Are You Anxious or Frustrated?

“A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” — Charles Kettering

“If I were given one hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.” — Albert Einstein

The same thing is true with our emotions. The more clearly we can define the “problem,” the easier it is for us to find a solution.

The word problem is in quotation marks above because, most of the time, emotions themselves aren’t the problem. Something else is. Emotions are just clues that tell us where to look.

The more clearly we can define our emotions, the easier it is for us to figure out how to solve whatever the problem is.

On the surface, that sounds easy. However, we are really really bad at clearly defining our emotions. It is outside of the scope of a single blog post to fully articulate just how bad we are at this, but suffice it to say that this is a huge struggle for just about anybody living anywhere in the western world today.

There are cultural, linguistic and philosophical aspects at play that most of us are never even aware of. For example, how much time did you spend in school being trained in mathematics? Probably a lot. We start with arithmetic. Eventually we move to algebra, geometry and then some of us on to calculus and beyond.

Now, how much time did you spend being trained in emotional awareness? Anything? Maybe an English class there or an art class there. But those tend to be the exception, not the rule. (As an aside, this is why most of us are so moved by films like Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus and School of Rock. They satiate the part of us that knows we need help learning.)

As a result, most of us head into adult life with 10 years of practice in solving for X, but considerably less experience defining or describing that odd sensation we got in our stomach when our staff meeting didn’t go as expected.

To describe those uncomfortable feelings, two of the words we gravitate towards most often are “anxious” and “frustrated.” In order to better “define the problem,” I occasionally play a game with clients in my office: we outlaw the use of those two words during our sessions. We often use those two words as broad descriptions instead of clear definitions. By outlawing their use, we force ourselves to be more specific in defining what we’re feeling. And by better defining the “problem” we find ourselves closer to a solution.


Eric McClerren, LAPC

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