Putting our Problems in Perspective

When I was in graduate school one of my professors was a devotee of Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET). For those not familiar with this model, it is probably best characterized as a hardcore Cognitive Therapy which asserted that how you think determines how you feel and behave. Ellis was a strong proponent of the idea that our problems are the result of how we think about things, and that the solution is to change our thinking. Examples are reflected in some of his more famous quotes:

People and things do not upset us. Rather, we upset ourselves by believing that they can upset us.

Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.

These quotes are a more genteel sampling of Ellis’ model than other statements he has made. However, these quotes highlight his thesis: that we make our own problems by how we define what happened to us, what is happening to us, and what we expect/believe should happen. Ellis would most likely respond to the questions of whether I am making too big a deal out of a problem situation with an emphatic, “yes.”

More benign versions of Ellis’ model and philosophy are present in various treatment models and theories. There are traces of this approach in Positive Psychology which emphasizes the importance of how people think about their situations, in Cognitive therapy models and even in popular works, e.g, the book “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” comes to mind.

One of the major critiques of Ellis’ model and the philosophy that underlies it, is that it minimizes the impact of one’s life situation and experiences on psychological well-being, and treats the individual as an actor who can determine how they feel simply by shifting their thinking. The research which has examined and documented the impact of early traumatic experiences is one of many challenges to Ellis’ concept. Research on the impact of traumatic experiences in childhood, such as the work on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), have furthered our knowledge and understanding of these experiences and the risks they impose on individuals. In addition, work on the impact of racism, sexism, and homophobia offer additional examples of how the world we live in and who we are in that world can significantly affect our emotional well being and mental health.

Unfortunately, just as Ellis can be considered as taking an extreme position on the impact of how we evaluate and approach the significance of our problems and our mental health, the same phenomena appears to be occurring in newer models and understandings of mental health. The broadening of the definition of trauma (I actually had a therapist “explain” to me how a trauma is anything a person defines as a trauma) and the focus on “toxic relationships” are just two examples of this trend. An overbroad definition of trauma can lead to a diminution of a sense of personal responsibility and efficacy, and even result in people feeling less competent and less able to manage their lives. A more obvious variant of this problem is the commonplace use of terms such as “gas lighting,” which have the effect of shifting the focus from how we choose to act and interpret the world (and even our mental health) to defining our problems as a result of others’ behavior on our mental health. Similarly, the focus on others as “toxic,” can have the same effect.

Given these competing philosophies/approaches it is no wonder that people often struggle to make sense of how significant their problems are, how much their experiences define and affect them. The reality appears to be that there is no clear answer to this question and rather that it is one people will likely wrestle with for generations to come.

How to address the question: am I making too big a deal out of my problems? In my view, the best answer is probably “yes and no.” Mahatma Gandhi, offers a more elegant answer to this question:
“Whatever you do in life will be insignificant but it is very important that you do it because you can’t know. You can’t ever really know the meaning of your life. And you don’t need to. Every life has a meaning, whether it lasts one hundred years or one hundred seconds. Every life, and every death, changes the world in its own way. You can’t know. So don’t take it for granted. But don’t take it too seriously. Don’t postpone what you want. Don’t leave anything misunderstood. Make sure the people you care about know. Make sure they know how you really feel. Because just like that…It could end.”

Probably the best we can do as mental health professionals is help those we work with wrestle with the dilemma and contradictions raised by the question of whether my problems really are important, really matter. Finding a balanced approach/response to this question is challenging at best, and overwhelming, at worst. Trying to help our clients believe/accept that their pain and struggles are real, worth considering, is often invaluable. However, it is equally important to help our clients recognize there are choices they can make to improve their lives and emotional well-being. Helping others understand that both of these statements/realities are true is likely the best answer to the question: “do my problems really matter?”.