I looked out the kitchen window of my childhood home in Mesa, Arizona and noticed something unusual. The landscape of our normally flat backyard was marred with several small dirt hills scattered across the yellow-green grass. The culprit? A gopher. I first noticed this phenomenon as a child, and at the time, I thought I knew the solution: we needed to get out the shovel, fill in all the holes, and level out the dirt. Surely, that would solve the problem. The holes would be gone, and the vermin wouldn’t have a hole to poke their heads up through.
But, as you are probably already thinking, little-kid-Allison’s solution wouldn’t be especially effective. Yes, it would level out the yard, but the gopher still be there. And he (or she) would soon create new holes. The real problem wasn’t the visible holes and dirt hills. Those were the symptoms. The real problem lay under the surface.
Problem or Symptom?
Oftentimes, individuals, couples, or parents come to therapy citing a specific problem that they want to see “fixed”. They are usually noticeable things. Perhaps it is a pesky behavior that an individual can’t seem to kick after years of trying alone. Perhaps it is a fight that a couple seems to rehash over and over and over again. Maybe it is a list of complaints burned-out parents have about a misbehaving child. People come in thinking that “the problem” is the problem, and that want to find a simple solution.
However, many of the problems that people present in therapy are like gopher holes. The problem they see isn’t actually the problem. It is a symptom. Some people spend years trying to resolve issues themselves without ever realizing that they are only ever attending to the symptom. They have just been filling in gopher holes. No wonder they are exhausted and frustrated, and no wonder they are still having issues!
Perceived Problem: 16-year-old Johnny is getting bad grades at school and is acting out at home. If those were the problems, the solution would be a tutor and a behavioral modification program. But, what if these are symptoms of Johnny dealing with his parents’ arguing? Maybe acting out is a pressure release to his distress and underperforming is his way of getting his parents to work together on a common goal: helping him. In this case, the real solution is to work with the parents and the family to decrease conflict and stress in the home.
Perceived Problem: Rick, isn’t contributing to household responsibilities. Further, he commonly withdraws from his wife April’s attempts at talking about the issue. April thinks that Rick doesn’t care about what is important to her. But, what if he does care, but feel a great sense of shame that he forgets to do his part? When April wants to talk and Rick withdraws, he isn’t avoiding her because he doesn’t care, he is avoiding her because he does care and doesn’t want to face her disapproval. In this case, the solution lies, in part, in helping create a more secure attachment between the couple.
Perceive Problem: Lately, 10-year-old Julie’s hasn’t been eating very much, is constantly fatigue and has been in a mopey mood. If these were seen as the problem, a parent may withhold privileges if Julie doesn’t eat, and make her go to bed early. They may eventually go to the doctor to get her on antidepressants. However, what if these are symptoms Julie being a victim of bullying at school? To achieve real change, there will need to be a change in her school environment and in how she is able to perceive herself.
If you are experiencing a problem, ask yourself, “Is this a symptom, or is this the underlying problem?” Sometimes, to achieve real and lasting change, you have to go beneath the surface.
What Do I Do if I Don’t Know the Underlying Problem?
Take time to assess the situation. Think about when the problem began, and what was going on in your life and relationships at that time. You may be able to figure out the bigger picture of what is happening. In some cases, you may benefit from seeking the help of a helping professional such as an individual therapist or a marriage and family therapist. They have been trained to discern between symptoms and underlying issues, and they have the training to help you and your family achieve your goals.