Have you ever talked with someone about a problem that they have, and they’re asking for your advice and opinions and every time you make a suggestion they respond with something like, “Yeah, but it wouldn’t work and here are all the reasons why”? And you can “yeah, but” anything- “Yeah, but I tried that and my situation stayed the same.” “Yeah, but she won’t listen to me anyway.” “Yeah, but that would require me to change everything I’m doing.” “Yeah, but if I did that then I would have to go back and fix a million other things that I’ve left unaddressed.”
After a while, it starts to seem like the person whose problem your listening to isn’t really looking for a solution. In fact, it might even start to seem like they’re committed to feeling bad and frustrated and to the problem itself. You get impatient and say something like, “Well, are you going to shoot down everything I suggest?” or “I don’t know what the answer is.” And they say something about how they don’t mean to be contrary and then start the cycle all over again. It almost feels like an argument, and they’re trying to convince you of all the reasons their life will always suck.
Most of us have been on either side of this conversation and understand that both of these roles are frustrating. When we’re the ones acting as the sounding board, we feel like the other person just wants to complain. When we’re the ones complaining, we feel frustrated that we’re experiencing the problem and scared that we will never move through it.
But what’s the deal? What’s happening with this pattern? And what can we do to make it productive instead of self-defeating?
What’s happening with this pattern is that we are arguing for our problem or our limitations. We’re defending them. (That feeling you had about your friend seeming pretty committed to their problem is right on. They are.) We have a lot of reasons to argue for our limitations. Most of them have to do with core beliefs we hold and the narratives we tell about the world and who we are in it.
We pick up our core beliefs as we develop. As we experience the world, we make meaning of these experiences and internalize that meaning. Our core beliefs are born of this meaning. If I grew up poor and I experienced this as lack, I might have started to believe that there is not enough. As I continued to develop, I might have cultivated the belief that, “Because I am poor, I cannot have what I want.” This limiting belief might have prevented me from going to college and setting my sights on the kind of life I wanted instead of the life I thought was available to me in my current state of lack. Maybe my narrative turned into “Everyone else can figure out how to have the life they want because they came from money or had some kind of windfall or are not as challenged.”
I might even go to therapy in hopes of enlisting the help of a professional, but end up spending a lot of my time fighting the treatment and arguing for my limitations. (And if I’ve picked a therapist worth their weight they’ll challenge me on this so that I can get out of my own way.)
Defending our problems is a pretty common behavior and while it takes time and work to change it, we can.
Try this exercise:
1) Assess your narrative: What story do you tell about yourself, about who you are in the world? What story do you tell about the world? What story do you tell yourself about your capabilities, limitations, how you respond to challenges, what’s available to you?
2) Assess your current core beliefs: What negative and positive core self-beliefs do you hold?
Next time you’re in an empathic space, explore these questions with yourself. No need to connect your findings to any behavior yet. Just be curious about it. Let yourself sit with what you’ve been telling yourself all these years and hold that with compassion.
Love and Be Loved,