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4 Solutions for Life Dilemmas

People come to therapy for many reasons – sometimes they are going through a crisis or may have symptoms of a psychological disorder. Often, people come in because they are ‘stuck’ in some way; there is a situation in their life that causing distress or impacting on their quality of life. The person goes around and around in their own head with it and cannot see a way forward.

I have repeatedly found this model to be an effective way for people to get ‘unstuck’. I typically call it the 4 Options Model* (not as catchy or clever a title as I would like, but oh well). It can be applied to almost any life dilemma (while this can include suicidality and domestic violence, these are not the intended focus of this blog. If these apply to you, please seek professional help as soon as possible).

For the purposes of this blog, we shall consider two common scenarios: (a) a relationship that has become problematic (family, friendship or romantic), and (b) a job that is no longer satisfying.

There are pros and cons with each of these options, they may not be easy and may involve getting out of your comfort zone. But… if it were straightforward, it would not be a dilemma.

Option 1: Change the situation

Apply some form of active effort to change aspects of the situation that are causing you concern. Some considerations:

  • What is in your personal control? Do you need to change something about your approach, the degree of effort, or the consistency of your effort? This could involve initiation of a direct, honest and clear discussion (before you say you’ve already tried this…have you really? Sometimes people indirectly hint at things or believe that the other person “should know”). It could include a mediation session, scheduling a meeting with your boss, more training/study, organising couples/family therapy, or writing an (edited) e-mail or letter.
  • What is outside of your immediate control, but still within your sphere of influence? This may involve asking the other person to do something differently or modifying aspects of your job. Important questions: Does the person have the capacity to change? Is the person willing to change? Can this role be altered in the way that you want? If the answer is “no”, your change attempts are futile. Move on to another Option.
  • Specify an end point. How long are you prepared to try? How many chances are you going to give? Be wary of placating responses (“yes, you’re right, I will do that”) with no follow-through.

How therapy can help

  • Tweak your communication style. I have worked with many people who thought they were expressing themselves clearly, but were not – they were being too subtle, giving mixed messages, or inadvertently getting the other person offside with their approach.
  • Determine what is and is not in your control.
  • Develop realistic change goals and expectations for this situation/relationship.

Pros: This Option is empowering. If it does not work and you end up moving to another Option, you know you have done everything you can.

Cons: You may need to leave your comfort zone to initiate change or to pursue it in a more effective way. It takes effort on your part, at least initially. Do you value this relationship/job highly enough to invest effort or be uncomfortable? Be honest. If your response is “no”, move to another Option.

REMEMBER: The essential component of this Option is that it is active, where you Do Something. A passive approach – where you wait and hope that the other person will change – is not Doing Something. Hope is not a change strategy. In this context, hope is wishful thinking. Hope is actually Option 4.

Option 2: Change your relationship to the situation

This applies when the situation is completely out of your control, you have exhausted all your change attempts…and you have decided that you are not prepared to let go of this relationship or leave the job. This may involve:

  • Acceptance. Stop furtively wanting the person or situation to be different. Acceptance does not mean that you must like it, but you are going to stop being frustrated by the reality of the situation (“Jessica is always going to be Jessica”. Stop being outraged when she continues to do what she has always done). Perhaps 30% of your job is always going to be arduous and dull… but it is a necessary step on your trajectory.
  • Modify your expectations. No job or relationship are perfect. They are not going to be able to meet your needs all the time. Growth is where you bridge those gaps by learning to meet your own needs, finding another outlet, or get better at tolerating the discrepancy.
  • Modify parameters where you can. If you accept that John is always late, that he cannot remember to follow through on tasks, but he is basically a great guy who adds value to your life… don’t put yourself in a position where you need to rely on him. If your sister is heaps of fun to go out with but doesn’t really listen and gets a bit judgy – stop sharing your vulnerabilities with her.

Pros: you can preserve the relationship or stay in the job, while letting go of the struggle and frustrations. You can then concentrate your energy on areas where you can get an outcome. There will be personal growth for you.

Cons: There will be personal growth for you. There may still be discomfort. You may need to grieve for the parent you yearn for but will never have. Acceptance also takes effort. This is where therapy can make a big difference.

When Options 1 and 2 don’t work…

Option 3: Leave the situation

If it is out of your control, cannot be changed, and acceptance is either not palatable or is too damaging for your well-being because it is inherently toxic… it is time to walk away.

You are entitled to end any relationship that causes you unresolvable distress – this includes family, marriages, and decades-long friendships. The other person does not have to agree with your decision, nor do they have to understand or accept your rationale. For that matter, you do not need to provide a rationale, if it is unlikely to be heard or respected (…which is probably a key reason why you are ending said relationship).

It is ok to leave jobs that are well-paying, secure and prestigious, if you are dead inside. You can change careers despite having invested time, effort and years of study. No job is worth the hit to your mental health if the culture is toxic.

Pros: Again, this option is empowering, and an act of self-compassion. You can liberate yourself from limiting patterns and situations that do not serve you.

Cons: Again, it is a change, and with all change comes a hefty dose of unfamiliarity and out-of-comfort-zoneness (I have decided that is a word).

How therapy can help

Therapy can be instrumental in helping you to negotiate the “how to” if it seems overwhelming. A therapist can help put together and support you through an exit strategy, while managing any difficult feelings that arise (guilt, fear, self-doubt, a sense of responsibility for the others’ feelings) that may serve to undermine your progress.

And finally…

Option 4: Do nothing and continue to struggle. Or get worse.

Let’s be clear – not choosing is still a choice. As an adult, you are well within your rights to make this choice, as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences – which is likely to be feeling the same way (if not worse) for the foreseeable future. Nothing changes if nothing changes. This is staying within your comfort zone, which is becoming increasingly less comfortable. If you have made it this far through this article, I am guessing this is not ok with you.

How therapy can help

Understanding what lies beneath this choice. Perhaps it is a skills deficit (you don’t know how to structure the conversation), you take too much responsibility for others’ feelings (you don’t want to upset, disappoint, stop rescuing, or otherwise hurt another), or discomfort with your own feelings (unfamiliarity, guilt). Are you plagued by self-doubt? Some people wait until they are 100% certain that they are making the best decision, to not feel regret. As one gets older, and decisions become more complex, this less possible.

Pros: You say within your comfort-ish zone and don’t have to experience difficult feelings or do anything differently. You don’t have to accept responsibility for your situation or your choices (just so we’re clear, I don’t think these are really pros).

Cons: You continue to struggle. To try and maintain your spot in diminishing comfort zone, there is a risk of developing other short-term ‘solutions’ that will themselves become problems over time (drinking, addictions, external distractions, detaching…). If venting to others has been a release, your support network can become exhausted and frustrated with you. And you may need those people for when you do take action.

So, now what? In therapy, I systematically take people through each Options in the following way.

  • Divide a page into 4 columns, and decide on what Option you are doing right now.
  • What does each option look like for your particular dilemma?
  • What are the pros and cons of each? What are the short-term and long-term consequences of each?
  • Which sequence works best? (Suffer-Change-Accept? Change-Accept-Leave?)
  • How long are you prepared to spend on each Option?

Most importantly: Which one leads you towards a more fulfilling life?

* I have encountered this model across a few psychological frameworks, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. I have no doubt that there are other versions. I do not claim to have invented this model, however I can no longer remember my original source, as I have used it in many different ways over many years. So, what I present here is the “Dr. Angela” adaptation.