You can’t solve an internal problem by external means.

There are plenty of problems that can only be solved by external means, of course. Our bodies need food. They need hydration. They need vitamins and minerals and sunlight and oxygen. We can only solve those problems by reaching outside of ourselves.

There is a subset of problems, however, that cannot be solved by reaching outside of ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Or, rather, they cannot be consistently, permanently solved by reaching outside of ourselves, anyway.

Anxiety. Depression. Self-disrespect. Self-dishonesty.

There are substances and stimuli outside of us that can temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms of these problems. When we’re feeling lousy, having a sugary snack often feels good. When we’re chasing our tails with anxiety-provoking self-talk, having an alcoholic drink can seem to take the edge off. When we’re feeling sad, getting lost in a movie or a book can numb us a bit.

But there’s a difference between temporary soothing, and actually solving the problems.

A lot of people don’t seem to understand this difference.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s tempting to try to reach outside of ourselves to solve our problems. It’s a seductive fantasy that there is a pill, or a drink, or a book, or a guru, or a possession, or an experience that can solve our problems for us, if only we had access to it.

Imagining there are external solutions to internal problems takes the burden off of us to solve those problems. Which, let’s be honest, is a big deal. These internal problems can seem huge, overwhelming, intimidating. We often feel incredibly small and powerless in the face of these problems.

This is why we indulge this fantasy that there’s something outside of us that can solve them. We already feel like the problem is bigger than us, beyond us; thus we only feel something outside of us, other than us, can solve it.

If only it worked like that.

The fact is, internal problems can only be solved by us.

Only we can make choices that enhance our self-respect.

Only we can make choices that are consistent with our own integrity.

Only we can make changes in our own lives that meet depression and anxiety head on and deal with the central issues involved in them. Even if we take medication to make the symptoms of depression and anxiety less debilitating (and let me be clear: antidepressant and antianxiety medication can literally save lives, and should absolutely be used if they are helpful to you), depression and anxiety remain internal problems, that can only be permanently solved by managing thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions.

Only we can decide, once and for all, that we’re through leaning on the crutch of addictive substances and behaviors.

There are plenty of things outside of us that can help us solve these internal problems. Therapy. Recovery groups and fellowships. Medication. Books. Philosophies. Teachers. Spiritual traditions.

But none of these will solve internal problems for us. They’re tools. No more, no less.

A tool will do literally nothing if not in the hands of a craftsperson who is willing to use it, motivated to use it, who has invested time and attention to learning how to use it, and who understands its limitations.

Hammers and nails don’t build houses. But it’s difficult to build houses without them.

Don’t let the fact that internal problems cannot be solved by reaching outside ourselves keep you from reaching outside yourself for tools to make the task easier.

But also don’t fall into the trap of believing that you can solve an internal problem through external means.

It’s a seductive trap. But it’s an illusion.

You already have what you need to solve those problems within you, anyway.


On the Doc’s wavelength? You’d probably like his Facebook page, where you’ll get quotes from the Doc, links to all his blog posts, and information on his upcoming events; and/or you’d probably dig his weekly email newsletter, which contains highlights of his posts and links to his web content. 

One thought on “Problem solving from the inside out.

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