What’s the real problem here?

This morning I was reflecting on how easy it is to point to one thing, a specific instance, a behaviour, a person, or force as being “the problem”. But when you ask why, how, and go deeper, it’s often something else. Something broader. Sometimes it’s a weird dynamic of things. Potentially something more complex.

Going deeper might seem too hard. But staying on the surface can turn into a Sisyphean task. A misdirection of attention and effort. We’ve all had the experience of this, where just as one fire is extinguished another one pops up. Like the myth of the Hydra beast with multiple heads, you cut one off and two grow back. How do you kill the beast? You go for the heart.

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It makes me think of the trope of the long suffering couple that argue all the time about petty things. Angry attempts to control, negotiate details and terms. But it’s not about the things. It’s really about some unresolved sadness from long ago, that’s gone underground. It’s about grasping for emotional closeness and attention, that neither feels they can ask for.

It makes me think of how I got so angry with my friend last year, for always being late and regularly checking their phone whenever we were catching up. But really, I was hurt because I saw these things as evidence that they didn’t respect and value me and my time.

It makes me think the situation where people are envious and critical of other people’s success, when secretly they dream of that success for themselves, but worry that if they put themselves out there and try, they might fail.

It makes me think of how I was so annoyed with a housemate— very specifically — for never buying toilet paper. When really the issue was that I was carrying the broader domestic and emotional load in our household, but was too scared to bring it up, for fear of seeming uptight and controlling.

This question of “what’s the real problem here?” it on my mind right now, because yesterday I experienced a cascade of issues, irritations and disappointments at work. Eventually I realised that underlying all of that, causing the biggest issue of all, was my own poor mental health. I was not “ok”. My body and brain felt like they were on fire. So of course everything was hard. I was seeing problems where there weren’t even problems. And everything felt like an avalanche of shit.

Sometimes this not being “ok” unexpectedly happens to me. I use up, or somehow lose all my spoons. I lose my ability to self-regulate and mindfully process difficult interactions and emotions, and can’t function “normally”.

It still takes me a while to admit this. Because I feel disappointment and shame when I’m not “ok”. I like to think I am courageous. I like to tell myself “I can do hard things”, I like to think of myself as resilient, that I can be “comfortable being uncomfortable”, be flexible, and be a bigger person. But sometimes I can’t. In admitting I was not “ok” yesterday I was eventually able to let go of the irritations, have more self compassion and acknowledge that I did my best given the circumstances. And that provided some comfort.

Recently I had an amusing — in hindsight — misunderstanding with a friend, that blew up into tense and confusing situation. It felt prickly and unresolvable. But when they realised they hadn’t slept, or eaten all day. As soon as they ate and had a little nap, the pressure was off and we were able to resolve things.

It makes me wonder how often being hangry, tired and thirsty are the true culprits behind many problems. Luckily they’re easily fixed.

The question of “what’s the real problem here?” is always worth asking. Sometimes it’s a matter of checking in with yourself and asking, “how do I really feel and why?”, “what’s really at play here” or perhaps “what am I not being honest with myself about?” And for more complex interpersonal issues, you may need to initiate vulnerable conversations to uncover and address things.

Going deeper can be time consuming and confronting. But in my experience it’s incredibly helpful. Sometimes simply acknowledging a deeper hurt or issue helps diffuse minor annoyances. They lose their “juice” and stop bothering you so much. Addressing the deeper problems helps resolve surface issues. Because, how do you kill the beast? You go for the heart.

Written by

I’m an award-winning comic artist, writer and graphic recorder. All words + images © Sarah Firth. Contact me www.sarahthefirth if you want to use them.

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