09/24/2014 03:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Spot a Real Problem

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Think about a problem you have in your life.

Now ask yourself this:

Would this problem still exist if I stopped thinking about it?

That's a surprisingly subtle question, so let me ask it again in slightly different words:

If you never gave this problem another thought, would it go away or would it get worse?

For example, even if I'm not thinking about what's going on with the environment in any given moment, there are clearly still things to be done to create and maintain sustainability. And if everyone decided to just "not think about it" in some warped attempt at "positive thinking," the consequences for the planet would be dire.

This is like the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Daffy Duck is desperately trying to get back inside the house he's sharing with Bugs to avoid having to fly south for the winter. He's pounding on the window trying to get Bugs' attention when our heroic bunny turns to the camera and says "I can't stand to see the poor guy suffer" -- and then reaches over and lowers the blind so he won't have to. Our lack of thought about real problems doesn't affect the situation so much as it provides us with temporary relief from our experience of that situation.

In this sense, hoping a real problem will go away by not thinking about it is a relatively naive avoidance tactic. It's what children do when they close their eyes to hide, convinced that if they can't see you, you can't see them. Life just doesn't work that way, and if you keep trying to hide your head in the sand, your butt will be sticking up so high in the air that something (or someone) is bound to smack into it.

But I have found in my private practice that the vast majority of the problems that occupy our thoughts and energy wouldn't even exist if we didn't give so much energy to our thoughts about them. They are illusory in nature -- nothing more than tricks of the mind.

If I'm worrying about "my lack of self-esteem and how it might impact my ability to attract a partner," and I just stop worrying about it, nothing bad happens. In fact, without all that self-obsessive worrying, the odds of someone I like finding me attractive will start to increase.

We can't feel guilt without thought. We can't experience shame, or low self-esteem, or a lack of confidence. With examples like these, we're not trying to avoid our problems by not thinking about them -- we're recognizing that if it wasn't for our thinking, there wouldn't be a problem.

Here's a good rule of thumb:

Real problems get worse if you don't think about them; the illusory problems of the mind just disappear.

So what's the best way to spot the difference between a real problem and an imaginary one?

A real problem has a solution.

If you want to make the world a better place, there are plenty of actions you can take and there are plenty of things to be done. But for many of us, when we look at what's going on in the world we feel bad about ourselves instead of the situation.

We say "if only I could do more," and then look on in horror as we do nothing. Forgive yourself. Please. It's hard to see what to do when you're looking out into the world through a lens of perception that's been scratched by your own suffering.

And that's perhaps the hardest thing of all to see -- that but for our thinking, we wouldn't suffer. Without suffering, we would experience clear vision. In the clarity of our vision, we would experience compassion for the pain and suffering of others. And the actions that we took from our own clarity and compassion would be more than enough to make the world a better place.

With all my love,


For more by Michael Neill, click here.