How can I tell if my problem is really a problem?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the patriarchy likes to force problems on people where none actually exist.  (By people, of course, I mean women and minorities mainly.  That’s kind of patriarchy’s thing.  White guys get fewer “damned if you do/don’t” manufactured problems.)

The internet is full of this kind of thing.  So we thought we’d give a tutorial with some examples.

“How can I tell if my parenting problem is really a problem?”

An excellent question.  Because sometimes your problem is a real problem that needs a solution, and sometimes your problem only seems like a problem because that’s what the patriarchy wants you to think, because if you’re busy worrying about something that’s not actually important, you’ll have less time to say, fight the patriarchy.  Bonus points if you get other people worried too. Answering that question is really simple in theory, though perhaps not as simple in practice– try it out and say what you think.

Step 1:  Notice that you think there might be a problem but (important!) realize that there may not actually be a problem… it’s possible that that’s just what they *want* you to think.  (“They” being the patriarchy, of course.)  This is probably the hardest step, and it might be one that you want to go through each time you’re irritated or worried, just in case it’s just the patriarchy messing with you and you can then attack the patriarchy rather than the perceived problem.

Step 2.  Ask yourself,  Is this really a problem? What makes it a problem? Why do I think it’s a problem? Here’s where you go… what are the consequences, is this actually hurting anything, do I just think it’s a problem because of culture or because someone told me it’s a problem even though nothing is actually being hurt?  Or are there real consequences?

Step 3.  Ask again, if this is actually a problem, is there a different underlying root problem.  (Crucial Conversations suggests something similar.)  Sometimes the problem you see is really just a symptom of an underlying deeper problem, and fixing the symptom is just a band-aid solution to a larger issue that needs addressing.
Here are some examples:

Biting at daycare is a problem because 1. If a kid does it too much they get kicked out and 2. Biting hurts people and we have an underlying belief that we shouldn’t hurt people that we would like to impart to our kids.  3.  Why is DC2 biting?  Is the actual problem that the kids are not being taught conflict resolution and ze’s constantly getting stuff grabbed from hir?

Sleep “issues” are a problem if A. the kid is grumpy from not getting enough sleep or  B. Mom and dad would like more quiet time (or more sleep). They are not a problem because C. Everybody else’s kid seems to sleep more or go to bed earlier so I must be doing something wrong or there’s something wrong with my kid. But many people complain about C without A being an issue at all and while simultaneously complaining that dad never gets to see the kid because the kid goes to sleep too early. If C is the only reason, then it is a non-issue. But it’s a non-issue that a lot of parents have (because most kids aren’t exactly average), so they commiserate in the comments and it builds as something that seems like it should be an issue. Complaining about sleep problems that aren’t real problems becomes the normal. Being anxious is the normal.  It doesn’t have to be.

So that’s our quick guide.  Do you have any examples you’d like to share?  What kinds of problems have you discovered were actually not problems at all?  When have you found that the superficial problem is actually masking a deeper issue?

18 Responses to “How can I tell if my problem is really a problem?”

  1. Ahlia Says:

    I thought this was an excellent post. I like even more that the thought process and questioning can be applied to broader “problems” and worries that we’re faced with in day-to-day life. Thanks!

  2. chacha1 Says:

    After 25 years working in law offices, I can report that I *repeatedly* see my colleagues reacting to the job itself as if it’s a problem.

    I mean, you interview for a job, you get an offer, you go through comprehensive training, you get through the probation period … by the time you are done with all that, you really ought to know What The Job Actually Is, right? But I see people who have been doing it longer than I have who repeatedly get all bent because they are being asked to do something. They think it’s a problem because maybe it’s a new procedure or a new application or a new attorney or a new copy machine or whatever the hell. But it’s all PART OF THE JOB. Once you’re in the job, your job is to do what you are asked to do, full stop.

    In the rare circumstance that you truly are being asked to do something which it would be improper (on any level) for you to do, then you have HR and grievance committees and managing partners etc. That kind of request is not actually *your* problem, it is the *firm’s* problem, and should be punted to them immediately.

    If the real problem is that you just don’t want to do what you are asked to do, then leave. Otherwise, for the love of puppies, STFU.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oddly the guy on the top 40 station this morning was complaining about the same thing in his office! He was blaming Gen Y, but I’m willing to bet it is more endemic.

    • Leah Says:

      I had an office manager at a job once who thought nothing of asking me to answer the phones and bristled if I asked her to make a copy. I was teaching for them, btw. She sat at the main desk all day. Granted, she also did the books . . . but she also sat there a lot to just field questions.

      Never was clear in that job what the separation of responsibilities should be. But I was always frustrated that I had to answer phones when she was clearly there and just decided she was sick of answer phones. On days she was gone, my job was to sit at her desk (low man on the totem pole and all that), so I obviously answered phones sometimes, but that truly wasn’t the job I was hired for.

      • chacha1 Says:

        most office jobs contain job-description phrases such as “and other duties as assigned.” :-) The way I see it, if your supervisor asks you to do something in Y circumstances that you have in fact been trained to do and which you do in fact do in X circumstances, then odds are your supervisor considers that task part of your job description. the only way to solve that “problem” is to renegotiate.

        now, if what you are describing is an office manager who is NOT your supervisor who is asking you to do tasks that either should be performed by said manager or by someone who reports to her directly, then what you have is a management problem, not a personal problem.

  3. Katherine Says:

    A related question, assuming the answer to “Is my problem a problem” is “yes,” is “how urgent is my problem?” When I started teaching, I felt like certain problems (e.g. a group of students turned in identical problem sets) demanded some sort of action immediately. On later reflection, I could have handled the situation better if I had taken a step back, gotten more advice, and thought about what the best reaction would be.

    I’m trying to apply this principle in non-teaching areas of my life, too.

    • Leah Says:

      Yes! I’ve also decided to let things go sometimes, figuring that natural consequences will take care of the issue. One of my students skipped my mandatory review day the other day (our class only meets 2 out of 5 days a week, but I can call them in on other days — they don’t have any conflicts during that time). I could punish her . . . or I could just wait for her to not know the material I covered yesterday. I think the final grade will do more than me writing a demerit will.

      • bogart Says:

        This was my general experience with granting extensions when teaching. Students who deserved extensions (genuine health problem, e.g.), got past the problem and did the work well, and got the credit (and the extension) they deserved. Students who did not deserve the extension (but got it anyway) did not get past the problem (which was their unwillingness and/or inability to manage their time effectively), did not do the work or did not do it well, and, well, they also got the credit they deserved, i.e., none (or a bad grade).

      • Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

        Oh, wise words here! Assessing the urgency of real problems is something I struggle with also, but I’m getting some good practice in New Job Land… I’m dealing with a PITA coworker who is 100% not pulling zir weight with respect to shared responsibilities (stocking supplies, mentoring a student who is in the lab for a couple of months, etc.), which is a big problem since there are only 2 of us in this research group. Yes, this is an immediate problem and has affected the quality of my own work because my time is taken up by other things frequently, and because I sometimes find myself unable to do my work because we are missing something that we had plenty of yesterday. But, ze also seems to be routinely disappointing The Boss, who has voiced frustrations to me about this person’s inability to complete things in a timely manner or complete them correctly, mostly because it’s not clear what this person does all day at work. I realized over a glass (or two) of wine last night that perhaps ze doesn’t need my help in demonstrating lack of competence–if I’m patient, this will become very apparent to The Boss and will hopefully be remedied accordingly…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        There was a bully of a secretary that I waited out like that– eventually she bullied someone who was able to fire her! (Well, she quit first, and in a blaze of email invective glory.)

  4. Cloud Says:

    Good post!

    I think the issues around kids and eating are another example, similar to sleep. A kid who doesn’t eat a lot of things may or my not be a problem, depending on whether or not the kid is getting adequate nutrition and whether or not the family can find a way to accommodate that works for everyone.

    I’d also add: sometimes, if you try too hard to fix a “problem” that isn’t really a problem, you’ll end up creating an actual problem. I suspect this happens a lot in eating: huge effort to “fix” a kid whose eating is quirky but not unhealthy, then kid gets weird and stressful associations with food, and later has genuine problems relating to food.

    I say all this and freely admit I struggle to find the right line on things like sleep and food for my kids! I think I’m good now, but there was a period of time where I definitely worried too much about both.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Absolutely! My friend in college who got scurvy (and thrush) his freshman year– his eating problem was actually a problem. Most little kids, not so much.

      I remember you worrying too much! Your kids are totally healthy and what other people watching them eat think is irrelevant.

    • bogart Says:

      @Cloud I like your general rule on this topic, which (I may be paraphrasing badly, but this is how I remember it) runs something like, “If solving the problem is more effort/makes you more unhappy than does the problem itself — then the problem is not a problem.”

  5. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I think manufactured problems happen a lot when you’re a parent. Other people see “problems” with your kids that you see more as a stage they are going through. My oldest daughter only eats about ten things right now, and people always tell me they are worried. But she is extremely healthy and energetic- I think she will grow out of it so I’m not doing anything about it right now.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The problem is when you (not you you, but you know, the general “you”) believe other people instead of seeing it as just a stage! If the kid isn’t healthy and energetic, then it’s a problem, if ze is, then what’s the problem! (Being a short-order cook, I would argue, could also pose a problem, but our solution there is just to always have an acceptable no-effort food on hand, like bananas, if the kids don’t want to eat something, and DC1 is free to make hirself something.)

  6. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Taken to the extreme you find people like my parents. They experience life as an ongoing shit-show parade of disappointment and misery, but they thoroughly and systematically misattribute the causes of this emotional shit-show, thus completely preventing any possible improvement in their lives. If only they could perceive the real reasons their lives are how they are, they are in possession of abundant resources to immediately and easily rectify it all. It’s tragic.

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