corridor with word "help" written in middle

Why Psychotherapy is not about Solving People’s Problems…

The Uncommon Wisdom of Psychotherapy…

Psychotherapy is not about solving people’s problems, at least not in the same way as a math teacher helps you solve a math equation, or an auto mechanic helps you fix a broken car. As a person, your problems cannot be separated from you, and you can therefore not simply treat the problem without in some fundamental way becoming changed yourself.  In fact, as I will explain, sometimes the very desire to solve your problems, may itself be part of the problem…

This is a difficult idea to understand in a society that values self-improvement and shows us every day how we can use the latest technological advances to improve how we look, how we feel, and how we perform. Self-help gurus, experts in the media, and the latest “solution-focused” psychotherapies, seem to offer us the knowledge and techniques to “fix” ourselves and become who we want to be.

Why our Symptoms are not Problems to be Solved…

The idea that we can solve our psychological issues by finding some technique or rational solution, is often the product of an unstated dualism. The symptom that bothers us, be it a perceived character flaw or some other deficit or deficiency, has often become split off from ourselves. It has become a part of ourselves that we do not accept. We experience it as incongruent with who we want to be. Our disliked symptom seems to serve no role and have no contribution to make. It is considered “irrational” and unwanted. And the best thing therefore is to find a way to be rid of it.

And yet this separation of our irrational and problematic parts from our cherished and rational self is a flawed starting point for change. It assumes that we are like a four-legged lizard that can simply lose its tail when it is no longer needed. We might as well be trying to spit out our own tongue or eat our own mouth, because the task we have set ourselves is just as contradictory.

Discovering the Logic of our Symptoms

The problem is that our annoying little habits and traits only appear senseless and tasteless when we have defined our problem in too narrow of a way. Only when we cut our symptom off from  a wider interest in understanding ourselves, does the symptom appear like a bad tooth that can simply be plucked without any repercussions for the rest of us.

Once we begin to understand what really keeps the symptom in place, however, we realize that the symptom is often a sign of an internal conflict with which we are struggling as a human being. The symptom, therefore, far from being a problem we can simply solve, is thus in fact a solution to a problem which we have not been able to solve. It points us toward a larger issue of which we are not aware. The symptom indicates that something is awry, but does not indicate what exactly. This however is what psychotherapy is for… 

Hence, a person who desperately wants advice about how to stop having panic attacks, discovers through psychotherapy that the panic attacks are really a result of the person’s battle against his own impulses. The person has not allowed himself to admit to feeling angry with his parents and has in fact waged an ongoing battle against himself to not feel certain feelings that produce anxiety and discomfort. His need for tight control of his emotional life and the impossible bind that he not be who he is, is nevertheless a failing strategy. His anxiety attacks indicate precisely this.  

The person’s pursuit of a solution to get rid of his anxiety attacks, as if they were simply irrational and alien intrusions into his existence, keeps the real issue at bay. Instead of heeding the message of the symptom, the person now instead enters into a battle with a part of him which he cannot understand. He may try anti-anxiety medication, relaxation techniques, and whatever other desperate solutions people can offer him. But because his attempt at a solution is an attempt at covering up the real problem, whatever he tries to do is destined to fail. He is like a person attempting to become a lizard, or attempting to divide himself in two. He wants to rid himself of the symptom, but does not realize that the symptom is connected to him, just like his nose is connected to his face.

How Psychotherapy Can Help Us

Many of our psychological symptoms and issues are the result of such impossible battles with ourselves. The more we try to fight against what we don’t like, the more the disliked parts of ourselves are forced to return with a vengeance or to appear at the most inopportune times.

When we instead stop trying to solve our problems, and start to be curious about what sustains them in the first place, we may discover to our surprise that our symptoms all of a sudden disappear.

If I am feeling angry but cannot accept anger as part of my life, this is not really a problem to be solved, but is rather a problem that begs a whole new series of questions. Why am I for example uncomfortable with anger?  Might it be that I fear that it can be destructive and make me lose the love from others on which I desperately depend? If so, how did my sense of love and worth in relation to others become so tenuous? And what repercussions does this have for my ability to assert my own needs without feeling guilty or bad? Might it force me to act out my resentment in passive aggressive ways that interfere with my ability to both endure and maintain intimate relationships?

These series of questions are all contained within one single symptom. What started out as a panic attack has now given way to an exploration of inhibited anger, problems with intimacy, and questions about tenuous self-esteem. These questions have not simply displaced me from the real issue, but have problematized my initial problem, and made it about something more than the simple removal of a symptom. As the problem has shifted, so has the nature of my symptom and the solutions that now seem relevant. Rather than being solved, the symptom has now dis-solved.

Instead of battling my symptom, which had initially been a blemish on my self image and a nuisance to get rid of, the symptom now instead shows itself as a gift in disguise. Unwrapping its message leads to ever greater riches in my understanding of who I am and why I am the way I am. Instead of running around like a lizard wanting to lose my own tail, I now begin to integrate all aspects of myself into one unified congruent existence… Instead of solving my problems, I begin to understand what they are really about in the first place… This is what psychotherapy can help you do. 

About me: Rune Moelbak, Ph.D.  is a psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston, Texas. To read more about the theoretical principles that guide me in my work, visit my website, or listen to this recent podcast where I explain more about my approach to psychotherapy