How can you tell whether or not your problems are self-created?
July 12, 2013 2:26 PM   Subscribe

You know when someone is complaining about something and the reason for their trouble is SUPER OBVIOUS? Like when a guy you've just met moans, "Why don't I have a girlfriend?" and in his next breath makes a joke about domestic violence? Or when your friend confides that she can't meet anyone in a new city, yet nixes Meetup groups or clubs? Or when your coworker is constantly sick and blames it on germs in the office, when he's been pulling all-nighters and subsisting on Cheetos for the last month?

How do I know that's not me, too?

Does everyone have blind spots like this, or are some people just less self-aware than others?

I ask because I have a few "common complaints" that have followed me around my whole life (for example: recurring loneliness, despite having the external appearance of a very active social life) and I've been wondering, am I the reason for my dissatisfaction? Is the answer in front of my face? Am I like the above people, venting about something that is within my power to control?

Obviously, many problems and challenges ARE outside of people's control. But what about problems you just *think* are out of your control, but actually you're creating them?

How can you tell the difference? Is there a guide? A flow-chart? A meditation? Is this what therapists do? Have you ever had an a-ha moment where you figured out you were creating your own problem?
posted by whenbynowandtreebyleaf to Human Relations (20 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
How can you tell whether or not your problems are self-created?

Ask your most opinionated or just your rudest friend, or ask your most thoughtful friend in a really gentle way. Or,

Is this what therapists do?

Sometimes, yes.
posted by cairdeas at 2:33 PM on July 12, 2013

For me, the guide is generally the noble truths of Buddhism. Basically, it's a way for me to inquire -- realistically but compassionately -- into my expectations and attachments, which (according to Buddhism) is where discontent starts.
posted by scody at 2:33 PM on July 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

Yeah, therapists can really help with this stuff.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:34 PM on July 12, 2013

(One of my high school friends' mom was like the go-to person for something like this. It wasn't that she was a really mean person but she put her foot in her mouth all the time by making comments that came off as super judgmental. She wasn't shy about giving her opinions if you asked her. So if you wanted to know how you really looked in a certain outfit, for example, that's who you would go to...)
posted by cairdeas at 2:35 PM on July 12, 2013

Best answer: "How do I know that's not me, too?"

Probably is, some. I think most people are like this some. Others are better and others are worse.

If you want more social, be a friend youd like to have. If you want deeper relations, that can be harder, but not impossible to find.

"How can you tell the difference? Is there a guide? A flow-chart? A meditation? Is this what therapists do? Have you ever had an a-ha moment where you figured out you were creating your own problem?"

A lot of my personal problems came from areas I mis-learned or was pretty poorly... taught. Bad foundations, garbage in.... kinda thing. Therapy can and often does help. I'd just sit down at first and go 'why do I think this? What can I, in fact, do to change this?'

Maybe look into learned helplessness some.
posted by Jacen at 2:35 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, the common thread in all your failed relationships--and other failed things--is you. I think if the same thing keeps happening to you over and over again, it's time to either sack up and take a real close look at yourself or ask someone who can help you do just that.

And if you find yourself constantly insisting "But this time it's different because reasons"'s probably not and you're just fooling yourself.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:35 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Keeping a journal (which in the last 5-10 years often means 'reviewing my old emails') helps me realize patterns like this. Sometimes it takes me many years but it's an option.

(Therapy for me is like having another journal that I sometimes lie to, but I think it's the better option for most.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:36 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is a lot of what Buddhism is about. The 4 Noble Truths scody linked above are great for wrapping your head around this. "Being alive is sometimes uncomfortable anyway, but a lot of discomfort is caused by the biological impulse to avoid discomfort. If you can get out of the trap of generating your own problems, it's a lot easier to deal with the other stuff you can't control. Here are some specific things you can do to get out of that trap (8-fold path)." Mindfulness meditation helps you think clearly enough and let go of your ingrained self-protective impulses enough to accurately identify if your problems are being generated by you or by someone else.
posted by bleep at 2:47 PM on July 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

I question your assumption that these problems are self-created. She doesn't go to Meetups because she's scared. He eats Cheetos because he misses having eating dinners with family since his Dad died. Or whatever. It's not obvious that this is self-created or how the causes interact. It's way more complex. Viewing people as causing their problems is tres judgmental and false as well.

So...why not just try to make your life better without adding all of this judgment that "it's all your fault" on top of it?
posted by 3491again at 2:55 PM on July 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Whether problems are self-created or not is a lot less-important than whether they are self-fixable or not. Maybe it is you - ok, can you fix it? And if not, still, can you fix it?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:04 PM on July 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Well, in a broad sense of course, ALL of your problems are self-created as it is fairly clear that if you had no self you would have no problems. Perhaps a more utilitarian way of thinking about it is which of my problems can I improve and which are not within my control?

Problems related to your thinking, feeling, and attitudes are within your control. Problems related to things that take place outside of yourself can sometimes be influenced but are not within your control. In particular, other peoples thoughts, feelings, and attitudes are not within your control.

As you point to, the wisdom is seeing which is which. In addition, there is some gray area. For instance, some degree of your health is within your control, and some not. However, your ideas, attitudes, and responses to your health are within your control.

Your question about yourself, recurring loneliness? Definitely within your control. I am not saying you should change it, or need to, but it is very likely within your control.

Can everyone control there thoughts, feelings, and attitudes? Probably not. It takes a lot of practice and a great desire to be free. Quite a bit easier to be a victim to more things than less. And even if you become a master of it, well, a safe could still fall on your head as you walk down the street.

If you investigate this a while you will fine the word "blame" begins to leave your vocabulary. It is not that it is meaningless, it is just irrelevant. For further reading, try Epictetus, Buddha, Viktor Frankl, Serenity Prayer, Senecia & Aaron Beck as starting points. To my way of thinking, learning what is within your control and optimizing it and learning what is not in your control and letting it go can lead to a well led life. Wonderful question, happy hunting.
posted by jcworth at 3:05 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I admire the Buddhists here because that's a mode of thinking that intrigues me, but here's my take - - I always have felt that Sartre was onto something when he posited that we all create our own reality, and are responsible for it. That is to say, in my experience bad things happen randomly to people, but the way we deal with them is very much our responsibility. Likewise, many of us repeatedly re-create an unpleasant reality for ourselves, oftentimes because we are replicating familiar childhood patterns, or sometimes because we fear the risks posed by something less familiar.

Most of us are also much better at spotting or assuming other people's responsibility for their situation than identifying ours for our own.

If you find that negative situations recur for you like the sense of loneliness you mention, then yes, therapy can be a great way to spot the pattern, find its source, and end the behavior or change the perspective that is the reason for it. This is by no means so easy as -- "Go to meetups!" or "Go to bed and eat less junk food!"

And it would be kinder and more accurate with regard to the people who confide in you to realize that their problems are no less challenging and complex to overcome than yours.
posted by bearwife at 3:07 PM on July 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

From a very different perspective -

One of the most chilling realizations I've ever had on this topic was reading the memoir of Jaycee Dugard. In it, she includes an excerpt from a diary she kept late in captivity: after her daughters had been born, after she'd been kept prisoner for more than a decade. And one day she sits down and lists in her journal a series of affirmations that could have been taken straight from Oprah: "I am a creative, positive, successful, and happy person. I can achieve anything I set my mind's easy for me to get up every day and exercise...I make it a habit to be happy...I make every day a positive day."

Reading that triggered an existential crisis that I'm not really sure I can explain; I've always wanted to write something deeper than an internet comment about it, but haven't known how. Some people might find her attitude inspiring - that's certainly how the story was framed - but to me it's a terrifying reminder of how blind we can be to our own circumstances, how eager we are to blame ourselves and our 'outlook' for what we endure and to delude ourselves that we're in control even when we're powerless. So yeah, in answer to your question - I think we are awful at knowing when our problems are self-created, but we're also awful at knowing when they're not. Which is not to say that you shouldn't try to solve your own problems - far from it - but for all we like to accuse each other of acting helpless, as a species, we have an unshakeable, almost mystical faith in our own agency, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 3:40 PM on July 12, 2013 [49 favorites]

when your problems are not in fact self-created, your problems are "self-created" when no one knows what advice to give you. for example, being born into a life of poverty. telling yourself your problem is self-created is a way to make you fell less powerless, and gives you (false?) hope.
posted by cupcake1337 at 4:28 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As also mentioned to a degree above, I believe most problems in life which constantly rear themselves are problems which may be self created or not, but if they commonly occur they are usually at least being self sustained.

Whenever I am disturbed, it is because I find someone, something, or some situation unacceptable, and until I can either accept that person, thing, or situation as exactly as its meant to be, or work toward changing/extricating myself from that person, thing, or situation I will find no peace.

As a child I was severely abused. I played no part in this and did not create this problem whatsoever. However, the fact that I was walking around almost two decades after the last incident, reliving these horrors, fueling resentments, and using the resulting fear and self-pity to justify my shitty behavior as an adult, that was most definitely a self sustainment of the problem.
posted by Debaser626 at 4:59 PM on July 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Everyone does have blind spots.

I think you can adjust your question and it might help you. Rather than ask yourself "Am I creating this problem?" ask yourself:

1. Is there anything within my power to do that would help with this problem?
2. If addressing this problem was a top priority, what might I do differently?
3. If I could do something to make sure this didn't happen again, what might I do?

Your answers may vary depending on level of upset, recentness of problem, etc. Sometimes you *could* take action to prevent something but it's not really reasonable to do it. Like, if you never leave the house again you won't have to worry about sunburns anymore. A therapist can be helpful with bouncing ideas around about appropriate ways to take responsibility for issues, or when it's ok to just accept the problem and let it go.

The other thing is to cultivate honesty in your relationships. Make it ok for people to tell you the hard truth at times. Don't invite them to beat up on you, just be open to honest and kindly meant feedback. And you can ask people you trust "What do you think? Is it possible I'm doing something to contribute to this problem?"
posted by bunderful at 6:44 PM on July 12, 2013

The next time you have a problem -- self-caused or otherwise -- ask your friends: "Of course, I might be bringing this problem on myself. Please be blunt with me: have you noticed anything I'm doing or not doing that I can change to make this problem better?"

Then shut up and listen. Don't get defensive. Hear what they have to say. At the end, smile and thank them for being honest, and tell them you'll think about what they've said. Then tell them you appreciate having a friend you can trust for feedback.
posted by davejay at 7:42 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've just discovered the work of Margaret Paul and she has a lot to say about this. Mainly that only you can provide your own happiness. That when you feel pain, you can react in one of two ways: have the intent to learn more about it or have the intent to avoid it. Only one will heal that pain. It's some good stuff as long as you can overlook the "Buy my CD and get a free Sham Wow!" stuff.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:31 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a very competent therapist who is helpful for lots of things, including being able to ask her this kind of question. Some of my troubles in life stem from my own behavior, and that behavior may be habit, or may be the result of the way I grew up and the circumstances of my life. You don't have to be 'mentally ill' to see a therapist. You can be someone who wants coaching and assistance achieving goals, solving problems and gaining personal insights. If you ask a friend, you may hear true things that will always sting. When you see a therapist, the relationship is defined differently. Also, many people experience profound loneliness, even though they have close friends and family.
posted by theora55 at 7:49 AM on July 13, 2013

You may find this blog interesting, it is one of my favorites. It champions the perspective that we are all just human animals trying to overcome the stupidity that often makes us our own worst enemies-- but in a positive and scientific way. For example he has one post where he mentions that to get himself to go jogging in the morning he sleeps in his jogging clothes. I think it's brillant:)

I attempted to quickly find a post that may be relevant to your situation.

Barking up the wrong Tree
"I want to understand why we do what we do and use the answers to be awesome at life."
posted by abirdinthehand at 9:28 AM on July 15, 2013

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