Sometimes you can think that a problem you are having or the emotional pain you're experiencing is a symptom of some kind of psychological problem. But more often than not, what you're experiencing is part of the natural challenges of life.
I don't mean to say that psychological problems are just some sort of imaginary fiction. There are clearly symptoms such as bipolar disorder or psychosis or, in some people who we call psychopaths, a lack of conscience. There is also depression, anxiety, trauma and a whole host of other troubles that people really suffer from.
I am not disputing the true suffering of anybody; there is nothing funny or trivial about psychological troubles and it is well worth getting help if you are suffering from any of these.
But it can be extremely helpful to understand that certain troubles make perfect sense and do not reflect any underlying psychological problems. Understanding and accepting this can hold the key to more easily overcoming such troubles.
Let's look at some truths about human nature that can make sense out of a whole host of problems. In doing so we can also see how being aware of what's really going on can remove some of the ominous mystery of many personal problems or frustrations:
1) We develop habits, and we stick with them. Though we talk about change as a good thing, we really don't like to change very much. We much prefer to stay with what we know. This varies from person to person – some people really enjoy novelty and actively seek out new experiences and new people. But even those on the more adventurous end of the scale have their routines and their habits. These help to define a person, to give us a sense of who we are.
2) We get good at what we practice. Whatever you spend a lot of time doing is what you will do well, and that is what you will tend to spend more of your time doing. If what you do brings pain and trouble, you will have a lot of pain and trouble. If what you do brings a lot of joy, love and satisfaction, you will have a lot of joy, love and satisfaction. We are capable of changing these habits and replacing them with better ones but it takes a lot of work and it's not the kind of work that most people do very well.
Ask any dental hygienist how easy it is to get their patients who have not flossed to start flossing as a regular habit. Ask any doctor how easy it is to get their patients who smoke to stop smoking.
Changing habits is possible. People do it all the time. But it is not easy. It requires willpower, and willpower takes energy that gets used up. If you try to change too much all at once you're likely to burn out – this is why so many diets fail; they're based on a degree of change that's unsustainable. So if you're trying to make big changes in your life and you're finding it hard to do, there's nothing wrong with you – that's what it takes to change.
3) We come into the world with unique temperament styles and how much we can change them is limited. Much of the misunderstanding between couples, parents and children, friends and co-workers is rooted in these differences in temperament styles. While we all share the same objective reality, everybody's internal experience is different.
For example: One person may have stronger emotions than another; one person may have a greater need for physical activity than another; one person may be less interested in novelty than another. None of these represent anything that is broken or unhealthy. They are just differences stemming from our biology and our individual sense of self, and they are present from birth.
But imagine two people in a marriage, one who likes novelty and the other who does not. They share the same objective reality; they do not share the same experience. When two people expect that they should have the same experience and find that they don't it's easy for one to think that there's something wrong with the other – but there's nothing wrong; it's just a difference in temperament.
By understanding and accepting that you can get to know each other better and, paradoxically, that can be the best way for you both to broaden your experience beyond your natural temperament. Positive emotional experiences tend to allow people to broaden and build their abilities. Negative emotional experience – like harsh personal criticism – tends to do the opposite.
4) We like to have something to do that we're good at, something that in the doing of it we can feel effective and useful. When we don't have that we can feel empty, helpless and/or depressed. You're not broken if you feel that way; you just need to practice doing things that you can get good at over time.
5) We like to have people in our lives who we care about, who care about us and with whom we can feel a sense of trust and continuity. We are meant to live with other people, have relationships with other people, and care about other people and we need to feel this reciprocated. Without this, we naturally can feel lonely, awkward and sad. You're not broken if you feel this way; you just need to find a way to have more good people in your life.
6) We need a certain degree of hardship and challenge in order to bring out our very best. But if we're comfortable we don't readily move to make things harder. If you're trying to become more successful at something you will be working against a kind of inertia toward the comfort you enjoy. That you have to work against that inertia is not a psychological problem; it is natural, and to be expected as part of the challenge of success.
7) We get used to our lives, and we come to take the good things very much for granted. We tend to think that the good things in life will stay constant, while the new things will just add to what's already good. When you imagine making a change for the better in your life it can be easy to ignore the fact that such a change also may decrease the current very good things in your life.
You may know this on some level, and that can be the source of reluctance or "self-sabotage." By looking clearly at what the real costs of the proposed changes could be you can accept yourself more, understand your true reluctance and then decide whether or not that change is really worth it.
For example, you may want to make a lot more money and you may be working hard to grow a business in order to do that. But you may also really enjoy your time with your family, and the tremendous time and energy it takes to start a business will likely be taking you away from your family to some degree.
Without understanding the tremendous good that you'll be giving up for the potential extra money, your reluctance, or the things that "seem to keep going wrong somehow," might seem like some big psychological trouble. But it's not. In fact, it's completely natural. Once you can see clearly what you are trading for the new path the challenge becomes how to preserve enough of what's already good while growing the new things you want to add.
These are some examples of psychological problems that are not really psychological problems. They are completely normal, predictable challenges of life. Labeling them as pathology only serves to drive in a deeper level of worry because now it becomes a matter of personal or psychological deficit, and the focus turns to your problems rather than the solutions.
You may have troubles that are truly psychological or emotional in nature and it's well worth getting the help you need for those. But it's much more likely that what you're wrestling with right now has more to do with your circumstances and very natural human conflicts.
If you're feeling troubled, take an honest look at what's true – it can help to have some perspective from somebody else on this like an objective friend, mentor or coach. You may find that a change in perspective can solve a lot of what's troubling you.
You may be hurt, because life hurts. But that doesn't mean that you're broken.