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Got a Problem?


*First a little disclaimer note on Problem Solving. If you are just reading this post without knowing other DBT skills, it could seem oversimplified. In DBT, we offer lots of validation (your experience makes sense in some way) before we get into problem solving. One of the reasons traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was not as successful with folks with high levels of emotion dysregulation was that it was almost exclusively focused on change, on solving the problem. In DBT, we try to make sure to spend time in figuring out how a person's responses to a problem make sense in the current context. This is a post about the Problem Solving Skill. Posts on validation are coming down the line. The post from 2/13/23 has a bit on validation in it as well.


Now onto the skill.

Here’s a great skill that seems quite boring on the surface to me. I mean, problem solving, I’ve learned steps for problem solving many times over my life. There’s nothing new here to me, so my tendency is to say, “Yeah, I know that already.” Except, I don’t necessarily use the skill or use all the steps, so do I REALLY know it already?


Maybe you are like that too? Maybe your, ‘I know that already,’ is about something else. Anyway, back to Problem Solving.


When our emotions jump up at us, they don’t fit our current situation, or they are too intense for the situation, then we will want to look at the set of skills for changing emotions. This skill is in the Emotion Regulation section, so here we are looking at changing an emotion through Problem Solving.


Problem Solving in DBT has 7 steps, so let’s wander through those steps now. Step 1 is to figure out and describe the problem situation. So, we have to be able to notice that we are in a spot where some problem solving is needed. Before I can figure out and describe the situation, I’m going to have to notice that I’m in a situation to begin with. For that part, we might need to pull out Wise Mind, or STOP, or a crisis survival strategy. Or maybe you are able to notice the situation intuitively without doing another skill on purpose.


We have to be able to use the describe skill to make sure we are using observable descriptions and not relying on judgments. (The description cannot be that, “that person is an idiot” or other similar judgment.) Once you’ve written down the situation, check to make sure that you have all the facts and the correct situation. You will need to make sure that you have control in the situation, that you can actually do something that could solve the problem. If you wander through this part and realize that you don’t have all the facts or that you are using judgment, just pop back up to step 1 and try again.


If you do have the facts correct, then you are ready to move on to step 3. Identify your goal in the situation. In my experience, this can be difficult, especially if we have an interpersonal problem. What is my goal for that relationship? It is super important to identify a goal that can actually happen. The goal cannot be that we want someone else to do something. A goal could be to express what we would like to see happen.


The next step is to brainstorm a bunch of solutions. There are no stupid ideas. Just list as many possible solutions as you can. Enlist someone else to help brainstorm if you have problems here.


Once you have a list, select the solution or solutions you think are most likely to work. If you have difficulties deciding, select a couple of solutions.


Then, put a solution into action. Try it out and see what happens. If it works, that’s fantastic. If it doesn’t work, then select the next possibility and put that into action. Keep going until you put a solution into action that works.


So, I have a problem. It’s quite solvable. And I’ve avoided it for days. I did not even realize that I was avoiding it until this morning. I am behind on several things for work. I have 3-4 emails that need written. I have 12 or so progress notes from sessions that must be done for us to bill anything. I have a group that I need to prepare for coming up in a few hours. And, I don’t really want to do any of that. So the problem is that I have a to do list of items needing to be done today and I do not want to do any of them.


I don’t think the problem is the list of things. The problem is that I do not want to do them and am having urges to avoid those things. It’s important in this process to really figure out what the problem that needs solving actually is. If I latched onto the list as the problem, I may put together solutions that don’t actually get me where I need to go.


Those are the facts of the situation as I see it. I’ll find out when I put my solutions into action whether I really have the accurate problem or not. I think I’ve assessed it pretty well, so we’ll see.


Now, the brainstorming. I’m tempted to say, “Well, just do it all,” but that actually does not address the problem situation as I’ve formulated it. That has a high likelihood of having me look at the list of things to do, get a bit overwhelmed, and go play on my phone or some other avoidance activity.


Practice willingness. Go through the steps for Radical Acceptance. Distract myself for a few minutes and come back. Use Opposite to Emotion Action to tackle the list. Use Cheerleading to tell myself I can do this.


As I look over this list, I think practicing Willingness is probably my best bet here. The others may work for you, and there are more barriers for me with those skills. If I try distract, it will likely become avoid and I’ll just keep distracting. If I try cheerleading, I’m likely to judge that as being a bit ridiculous. If I jump to Opposite to Emotion Action, I’m likely to fight that in that state I find myself at the moment.


So I’ve brainstormed and picked my most likely option. Now, It’s time to put it into practice.

Here are the steps, taken from the DBT handout by Linehan (2015), for Willingness:

Willingness, Step by Step

1. Observe the willfulness. Label it. Experience it.

2. Radically accept that at this moment you feel (and may be

acting) willful. You cannot fight willfulness with willfulness.

3. Turn your mind toward acceptance and willingness.

4. Try half-­smiling and a willing posture.

5. When willfulness is immovable, ask, “What’s the threat?”

As I walk through those steps, I notice that the urge to avoid is decreasing, there’s the thought, “I should be able to do these things without all these steps.” I find myself resisting the half-smile willing hands part. I do sense more willingness in me so I’m going to go ahead and do the notes.


I did the notes and then got on my phone to play a game. Might not be effective or it could be a little reinforcement for accomplishing something on my list. I did the prep for group, and I retooled my plan to address the emails at 4pm when I have a little bit of time. And I completed those at 4ish.


As you can see from my steps, I did not do this skill perfectly. I did most of the steps for Willingness. I became ‘willing enough’ to do some of my tasks, then I redid my plan for accomplishing the tasks. The point is, that I don’t need to do any of this perfectly, there’s lots of experimentation and seeing what works and what doesn’t.


Ultimately, my problem solving helped me get through the willfulness and to accomplish several tasks I had been putting off.


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