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Chapter 1 - Self-help: What is it?Chapter 2 - Understanding the Nature of your ProblemChapter 3 - Overview of Bio-Psycho-Social TheoriesChapter 4 - Meeting Basic NeedsChapter 5 - Changing Behavior and ThoughtChapter 6 - Changing Your MoodChapter 7 - Changing Your KnowledgeChapter 8 - Changing Your RelationshipsChapter 9 - Changing Your Identity and MotivationChapter 10 - Your Unique Self-Help PlanChapter 11 - Dependency
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Steps 1-4: Problem Analysis

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 22nd 2016

1. Understand Your Problem. You must understand the issue, problem or symptom you are experiencing before you can realistically try to figure out what to do about it. As a first step towards self-help, take steps to understand the nature of your problem or issue. Watch for any tendency you might have to externalize your problem (e.g., to see the cause of your problem in someone else's actions rather than your own). Own up to any responsibility you may have for creating or maintaining the problem.

Understanding your problem requires that you take some time to identify the nature of your problem; what might be causing that problem and why and how it has become an issue for you. Because mental health and life issues are usually troubling and anxiety provoking, there is a tendency to get emotional while thinking about them. It is easy to get distracted or fooled by self-defensive feelings when you get emotional, and also easy to act on mistaken perceptions. In your "panic" to avoid dealing with your problem you may minimize it inappropriately (concluding that it is less of a problem than it really is), or exaggerate it (making a "mountain out of a molehill"). You may not want to admit your own role in creating or maintaining the problem, and instead, inappropriately blame others for your own failings. Think carefully about the nature of your problem rather than just going with your first impression or urge. If possible, talk with trusted others about your problem to gain their (hopefully unbiased) perspective. Do your best to relax, to be honest, and to not be defensive about your situation. Letting go of your emotion (anxiety, depression, panic, etc. when thinking about and reading up on your issue (as much as this is possible to accomplish) will help you to learn whether you are really motivated to change or not and whether you would be better off seeking professional assistance vs. trying a self-help approach.

Example: Bob recognized his anger and the reason for it (e.g., Sam’s borrowing the toolbox and not returning it when he said he would). He also admitted to himself that he was still mad about past times Sam and borrowed things from him, and he hadn’t said anything about it to Sam those times.

2. Break The Problem Down Into Small Parts. Even when you understand what your problem is, it may be too big and too well established for you to figure out how to fix all at once. Instead of trying to tackle the entire problem all at once, break it down into manageable parts. Then, make a plan for how you will fix or address each part separately.

Example: Since Bob knows he really is in control of his anger enough to talk with Sam, and that he still values his friendship with Sam, he decides to talk with him about the borrowing rather than yelling at him or starting a fight. Bob is calling on his strengths in this situation; his ability to talk with Sam and to do so reasonably and calmly even when angry, while also recognizing and honoring his feelings of friendship for Sam. Although this example is not really a very complex problem, Sam has still taken the time to break the problem down into multiple separate parts. He needs to figure out a way to 1) stop feeling upset, 2) get his tools back, and 3) preserve his relationship with Sam if possible. Separating out his varying goals and desires for how the situation should come out has helped him to decide how to best handle the situation. This same knowledge will continue to illuminate what his next steps should be, if more are needed.

3. Define Problem Goals. For each of your small manageable problem parts, figure out what your goals are; where you want to end up at the end of the self-help process for each part of your problem. If you don't know what you are working towards, you will never know when you've arrived there.

Example: Bob has identified three goals; 1) to stop the distress his feeling of anger at Sam is causing; 2) to get his toolbox back from Sam on time; and 3) to maintain his friendship with Sam.

4. Decide How To Measure Progress Towards Goals. Find ways to measure progress you make towards accomplishing each of your problem goals, so that you will always know: 1) what your problem starting point looked like, 2) how far you've come towards meeting your goals at any given moment, and 3) how you'll know when you've met your goals and are done.

Example: Bob's first opportunity to measure his progress towards meeting his goals comes when he talks with Sam. Whether or not Sam gets upset with Bob is out of Bob's control, so Bob cannot legitimately measure his success by how Sam reacts. Instead, he determines that he will have met his goal if he is able to say what he wants to say in a clear, calm and firm manner while doing his best to not alienate his friend. Whether or not Sam returns the missing toolbox is another opportunity for Bob to measure the success of his communication with Sam. Bob can monitor how well Sam does at returning tools he borrows on time in the future. If any of these events don’t go well, then Bob will know he needs to not lend Sam anything he needs to have back in a timely manner.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

response to girl friend - Caroline - Jul 30th 2009

hi, I just read your problem and mine is very much the same. I am looking for some advice aswell. I myself am only twenty and I have been in a relationship with a wonderful guy for almost 2 years now. I know I'm still young, and I realise this is my first real love so I'm not very experienced in relationship-handling at all and I'm not that rational at all times but we have broken up because we have a real big problem aswell that sounds pretty much the same as yours (Girl Friend). Our problem is that 1) I can't give him the space he needs and the trust that I'm not stressing out about his feelings for me all the time, 2) I can't just feel good and not worry that he doesn't like me enough and 3) I make him feel uncomfortable when I express my gigantic need for reassurance of his feelings for me. I know he feels alot for me and if I think straight, he has made it clear that he really wants to try again with me to make it work (so we do generally feel the same about each other it's just I'm a mega control freak with parting issues and stupid insecurities that get in the way). We should be able to have a good time and not be stressing out all the time if we're the right match, it's just we can't seem to get around these insecurities I have... I'm so anxious that he'll pull away, that I cause him to pull away because of my anxieties. I don't have a clue how to just relax and go with the flow without being scared to be hurt by him. Can any body give me some tips??

thanks, I'm so gratefull for anybodies point of view on my issue. Or am I just too young and will these insecurities just pass??

Girl Freind - - May 10th 2009

Well i dont know where to begi, but i dont think i can live like  this much longer nor do i want too. I have been with this girl for about 3 years and some change now, i love her too death but i feel i put 100% into our relationship and she doesnt, there has been too many ocassions where she has wanted to leave me and i literrally beg.......i belive i am the glue that holds us together. I guess i get panc attacks or some anxiety issues when i dont take control of the situation. I am miserable with her because she doesnt seem to change her attitude always is negative, and i always forgive her. Im not angel and i know ive caused problems. But she causes problems or has an issue for everything.When i think i might loose her i get panic attacks i think i dont know what to do, on top of everything we now have a 9 month old son. Please give me some guidance someone......i am 25 years old she is 20, weve lived together now live apart and now are trying to repair our relationship andlive together again. But things havent changed......

goals - - Apr 26th 2009

I have been told by my boss that I scare people, am agressive, ridged, and have a hard time controling my emotions. I tend not to trust anyone and blame myself for everything. How do I not 'scare people, come across as less agressive and control my negative emotions'? I can see what to do on the ridged side, to set goals of being less ridged but the others I am at a loss as to how to address. I am praying that as I continue to read on this website I will find some answers... however I am thinking that professional help may be warrented. 

attention marine - sharonsdarkeyes - Jan 21st 2009
I read thru all your listings of things you have going for you in life .  I have not seen the one thing that will fill that hole .that is welling up inside of you and that is GOD. Things are just that things . Peace of mind and soul is priceless and precious. I will be praying for you . Good luck. Also go see your GP and have your testoserones checked they might have gone down and attributing to your depression. ..sharonsdarkeyes

how usefull - marie - Nov 12th 2008
im training to be a counsellor, i read through the steps to help me with the course, but it has helped me self aware how to deal with my own problems.  How can I understand another person if I dont understand myself.........thanks 

Dealing with loss - amber - Nov 5th 2008

I am responding to a comment that I seen, as I had a very hard time dealing with the loss of a loved one, well actually two within a year.  It took me 10 years to get over them! Well I am not over them, but with the help of a close person in my life, I have been able to accept, deal, and move on.

We all deal with death in our own way...Death is hard, we all know that. 

If you feel you need to talk to someone, talk to that person you lost, you may not believe or even understand, but they are always there in our hearts.  Seriously, try talking to whom you lost...they may answer you... not in a talking kind of way, but through signs is the best way that I can say it.

I lost my dad and my sister, they were both very close to me... I used to blame myself for their deaths, now, I embrace the fact that they are where they belong.  I still talk to them all the time, they don't answer back, but I know in my heart that they are there and when I get that warm feeling inside when I am sad, lonely, I know that they are there right next to me helping me to deal and cope with what is going on in life.   Try it sometime, you might be suprised!

emotional issues dealing with the loss of a loved one - Anthony Reed - Jun 30th 2008

  How can you deal with issues involving A loved one that has passed away?

Usually I would try to talk about it with this person, but she is gone now and I am dealing with regret, remorse and other feelings.


Overwhelmed - Angry person - May 6th 2008

I read this chapter and thought... wow if that was the only problem in my life (errant friend) then I would be blessed indeed. How do you seperate a lifetime of hurt and anger into small segments without getting emotional?

Editor's Note: Big and complex problems are broken down the same way as smaller ones.  What is important is that you are able to make each step concrete, with a defined and doable thing to accomplish.  If you can't do this without getting emotional, then the first problem to solve is to work on the emotionality which is interfering with your ability to probelm solve.  Keep in mind also that, the more complex the problem you are facing, often, the more there is a role for a coach or therapist figure to help you problem solve.  If these problems were easy to work through, you'd have done it by now.    

a day at a time - - Apr 20th 2008

I had given up all hope. My thoughts were constanltly flicking between living and dying. I stop taking my medication, I been staving myself. I cut all my hair off now its really short. I have bruises from were I've been self-harming. I typed in the words whats wrong with me. I know what is wrong. I knew it was that fact I didn't care and had given up. tired and burnt out. I came across this page and have had some hope. I made a list of all my problems. now I'm working at doing small goals to help build me up. I'm going to take it a day at a time.

life at sixty !!!!!!!!! arrgggghhhhhhh - Marine - Mar 1st 2008
oh hell - I am 63 ( almost ) I do not know what is wrong BUT it is wrong !!!!!!!! damn - I have everything - family - loving - enuf money to last me - home - house - yard to fix up - a car - a truck -  first wife - all my kids -  wood to cut and burn for winter - an education - University - a masters degree - a law degree - friends -  games to play when I go to gym - I have 3 gyms to go to - why do I feel lousy ?????????? I am depressed - I know it - whywhywhywhy ??????? why - is it physical ?  is this depression thing a physical ailment - what is it - ? I have No no no no no reason to be depressed - I need to get out of this funk and depressed mood I am in - Help ? !!! help ! - any suggestions  ? thanks a lot   - Marine ( the moniker I prefer ) - hell --my mother stills cooks me a meal three times a  week - I still get the same food I ate as a kid - whywhywhywwhywhwyhwy why am I depressed ? help - I was in the Mairne Corps and I prefer to be known as marine - hang with me - OK ??  thanks again for caring -      best to all  

I agree - - Jun 24th 2007
The writer makes a great point, what is the problem? I dont know how or what! I just know that I eat so much it hurts, it "feels good" while I do it, I am regretfull after and the only thing common is stress

there should be more information - mark - Feb 26th 2007

hi my comment is for the steps 1, 2 and steps 3 there should be more information on how to do them and not just an outline as I am reading this thying to learn to start a know life from my disorders and there should be a way to help better. e.g step 3 is just Define Problem goals and way to have them, but there should be how to find them, where to look, what to look for to finding these Problem goals thats what in going to get me better because if i already new my problems and how to find them i wouldn't be in the mess i'm in and the same with everyone else, so its more information on each steps because they are good steps and it is right it's just theres only the basic's. Thanks,Mark

If you have anything on self-help for controlling my thoughs and to help me stop my food addiction (binging & then i'll throw it back up) willl be great Thanks) there no point for places to go or seek anyone something that i can do on my own becuse i dont go out.

Editor's Note:  This is an introductory page, intended to give you the skeleton for the self-help process, not to flesh it out entirely.  The rest of the book is an attempt to provide the detailed information you seek.   Keep in mind that the book is not something we consider complete at this time.  Ultimately, there will be detailed chapters at the end of the book that talk about how to use the principles and methods explored in the front of the book for specific problems.  

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