problems really are what is holding us back, and if we actually did solve them we wouldn’t need them as a scapegoat as we would have the success we desire.

The first step to stop clinging to our problems is to acknowledge that that is what we are doing. Then you have to ask yourself why you are doing so, how does your problem serve you? Lastly you have to find a less harmful way to achieve that same goal. If you are using it as an excuse, you must learn to be more assertive and be able to say “no” to requests you don’t want to accept. If you are using it as a scapegoat you must learn to be ok with failing. And finally, once you have fixed the underlying cause you can tackle your problems again, and banish them for good.

  1. Cohen, M., Lipton, L.M. Spontaneous remission of schizophrenic psychoses following maternal death. Psych Quar 24, 716–725 (1950). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02229830

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