How Active Problem Solving Can Help You

How to tackle problems head on

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Active problem solving is the kind of skill that we rarely think about in our day-to-day lives. Often we instead focus on trying to deal with difficult emotions we face. In particular, people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be so seemingly overpowered by strong emotions that the emotions themselves become the focus of coping.

Of course, it is very important to have coping skills you can use to reduce intense emotions (for some examples, see this article on healthy coping skills). However, it's also important to have skills you can use to cope with the problems that are at the root of those emotions. This is where the skill of active problem solving comes in.

What Is Active Problem Solving?

Sometimes it's more effective to focus on the problem at hand than to focus on trying to control your emotions about the problem. Tackling problems head-on can help you feel that ​your life is more manageable and less stressful. This is what we call active problem solving — intentionally tackling and solving the root problem, rather than letting it go unresolved.

Of course, active problem solving is easier said than done. Sometimes it is very difficult to face problems directly because this may mean confronting fears, approaching conflict, or otherwise making yourself uncomfortable in the short term.

In the long term, active problem solving actually reduces discomfort because the problem is no longer hanging over your head.

When Is Active Problem Solving Effective?

Not every situation is appropriate for an active problem-solving approach. There are some situations that are inherently unsolvable — these are events or situations that are outside your control.

For example, perhaps you don't like the person your sister is marrying, and her decision to marry is causing you a lot of anger, sadness, and grief. This is one of those situations that you don't have any control over, so trying to "solve the problem" won't work. In this situation, you'll have to cope using more emotion-focused skills.

However, imagine that you are having a dispute with your landlord because the heat in your apartment is not working. In this situation, you may need to use some emotion-focused coping to manage your anger, but you will also need to use some active problem-solving skills to get the situation resolved (or resign yourself to a cold apartment).

How to Use Active Problem Solving

Evaluate the Situation. The first step whenever you are facing a situation that is causing you to have strong emotions is to evaluate whether there is a problem going on that can be solved. Is there some aspect of the situation that you have some control over? Is this a problem that could be addressed? Or is this a situation that you will have to learn to live with?

Determine the Most Effective Course of Action. Once you have determined that there is a potentially solvable problem going on, you next need to determine what the most effective course of action will be.

Let's take the landlord example from above. Would the most effective course of action be to go to your landlord's house, knock on his or her door, and scream at your landlord until he or she agrees to fix the heat? This tactic might get your heat fixed, but it certainly won't help you later on when it's time for you to sign next year's lease.

A more effective course of action might be to do some research on tenant's rights in your region and then write your landlord a letter clearly stating the problem you are experiencing, keeping a copy of the letter for yourself in case you need future documentation.

It's not always easy to determine the most effective course of action, so you may want to consult with friends or a therapist about what action to take. You may find that you have a number of different options in how you deal with the problem, and running it by other people can help you find the action that will work best.

What to Do If the Problem Isn't Solved

Sometimes you will choose a problem-solving action, try it, and find that your problem still exists. For example, perhaps you write your landlord a letter about the heat, and never hear anything back. It is not unusual that you will actually need to take a few different actions before the problem is solved.

So, what to do next? Go back to the drawing board. Determine what the next action to take should be. Perhaps you decide that next you will call your landlord, mention the letter, and ask when the problem will be resolved (perhaps noting that your city law states that heating problems must be resolved within 5 days). If that doesn't work, your next step may be to contact a tenant's rights organization to find out what legal rights you have.

The good news is that if you are persistent you will likely solve the problem. And when you do, you will have: A) eliminated a problem from your life (and the associated emotions), and B) built confidence that you can tackle difficult issues.

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  • Linehan, MM. "Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder." New York: Guilford Press, 1993.
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