Back in September, I found myself on my couch, morphing into a human puddle, after making the decision with my fiancé to postpone our wedding due to Covid-19 concerns. We had already had a difficult move across the country, recently experienced unexpected loss in both our families, and our wedding was the “light at the end of the tunnel” where we would finally be able to reunite with our loved ones to celebrate. When I realized that the event I had invested so much time and effort into would not occur as planned, I felt an overwhelming mixture of sadness and anger. Thoughts like “this is so unfair”, “why is this happening to me,”and “this never should have happened,” were looming large in my mind, fueling the fire of fury that was already raging.
Just as I was tipping into my emotional point of no return, DBT’s Options for Solving Any Problem popped into mind. This is sincerely one of my favorite DBT skills, because our options for responding to pain are often incredibly limited. There may be an infinite number of really painful things that can happen to you, but there are not an infinite number of responses to deal with the pain. In fact, DBT shows us that there are four things you can do when painful problems come into your life: You 1) can solve the problem; 2) change your feelings about the problem; 3) tolerate the problem; or 4) do nothing (and stay miserable, perhaps even make it worse).
I considered my options:
1. Solve the Problem:
I could try to find a way to end or change my problem situation, or I could figure out a way to avoid the situation or get out of it for good. In my case, my distress stemmed from the reality that my wedding was postponed. One solution to this would be to call off the wedding and leave my relationship to avoid distress associated with the postponement. I could remove my problem altogether this way, thereby solving it…I quickly ruled this option out. Another way I could solve my problem was by proceeding with my original wedding date, with the awareness that I would be prioritizing my wedding ahead of my loved ones’ health and wellbeing. I quickly ruled this option out as well. Lastly, I could cure Covid-19 to solve my problem! Sadly I had to rule that option out, too.
My next option?
2. Feel Better about the Problem:
A second way I could respond to the pain of my situation is by changing my emotional response to it. I could work on regulating my emotional response to the postponement, or figure out a way to make a negative into a positive. I could remind myself that postponing my wedding is now a normal part of Covid, and that many people have also needed to postpone (or even cancel!) significant life events. I could join a postponed-wedding-support-group to help me with my emotion…I’m sure those exist by now, right? I could consider the fact that the postponed wedding now gives me more time to get excited for the big day, and maybe plan more exciting activities for that wedding weekend that I would not have had time to otherwise consider!
After reviewing these choices, I noticed I liked a few here. I decided to keep exploring my remaining options because while feeling better about the problem was feasible, this would only work moment to moment for me, it would not resolve my issue long-term.
3. Tolerate the Problem:
When you can’t solve the problem that is generating distress and you can’t feel better about it, you can still alleviate some of the distress by practicing radical acceptance of the problem. In my case, I may not be able to solve my problem, and I might not succeed to feeling better about my problem long-term. But I will be less distressed and less miserable about it if I practice radical acceptance of the problem. I can reduce my sadness by radically accepting that “it is what it is”. Practicing radical acceptance here does not mean I am okay with postponing my wedding, or that I like postponing my wedding; radical acceptance is not the same as approval. However, rejecting the reality (“this shouldn’t be happening!”) does not change the reality. Radical acceptance is when you stop fighting reality, stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way you want it, and let go of bitterness. In practicing radical acceptance, I have to accept that reality is just as it is, that everything has a cause, and that my life can be worth living even with painful events in it.
4. Do Nothing (and stay miserable):
The fourth option is to do nothing – you can stay miserable. To be completely honest, my emotion mind in that moment wanted to opt for this choice! However, doing nothing and staying miserable will prolong suffering and may even make matters worse. Wise mind fortunately redirected me here and helped me rule this final option out.
After considering my options, I decided my preferred choice is to tolerate the problem. I practiced radical acceptance of my current reality, even though I did not like it. And this honestly was quite freeing for me; practicing radical acceptance freed me from the bitterness, anger, and sadness I was experiencing, as I noticed that reality is just as it is, and just as it ought to be.