Throughout my career I have come across people time and time again who are unhappy about one or more aspects of their lives who, when I ask them what they are doing to address those issues, respond with a shrug of the shoulders or the verbal equivalent. It is as if they feel overwhelmed by the situation and therefore adopt a passive approach to it.
I have sometimes felt a bit of a fraud because it has often been the case that my saying: ‘So, what are you going to do about it?’ and helping them to formulate some meaningful answers to that question have been enough to free them up to take some positive steps. The ensuing progress – often very significant progress once they shook off that passivity – would then lead them to tell me how I had worked miracles for them and inspired them. Of course, I may have inspired them to a certain extent, but there were certainly no miracles involved – just a straightforward process of being proactive, of making happen the things that needed to happen.
A key part of what leads to that passivity is that, when people are feeling low, under pressure or otherwise feeling at well below their best, they can feel anxious and unconfident – as if taking the risk of any further pressure leads them to settle for their current unhappy situation (better to be unhappy but coping than to risk trying to improve things and end up not able to cope).
Another factor can be that, when we are under pressure, and especially if we are feeling anxious, it can be difficult to think clearly; we can easily get muddled and feel unsure of ourselves. This can lead to a vicious circle in which anxiety leads to a lack of clear thinking and then struggling to think clearly can make us feel more anxious – and round and round it goes.
But, life does not have to be like this. We can break out of this circle by asking ourselves: So, what are we going to do about it? As I have found myself saying time and time again throughout my career, there are no situations where we have complete control and none where we have no control – there is always something we can do to affect the circumstances we find ourselves in.
First of all, we need to make it clear: What exactly is it that is causing us to feel unhappy? This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but in reality it is very commonly the case that we are not sure what it is that ails us, especially if it is a combination of factors working in tandem.
It can then be helpful to think in terms of three levels of reaction to each of these problems:
- Solving the problem Is there any way we can solve the problem, whether in the short, middle or long term, with or without support? Is there anyone who can help us with this or support us through the process?
- Alleviating the problem If we can’t solve the problem and thereby remove it altogether, what can we do to minimise it, reduce its impact and/or steer clear of it as much as possible? Some problems cannot be solved but they can be effectively managed.
- Accommodating to the problem If you cannot solve the problem, and how far you can alleviate it is fairly limited, what can you do to try to stop the problem from, in effect, ruining your happiness? How can you be reasonably happy despite the problem?
But, remember that we can’t do any of this if we are not clear what the problem(s) are, so get thinking carefully about what exactly the source of the malaise is.