Socrates famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I used to imagine that these deep and meaningful words were only part of the story. I fantasised that, in the millennia since he spoke the lines attributed to him (somebody else wrote them down, apparently), part of the text had been lost, and that he had originally completed this pithy aphorism with “…and neither is the examined one”. Things must have been tough in ancient Greece, after all.
We get his drift. In order to achieve a sense of fulfilment and contentment with life, we have to accept that it is a long learning process, one that provides opportunities for growth to those who choose to embrace it. For those who don’t, it is just not worth living. Had we inherited the full (admittedly fictitious) version, there’d be no point. The first statement is cancelled out by the second.
Whatever your point of view – and whether you choose to believe it or not – it seems to be a given that self-knowledge and contentment go hand-in-hand. Whether you turn for spiritual guidance to something outside yourself, or you are lucky enough to have an inner well of inherited wisdom to draw on, personal growth comes at a cost; it requires commitment and tenacity to relinquish the delusions and falsehoods that will otherwise hold us back.
For those who choose therapy, there is also a financial cost, just how much depends on the route you choose (see my post, Brief Therapy vs Counselling). On the other hand, there is a lot you can do yourself. You too can have an ‘examined life’, and it’s as simple as being curious about what that means. Here are some books to get you started. Two are classics and the third deserves to be.
The Road Less Travelled
The classic crash course in waking up to the facts of life we’d often rather ignore. Sacred cows and delusion are swept aside to prepare the way for understanding ourselves and how we function in the world, our relationships and all the rest. This comes into the ‘oldie but goodie’ category. There’s a strong probability that less you like it the more you need it, but hey, you’ll find plenty of reasons to discard it if you don’t like the effect it has on you.
The Feeling Good Handbook
Moods, emotions and unwanted feelings are all manageable if you follow the step-by-step exercises. Good stuff and practical too. Ignore the icky cover and the publisher’s hyperbole on the back and focus on the 580 pages in between.
Single Session Solutions
If you are not so keen on DIY, that’ll help you clarify your thinking in your quest to find a sympathetic and manageable therapist. The author – the researcher and psychologist who coined the term in the title – explains how, in therapy, less is often more effective. Written to help readers make informed choices before deciding on therapy, it’ll also open your eyes to how much you could fix for yourself.
What is the problem you are hoping to solve?
A lot of people come to me because they haven’t yet worked out what it is they want to change. A good starting point is to ask yourself “What is the problem I’m trying to solve?”
Try writing it out, preferably longhand. You’ll find your mind works differently during the process. It will help you think more clearly about your situation. Aim to write a couple of paragraphs, then condense it to the essential point you want to make – the problem you are hoping to solve.
How would it be if the problem disappeared?
You can make this question even more powerful by asking yourself “How will it be when the problem has disappeared?”
To answer, you have to imagine that you wake up one morning and the problem has gone. To be effective, you really have – in your imagination – to create a space where you can think and feel as you would if the problem no longer exists.
What will tell you things have changed? How would you find out that the problem has gone? Most importantly, what will you be doing now you are in a problem-free state of mind?
Have you considered ‘Life after’?
No, I don’t mean the after-life. I mean have you thought about how your life could be after the problem has gone away for good?
A powerful strategy is to visualise yourself in your post-problem life. What will you be doing? How will you feel? How will others see you? What change would your family see in you? As with the last question, the better the image you manage to create for yourself the more powerful it becomes.
Is it your problem to solve?
It’s easy to assume responsibility for a problem when really it’s not yours to sort out. For example, if two friends or family members are in conflict, only they can find a way forward. Trying to do it for them will just wear you out.
Equally, if you are trying single-handedly to fix your own, ailing relationship, that’s not right either. A relationship is the responsibility of both partners. If you shoulder the burden you just hide the problem. If that works for you, fine, but long-term is the best you can do?
What if you can’t solve the problem?
Seriously, ask yourself this. Many of life’s difficulties simply go away over time. Focussing on them only keeps them alive for longer. Other problems can’t be resolved (it’s said that 69% of the things that couples argue about have no solution). Learning to compromise or work around the challenges are important life-skills, so practice on the problem that won’t go away.
What if you just stop worrying?
Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. It may be difficult to stop the worry (you’ll find guidance here to help you), but when you do you’ll begin to build your resilience and get on with your life.
As you go through these questions take your time to reflect on them. If any are difficult for you to answer, move on to the others. Problem-solving is about thinking creatively, using a changed mindset. These questions are designed to facilitate that change.
Problems and challenges are part of life. It’s not our difficulties that define us, but how we deal with them. These questions can help you loosen up your thinking and become more flexible in how you approach a challenge.
I’m always here
If you’d like to discuss this topic with me, you can use the form below and we can set up a Skype chat. Talking it through is often all it takes to generate a solution or find your way forward. The first conversation is free.