Getting clarity on one real problem is a step forward

How do I help them?” I asked myself aloud as I ended yet another phone call.

I’d been talking to women who experienced controlling and toxic relationships, and I could see how stuck they were. They were brave enough to talk about their past, but I knew having these women verbalize their problems wasn’t the same as helping them solve them.

Telling their story was a great first step, but changing their story was what they desperately needed. I knew my purpose was to help them, but if I was honest with myself, I, too, was missing something. I was tired of getting off the phone and crying to my husband because I couldn’t talk a woman into choosing herself.

After the emotionally-infused conversations with these women, I was going back to a life of peace, comfort, and support. They were going back to a life of chaos, control, and confusion.

I remembered living like that. I remembered never knowing what mood someone was going to be in when I walked in the door or answered the phone. I remember carefully articulating every word I would say, hoping that if I said something the perfect way at the perfect time, it wouldn’t erupt into a fight.

I remember thinking that tomorrow would be better if I just got through today. I remember telling myself it had to get better.

Yet, it didn’t.

So eventually, when I couldn’t make things outside myself better, I decided to make things inside myself better. I stopped focusing on who and what I could not change and started focusing on what I could influence.

I took a real look at my life and saw how bad things had become. Making necessary changes, I cut off one relationship and then another and stopped talking to people who didn’t have ears willing to hear. I found a new tribe and relished in fresh beginnings.

I cut my hair, so when I looked in the mirror I could remind myself that I was different now. I also added my middle initial to my name, so I could remember all the changes I had made when I looked at my driver’s license or wrote a signature. I stood a little taller and smiled at a few more strangers.

I started over.

At first, things got a little better, and then they got a lot better. Eventually, I found them when I asked, “What problem are you trying to solve?” I knew what I had done, and I knew I could now help these women improve their own lives if I could just find the words to get them unstuck.

When I would originally say, “Tell me a bit about your story,” it reminded people of their sorrow. It asked them to remember the things they couldn’t control: the childhood abuse, the destructive faith leader, the boss who was a tyrant, or the lover who was anything and everything other than loving.

When I changed my language and instead asked, “What problem are you trying to solve?” people began to remember they were problem solvers. They fired up the neural pathways that had solved other problems in their lives and started thinking strategically. Victims have a past, but problem solvers have a future.

Asking this question changed everything for those women on the phone, and so it changed everything for me, too.

  • They began looking toward a future rather than retelling a past.
  • They dropped the denial and took a real look at what was going on in the present.

But, what helped the most, was that they were able to face it with a sense of direction. They began to identify it as a problem solver, and we were able to spend the rest of the conversation partnering on solutions rather than lamenting about tragedies.

Asking myself, “What problem are you trying to solve?” has helped me get unstuck in my own life, as well. I used to see my problems as a big clump of spaghetti, interwoven, mixed up, and messy. I couldn’t take action on one problem because that problem was so caught up in my other problems.

Getting clarity on the one real problem I am trying to solve helps me step forward when I am afraid.

It helps me:

  • know what the next right thing is, even if the next right thing is scary
  • get back up when I get knocked down
  • become resilient, and being a resilient problem solver always beats feeling stuck.


*This is from an article Sarah was featured in on UpJourney. See Sarah’s work on UpJourney here.