How to Turn Problems Into Opportunities
Nobody likes dealing with problems, but here are five ways obstacles can reward you with new insight and growth
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), they have a metaphor of Aunt Maggie. Aunt Maggie is the annoying, loud, and obnoxious Aunt, who is secretly very wise. Nobody likes her and everybody tries to ignore her. What do you do when your Aunt Maggie comes to your house? Do you turn the lights off, pull the curtains shut, and act like you are not home? Do you run into the backroom and ignore her knocking at the door?
Or, are you the nicer person that opens the door, welcomes her in, but subtly tries to get her out after 30-45 minutes? You don’t want to be mean, but you have things to do. You listen to her, but also hint pretty strongly that it is time for her to go.
You might be a more enlightened person. Maybe you open the door, invite her in, make a cup of tea, feed her some cookies, sink into your chair, and deeply listen to what she says. If you are this kind of person, then you are very rare, because nobody willingly engages with Aunt Maggie in this way. She really is annoying. However, the insightful souls that do take the time to spend with her are blessed with a special gift for enduring the conversation. In the end, she opens your hand and gives you a special gift. It might be a kernel of truth, it could be the discovery of strength or talent, maybe an insight, tip, or new way of seeing things. By the end of the conversation, you are exhausted. You are drained, but you are also enlightened. She managed to give you tailored feedback that is very relevant to the issue you are facing.
She. Is. Just. That. Good.
Aunt Maggie is, of course, a metaphor for the problems we encounter in life. We like to hide in the back room when problems come knocking at our door. We try to avoid the pain by ignoring them. When they are unrelenting, we try to listen for as little time as possible to get back to our life. All of these strategies keep us from the deep lessons that life is trying to teach us.
One, problems break down denial. At some point, the problems become so significant that we can no longer ignore them. In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this hitting bottom. If it weren’t for them overwhelming our ability to avoid them, many of us would stay stuck in a bad situation for the remainder of our lives. Problems force us to change.
Two, problems break you out of distraction systems. They refuse to leave you alone. Like Aunt Maggie, they will hang out on your porch and knock and knock and knock on your door. You may want to watch a movie. Fine. As soon as it is done, they are knocking again. You may want to get lost on a social network, no problem but the problems will continue to knock. You may want to avoid them by working hard all day or focusing on your studies. No problem. When it is time to sleep, they’ll be patiently waiting for you. They will not let your mind rest until you have dealt with them.
Three, and this may be the most important, problems teach you to ask for help. They teach you humility. Most significant problems cannot be solved on your own. They require you to talk to someone. They require you to be vulnerable. Problems teach you that being alone is not an option. We are social creatures and we need one another to get through this life. We are all in this together.
Four, problems help you level up. Yes, this is video game language. I see life kind of like a video game. Problems come bouncing towards you. They pop and open up a puzzle. If you solve the puzzle, then you unlock the key or the next clue you need in life. If you don’t solve the puzzle, then life will keep bouncing the same problem bubble your way. It may look slightly different, but it’ll essentially be the same problem. You’ll need to solve it in order to move forward. Solving problems changes you. It helps you realize that you are stronger than you realized.
Five, problems teach you to open up and care, from your heart, for other people. I have found that people who have been through a lot in life tend to be people that provide the most love and support to other people. when you are isolated and not touched by pain, it is easy to keep going with life without paying too much attention to other people. Many people do indeed care, but they are compelled to care on a deeper level once they have faced their own pain and worked through their problems. In an emotional sense, they’ve walked down that path, so they have a visceral understanding of what another person is going through. Now, it is deeply meaningful to be part of the solution in someone else’s life. Problems teach you compassion like nothing else does.
We do not grow as individuals, as a family, or as a society, when things are easy and humming along. We grow when we face and work through our problems.
Problems are like little, disguised gold nuggets. Nobody likes dealing with problems because they are painful. However, when you do focus on them – open to them, accept them, and solve them – you are rewarded with new insight and growth.
-- An excerpt from my book, 7 Cups for the Searching Soul, free download here.