06 Jan 2020

Thinking in terms of solutions, not problems

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Thinking in terms of solutions

A few years ago a manager said to me: “We need to start thinking more in terms of solutions within this company”. This statement stayed with me when I started to rebuild myself. Another statement I once heard (I don’t know exactly when, it’s been a long time) is: “Problems are problems, because they have a solution. If a problem has no solution, it is not a problem but a fact”. From these two statements I have reasoned further for myself. If a problem has no solution, it is a fact. Ergo; if a fact has a solution, it is a problem. Facts are by definition not “solvable”, they can change, but (mostly) you can’t change that much yourself.

It may sound like I’m trying to put my problems aside with this, but that’s not quite what I mean by that. If you “solve” a problem in your life as far as you can, but it’s still there (assuming it has decreased in size or severity), it becomes a fact for you. If it is a fact, it is (for me) easier to accept that it is there. And if it is a fact in my life, I have to live with it.

With this I have dealt with the problems I had. Some of them have been solved, others have become facts I can’t change. Some examples of facts are some of the choices I’ve made in the past for myself and others. These choices cannot be reversed, they are fixed in history. They have become facts that cannot be solved. They are facts that you accept. This reasoning has helped me to prioritize my recovery from depression. Everything seemed like a problem to me at the time. And I had to solve everything on my own. I didn’t realize that this was an inhuman task. To get better, I thought I had to solve EVERYTHING. Once I looked at the things I couldn’t fix or solve, and named them as facts, they were off the list of problems for me. That was a long way off.

Why do people actually think in problems?

People don't think in solutions, but in problems

As far as I understand it, it’s because of the nature of man. It is natural for man to remember negative thoughts better than success stories. In the beginning of human development, this was very important for simple survival. When we saw someone else being eaten by a tiger, we remembered very clearly that the tiger is dangerous. That’s an important thing to know, so the brain stores this information very well. The fact that the yield from the hunt that day was also very good was quickly forgotten.

Nowadays this has become the principle of self-preservation and we don’t really need to remember all the negative events better than the positive ones. Unfortunately, this system has been so important within our survival that it has become a “basic system”. A foundation of man.

If people remember negative things better than positive things, it is not so strange that people also think faster in problems than in solutions. People see the negative sides of a story much faster than the positive sides.

So the human brain actually is not evolved at all to think positive. I think that is one of the biggest reasons why it is so difficult for people to be positive in life. This is not unique for autistic people, it is obvious in everyone.

Then how do you think in solutions?

It has become a reflex for me to see if a “problem” that comes into my life is actually a (big) problem. When something happens, I try to see if I can or should do something. If I can do something right away (e.g. pay the incoming bill) then I will do it. If it is more work to solve, then I have to make a step-by-step plan. This can sometimes be simple, so that I can come up with something myself, but it also happens that I have to set up this step-by-step plan together with someone. Because I can lose the overview and maybe miss parts of the problem or the solution. However, if it’s something I can’t solve, then it becomes a fact I have to live with. It helps me to resign myself to it. Sometimes it’s not fun, but it’s better for me to learn to live with it as soon as possible, rather than to eat myself up to find a non-existent solution.

Seeing bears on the road, thinking in trouble, is human. We needed it to survive. However, this can turn to doom thinking for people and be trapped in a negative spiral. It doesn’t help to keep worrying about things you can’t change. No matter how uncomfortable; if it’s a fact, you can’t solve it and you’ll have to live with it. If you can solve it, it is a problem you can take away for yourself. The choice to do that lies with yourself. If the will is not there to begin solving it, all solutions are impossible.

Choosing solutions

Thinking in solutions

It sounds very nice, but I can assure you it doesn’t make everything better all at once. Nevertheless, some things in life are hard. It doesn’t alter the fact that you run into situations in life that confuse you or make you sad. But it’s also more about how you deal with those things. And what I try to do in my life is see if I can improve a situation. For myself and for others.

I know of myself that I’m quite practical. If there is a problem, I actually want to jump into action right away and actively work on a solution. Nowadays I have learned to take a step back and think about possibilities. Is that what comes my way really a problem to start with? Is it a small (1 step solution) problem, or a larger (multiple steps needed) problem? Is it something that immediately needs my attention? Or can it wait a while?

These are the questions I try to ask myself. It is also a learning path for me, because before I would immediately be practically busy with this new problem, and in the meantime forget that I was already busy with a previously existing problem. Assessing the urgency of a problem is also a little better for me these days. Although I am still struggling, I am doing better already.

By looking for possible solutions to problems, the problems also become less intensive for me. Previously, a problem could have sucked up all my energy and left me exhausted. I was then only able to worry about the consequences (whether or not conceived by myself and whether or not real) and certainly did not come up with solutions. When I tried to think in solutions, I also found that some problems are better solved by asking for help. For example to someone who knows more about a certain subject. Or someone you trust.

Sometimes a solution can be: “I can postpone this until next week because then my guidance will be here” and that is also fine. That is all you can do right now. Of course it depends on the situation whether you can postpone something or not, but it also depends on yourself. If you don’t have any energy at all today, it won’t help to exhaust yourself further and look for solutions. But then it is important to at least look at it the day after to see what you can do immediately and what you can possibly do later.

I have noticed that when I practice this, it gets easier and easier in the end. Every day a step towards a better life for me and my environment.


In a nutshell:

A problem is a problem only when there is a viable solution.
If a problem doesn’t have a viable solution, it’s a fact.
You have to learn to live with facts. David Westerink, 2020

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme filosofie gedachtes positief depressie 
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David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

I have my own podcast (in Dutch) about autism and neurodiversity! Checkout the AutCast!

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