Hitting my head against the wall.

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the result to be different.

Spinning my wheels.

There are so many ways to describe the phenomenon of being stuck in a problem. It’s real, it’s common and it’s frustrating. Relationships. Weight. Kids. Coworkers. We seem to live with chronic stress and have often given up on finding a way out.

In a riding class I help out with, one of the riders really struggles with her mare. This horse can be quite naughty: tossing her head, pulling the reins out of her hands, refusing to go the direction the rider asks for, going when she should stop, and stopping when she should go. Week after week, I watch this fight.

It occurred to me that the rider is being drawn into battle by her horse every single ride. They fuss back and forth with each other for the entire hour, no one winning and everyone losing. I can tell you exactly how the ride is going to go before it even begins.

Last week, I encouraged her to take a deep breath and really think about what she was doing. By her actions, was she getting the result she desired? Or was she fighting the same fight over and over again in the same way and not getting anywhere?

The answer, of course, was that she needed to change up her strategy. She was (understandably) so frustrated that she had stopped problem-solving and was just correcting the horse in the same way, over and over. In a way, she had almost resigned herself to the fate of riding an uncooperative horse, forgetting that there was another option.

This made me realize that I often deal with my problems in the same way. Day after day, I try the same “solutions”, over and over, expecting the results to be different. When they’re not, I get frustrated and begin to think that all is lost.

Sometimes, all I need is a little change in strategy to tackle the problem successfully. Here are some techniques I use:

  1. First, take a good hard look at the areas of my life where I am spinning my wheels. Sometimes, the frustration is so common that I make the mistake of thinking that it’s normal. I get used to the feeling of frustration and I accept it, even when I don’t have to.
  2. Get to the root of the problem. This takes some thought! My rider’s problem wasn’t that the horse refused to go left, but that the horse refused anything in the first place. It wasn’t lack of obedience, but lack of respect. We needed to address the respect issue first. Sometimes I get so focused on the little details of the problem that I miss the root cause. When I miss the root cause, I miss the real solution. Often, identifying the real problem is the key that unlocks the box. I happen to be married to a professional problem-solver. When I finally swallow my pride and ask him for help, he can often say one or two phrases that completely drill to the root of the issue. (I often think that he doesn’t get paid nearly enough to be my therapist…). This is the beginning of the illumination.
  3. Use the resources I have to get help. I am the absolute worst at asking for assistance. I battle and battle problems on my own until I’m so frustrated that I’m in danger of giving up. I say things to myself like: “I should know how to fix this on my own.” “They’ll be tired of hearing this.” “I’m too embarrassed to admit I’m struggling with this.” These are a few of the self-defeating messages that go through my head when I consider reaching out. The thing is, sometimes all it takes is the right person with the right little flashlight to help me see the problem in a whole new light. They illuminate solutions I never thought possible. The root cause of the battle between my rider and her horse was immediately apparent to me. When I gave her a couple of simple suggestions, it opened a whole new door of possible solutions for her and gave her hope that riding could be fun and successful again. This was a great reminder to me to use the resources I have available in my life to tackle problems. Therapists, books, friends…find them. Use them.
  4. Work the solution and constantly reevaluate. This is where the discipline part of the equation enters. I have to retrain my brain to take a different path. Many times, I have been spinning my wheels for so long that I easily fall back into the old battle ruts. I have to remind myself constantly to use my new solutions. Training my mind is like training a stubborn horse (really, this is true!). Time, patience, and repetitiveness are the key. It’s often very slow work, but I am actually getting somewhere with my effort rather than spinning my wheels.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every major problem in our life is simple and easily-solved, but often, big problems are just a serious of smaller problems that have added up and escalated. The key is, we don’t have to be satisfied with day after day, year after year of chronic stress and frustration. There are answers out there. We just have to be brave enough to find them. I have a couple of mine in mind; I think I’ll take the reins and start today.