The Skillful Podcast Episode 60 Problem Solving

#60: Problem Solving

What DBT skill do you use when your emotion fits the facts? One option is to work on changing the facts. The skill of Problem Solving offers a structured framework to help you change situations that cause painful emotions.

Problem Solving begins, like many of the Emotion Regulation skills in DBT, by naming your emotion. Next, identify your goal in solving the problem and come up with a solution to meet your goal. Break the solution down into small steps. Finally, take action. 

Check in with your Wise Mind when using this skill, because Emotion Mind may distort facts or obscure solutions. Practicing this skill can feel like a lot! This episode walks you through each part of this multi-layered skill.

Show Highlights

  • Identify your goal by asking yourself what has to happen in order for you to feel you’ve made progress
  • Brainstorm solutions to help you reach your goal
  • Brainstorming helps you think creatively and get unstuck
  • Pick two solutions from your brainstorming session that look promising
  • Do a Pros and Cons list for each solution to narrow things down further
  • Pick one solution to try first
  • Break down the solution into small, actionable steps
  • Notice if fear, procrastination, or impulsiveness show up when it’s time to take action  
  • Once you’ve taken some action steps, assess your progress and keep going until the problem is solved, or until you feel better about the problem
  • Solving long standing complex problems takes time, perseverance, and patience

DBT Skills Discussed


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Below is an edited version of the transcript of this podcast episode.

DBT Skill: Problem Solving

Hello and welcome to The Skillful Podcast where we explore DBT and RO-DBT skills to help you reduce emotional suffering, improve your relationships, and become more present in your life.

In today’s episode we’re going to talk about the Problem Solving skill in DBT.

We haven’t actually done an episode specifically on this skill, and it’s been interesting to think about it again. In preparing for today, I feel more appreciative of the skill. At times, I find this skill clunky, there’s a lot of steps. But I have a new appreciation and a new way of understanding how useful this skill can be when we have really tricky problems that we don’t know how to resolve.

I really, really appreciate this skill in theory. Applying it can be clunky. 

This skill comes up because when an emotion is justified by the facts, we do need to solve the facts that are causing that emotion. It’s so valuable to have a way to problem solve around things that are making us feel scared, or angry, or shameful, that we don’t need to Opposite Action our way through it. It’s about solving external problems.

This is one of the skills where you don’t usually see an immediate effect, where you might with Opposite Action, or with the TIPP skill where you get a reward relatively quickly, not all the time, but enough of the time to make it reinforcing to use the skill. This skill, especially for long standing complicated problems, you might have to work at it for some time.

What is Problem Solving in DBT? 

Let’s talk about what problem solving is and when exactly to use this skill. I really try to think about it in the Emotion Regulation module. So as a little review here, when we want to manage our emotions effectively, the first thing we want to do is notice what we’re feeling and name what we’re feeling. And then we Check the Facts

That’s the skill that we use to notice what we’re feeling, name it, and then check the facts to recognize what the facts are in a situation, rather than what is actually our interpretation, our judgments, or our assumptions. By checking the facts, we can sort out what parts of this emotion are justified by the facts of the situation.

Here’s an example: I got cut off in traffic and now I feel angry. What parts of this emotion are not justified by the facts? Maybe the assumption that no one ever pays attention to what I need when I’m driving, and it’s always hard for me to have to deal with other people, or whatever kinds of other thoughts might come up. 

Once we’ve checked the facts, then we can notice what we need to do next in order to change this emotion. 

Do I need some Opposite Action? If the emotion isn’t justified by the facts and it’s based on a lot of interpretations, or if it’s not the time to problem solve or act on the emotion right now, we have the skill of Opposite Action to to do the opposite of what the emotion is telling us in order to get a break from the emotion. But when the emotion really is based on the facts of the situation, then we need to do some problem solving to figure out what to do with this emotion. 

When we’re working on change oriented emotion regulation skills in DBT, like Check the Facts, Opposite Action and Problem Solving, we want to make sure that we are in Wise Mind. When our distress level is off the charts, things get distorted. So if your distress level is super, super high, you’ll want to use Distress Tolerance skills first.

If I’m able to Check the Facts, and I’m still feeling strong emotion, I will very often do a short term Opposite Action to get a break and help my level of emotion come down even more. Often if we’re in high emotion, opinions are going to feel like facts, and that’s not helpful. Problem solving leans towards the reasonable or rational mind. It really works that muscle. We need to be in Wise Mind, leaning towards that more reasonable, reasonable, rational part of ourselves to really think things through. 

How Problem Solving works in DBT

The first thing you do when you want to solve the problem is to get really clear and describe to yourself what the problem is. 

What is it about this situation or experience that is a problem for you? When you do this, you want to Check the Facts to make sure you have the right problem and that you’re trying to get rid of judgments or interpretations to end up with whatever is factual. 

For example, if you’re feeling angry, because a neighbor keeps playing their music too loud, and you can hear it, you could write that out factually. A non factual way of thinking about that would be “My neighbor’s such a selfish jerk. They’re always blasting their music, I hate living here,” 

You want to stay away from thinking about the problem non-factually, because it’s going to inflame the emotion. In this situation, when you ask, “What about the situation is a problem?” Your answer is “I can hear my neighbors music, I’m trying to focus, I have work to do, I can’t sleep,” or whatever it might be. 

Then once you have the problem factually described to yourself, and you have checked the facts to sort out your interpretations, (like “My neighbor is a selfish jerk,” Maybe they are, but that’s probably not going to be helpful to solve the problem), you have the problem defined. 

Let’s go back to that example. 

“The problem is my neighbor plays their music really loud at night.” Now that you’ve defined the problem, notice what emotions are coming up for you. Maybe you’re noticing anger, and that anger is justified by those facts. Anger tells us we need to push back, that we need to defend and protect ourselves. 

When we’re acting on high emotion, like this, you might be tempted to go over there and bang on the door and yell at them. That’s probably not going to be so effective, right? Or maybe you’ll be so upset that you decide you’re just going to move. Even if you love where you live, you can’t stand this neighbor anymore. This is also not effective. 

The anger is saying “There’s something going on that needs pushback.” Problem solving comes in to say, “Okay, what kind of pushback? What would be effective pushback?” 

This helps us to act effectively on what the emotion is telling us. 

The first step in acting effectively on our emotion is to set a goal. 

What would be a realistic short term goal that would help you feel like the problem is being solved or at least moving towards a resolution?

If your neighbor is playing loud music at night, it’s a realistic goal to try to solve this problem. Your goal might be, “I want them to stop playing that music late at night at that volume.” 

We’re using a fairly straightforward example right now, just to get people’s heads wrapped around this skill. I just wanted to name that a lot of problems that people bring to the skill of Problem Solving are going to be much more complicated, and more heated, and have a lot of history. We’re just warming up to this skill with this example. 

Once you have a realistic short term goal, the next thing you want to do is brainstorm solutions. 

Brainstorming helps our minds to be free from constraints, and gets us to think creatively.

When we think about brainstorming, we’re using that word, specifically, this idea that rather than just saying come up with a couple of solutions. In this step, brainstorm a bunch of ideas. We want to get unstuck from the stuck thinking that can come with strong emotion. Brainstorm as many solutions as you can come up with, even ideas that are completely impractical that you would probably never do, just to get yourself unstuck from the limited thinking that happens with strong emotion. 

For the music playing neighbor example, here are some ideas to solve the problem: 

  • I can go bang on the door
  • I could move
  • I could complain to the neighbors
  • I could write an email
  • I could talk to someone who’s dealt with this before and get some ideas about what’s worked for them
  • I could file a complaint with the city
  • I could research the laws about noise
  • I’m can learn to play the drums and then open up all my windows and play really loudly

It’s helpful to have some ideas that are pretty wild, because that’s what is going to get us thinking creatively. The wilder ideas, like learning to play the drums to drown out the music, can bring some lightness into something that can feel really heavy and hard. It’s a little bit of Opposite Action, in order to help us take it less seriously. 

For those of us who have had to deal with loud neighbors, it’s really hard, it’s painful, and it feels overwhelming at times. It can be very easy to get stuck in thinking, “Oh, this is so awful.” We want to be able to come up with ideas like “Hmm, maybe I’ll learn to play the drums and show them what loud noises are like.” That way we’re not quite as wedded to the emotions and the thoughts we’ve been experiencing when they are causing us distress.

Once you’ve thought really broadly and expansively about solutions, then you want to think about narrowing down your list of ideas.

Try to pick at least two ideas that look like they are most likely to meet your goals, and that are things that you could actually do. After you brainstorm, you narrow down your options and weed through all the possibilities. Ask yourself: “What can I actually do? What feels manageable? And what do I think will actually help me achieve my goal?”

One of the common DBT approaches that I really appreciate is, rather than picking one option, you pick two, and think about both. This can help us keep ourselves a little bit more open. Continuing the example from earlier, instead of just deciding to write an email, consider that you might write them in the email and you might talk to the city about the laws. 

Once you have your options narrowed down, do a pros and cons chart for each.

This is such a DBT approach. Look at the pros and cons of one option, and the pros and cons of the other option. This helps you get a fuller picture of what the pros and cons are of both of these ideas, and to get a sense of which one seems more effective to start with. We want to be checking in with our Wise Mind around this when you are picking which option to choose or to work on first.

Problem Solving in DBT involves other skills, like the Pros and Cons skill for Distress Tolerance. Thinking through the pros and cons gives you some facts on paper so you can then go back to your emotions and notice which one feels right using your Wise Mind. 

Once you’ve done a pros and cons chart for each option, you can pick one solution to work on.

You’ve thought of a goal, you’ve brainstormed a bunch of ideas, you have narrowed it down to two and done a pros and cons chart, and then you pick between those two. 

The next step is to come up with the steps that would be required to put that option into action so you can move towards actually solving the problem.

You want to break it down, you really want to bite size it. 

Continuing with this example we have, if you decide that you want to talk to your neighbor, you can really break that down. Maybe first, you want to look at your DEAR MAN and write out a DEAR MAN, maybe you want to talk to other people that you trust and ask, “How can I communicate this?”, maybe you want to do some deep breathing, to get yourself really centered and calm before you go and speak to them. So there’s different steps. It’s not just “I want to talk to my neighbor.” Really break down what’s involved in doing this.

I think it is helpful to write out the steps involved, and then put them in an order. Instead of feeling so angry that you don’t know what to do next, doing it this way means you now have a list of steps to take and each of them is small. 

It’s not like Step 1 is to talk to your neighbor, which honestly for me would feel so overwhelming. Instead, it’s more like talk to my friend about talking to my neighbor, do some breathing, then write out a DEAR MAN. It’s much more actionable and doable and we’re more likely to follow through from one step to the next. We’re keeping ourselves in motion towards solving the problem in a manageable way.

I want to talk a little bit about common things that get in the way of us taking action during Problem Solving.

I feel like this is the place where most of us really get stuck. You have a solution, you have an idea you want to carry out, you can even write out all the steps, but then there’s some stalling. It’s not uncommon, in terms of taking action. 

A common reason people get stuck is inertia, where you like you kind of don’t feel like it. You might say “Oh, it’s too hard, I don’t have time.” So you sort of get stuck in that. This can also feel like procrastination.

Another one that might come up is fear – feeling like it’s not going to work or that things are never going to change, or if you try to do this, you’re going to fail and just be embarrassed. 

A third reason that people get stuck with problem solving is impulsiveness. Where you’re like, “Okay, I have the solution, I’m just gonna do it.” So you’re taking action without thinking it through, without going through the steps, without breaking it down. That’s when you feel an urgency to resolve the problem quickly. 

If any of those come up as you think about putting these different steps into actions, there are other skills you can use. If there’s fear, if you’re thinking this won’t work, or that things will never change, or that you’ll be so ashamed if it doesn’t work out, you can do a quick Check the Facts. You can think about Opposite Action. If there’s impulsiveness, you can check in with your distress level. You can say, “Wait a minute, is my distress getting high?” You can bring different skills on board if you get stuck with the action stage.

Once you’re unstuck, then you can start working on those actions that you came up with. 

Try to check in with Wise Mind. Every step of the way, we’re practicing being in Wise Mind, and re-orienting towards Wise Mind instead of being in Emotion Mind and going with the emotion. 

This can be a really valuable way to think things through and come up with actions and start taking those actions. Then you can evaluate: “Did the actions help me meet my short term goal that I set?” 

For instance, to get my neighbor to stop playing music at that volume at night, did you reach your goal? And if not, then you can revisit other options from your brainstorming list. Maybe you need to do a new brainstorming session, or add some steps that I didn’t realize I would need until I started taking the actions. 

What you want to do is just keep going until the problem is solved.

When you take action, and you assess and evaluate, a thing can happen that I think we don’t anticipate. So suppose you go and talk to your neighbor, and maybe you don’t get them to immediately agree to not do this playing the loud music late at night, but maybe you get some information that changes how you feel about it. Maybe you leave thinking, “I’m gonna get some really good earplugs for the time being,” 

You might get new insights or a new understanding as you begin to take action.

You might wind up feeling better about a situation, even if you don’t meet what you had determined to be your ultimate goal, to get someone to stop a certain behavior.

So for instance, you may talk to the neighbor, and the neighbor says, “The reason why I play loud music at night is because I have a child who’s only calmed by loud music.” For me, that would change my perception, like, “Oh, wow, that must be hard to have a child that needs loud music to get calm at night.” Now, instead of being like, shut off your music, consider how do I want to try to help with the situation? In this case it might be that I get earplugs, right? It might be “Hey, maybe we can look at some other alternatives for how you could help your child and we could brainstorm about it.” 

What we’re not doing is saying, “Oh, their child struggles at night and is only calmed by loud music, I have to just adjust to the loud music.” For me, I’m still going to be getting angry when I hear that music. Even if I understand there’s a reason for it, I’m still going to feel angry. So I need to be committed to myself in order to say, “I still need to work for a resolution here, that works for all of us the best we can, rather than just working for you or just working for me.” It’s something that could be ongoing, and that you continue to work on. 

This is a seven step process. Don’t think that you have failed, if you have not solved the problem, or begun to feel you know better about the situation right away. 

Effective problem solving might take multiple tries, with different solutions before you actually either solve the problem, or feel substantially better about it. 

It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not getting it right. This is just the nature of problem solving. Very often, our first attempts don’t completely solve the problem. But hopefully, making some attempt towards trying to solve the problem will hopefully have made things at least a little bit better, or reduce some of those painful emotions even a little bit more. 

This skill really takes time and patience. It’s definitely not a one and done unless you get very lucky. It’s a process that involves focus and time. And I think it can be really, really worth it in the end.

Some skills feel really exciting, and for me, problem solving does not feel exciting. As we’re talking about it now, I’m remembering that I like this skill, that this is really helpful. But when I actually have to do problem solving, usually I wish I didn’t have to do it, and there are so many steps, and so on.

Problem Solving as a skill is a reminder of what we talk about in terms of understanding and managing emotions. And emotions are built into us as human beings to give us information, to communicate to ourselves, to communicate to others. And so problem solving is a reminder that we’re meant to notice our emotions and take action. 

Where we struggle is when we notice our emotions and jump quickly into an action, whether it’s effective or not, and then sometimes regret the action, or the action is inertia and we feel really stuck. Problem Solving is a reminder that if I have an emotion that’s heavily based in facts, I’m gonna have to change those facts in order to feel differently long term. Maybe I can do some Opposite Action or some Distress tolerance short term, but if I want to feel differently long term, I’m going to have to take some actions. 

What I appreciate about Problem Solving is that it helps us balance Emotion Mind with Reasonable Mind, bringing in some facts, bringing logic, bringing ideas, taking it slow, being patient, and being deliberate, with the goal of responding to your emotions, and actually doing what your emotions are telling you that you need to do.

This skill can feel like not an exciting skill, but it’s so useful, and it’s so needed, and it helps take our emotions and make them work for us. 

I try to remind myself “I’m committed to this process, because I want to feel differently or I want to feel better.” Problem Solving gives us a chance to act effectively, to feel good about the way we act effectively, and to actually solve the problems that are causing unwanted emotions. This gives us options to do that. 

I’ve done it, and it does feel really good when I notice an emotion, and I go through the process of trying to take action to solve the problem, and I solve it and I feel different, and I also feel proud. That’s really what we’re trying to hold on to, during the early stages where you’re like, “What am I even feeling and what am I supposed to do about this? And I don’t even know if I want to take any of these options?” Try to hold on to the idea that “I will feel better if I keep at this.”

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