The psychological steps in solving complex personal problems


Complex personal and interpersonal problems are the main reason students present to counselling. Problems include: failing at studies, health and mental health concerns, relationship breakdowns and conflict, financial uncertainty, traumatic events, loss of meaning and purpose, and grief and loss.

What characterises ‘complex’ problems over everyday issues is that they tend to cause a lot of distress, they tend to hang around (don’t resolve on their own), they impact on multiple areas of a person’s life and they overwhelm our capacity to cope. In fact, the reason people reach out for help is because they feel like they can’t cope with the situation confronting them.

As much as I’d like to promise that you won’t experience such problems in your life, the reality is we will all face such problems at some point. Complex problems and challenges are an inevitable part of life. But there are very few problems that can’t be solved or at least addressed in some way. Even incredibly confronting problems like a severe mental illness, or significant trauma can be managed in positive constructive ways.

Depending on your background, personal experiences and current life situation, you may or may not feel confident in your own ability to confront such problems in your life in an effective way.
One good way to improve your ability to cope with challenging situations is through counselling and therapy. Counselling/therapy can provide a guided process, with an expert problem-solver, through which you develop the capacity to self-reflect and make changes.

Another is to engage in self-directed reading and learning. This post falls into that category. This post is for those people who suspect they might not be the best problem solvers, or who want more concrete strategies for moving themselves forward in life during tough times.

Having spent some time reading and reflecting on how we solve problems, I believe there are 4 main components or stages to solving complex personal and interpersonal problems. Understanding and implementing these 4 stages can help make you a better problem solver.

These stages are:

  1. Clearly describe your current situation
  2. Describe what you would like your life to be like
  3. Brainstorm and visualise strategies to get you from where you are to where you want to be
  4. Implement and monitor those strategies.

Warning: this post is fairly long and explores each of these stages in some depth. I recommend reading it when you have 15-20 minutes to spare 🙂


Describe your current life

Stage 1 – clearly describe your current situation

To solve a complex problem, you need to really understand the problem.

When stuck in a tough place, I find there is a tendency to describe our problems in overly simplistic ways – ‘I am unhappy’, ‘I’m failing at my studies’, ‘my work sucks’, ‘I’ve got no friends’.

I think this is partly a strategy to avoid looking at the issue in detail – which might elicit more distress or a sense of shame or failure. For example, it is less distressing to say ‘my work sucks’ than owning up to the fact that I’ve lost direction and purpose, I’m not getting along with my colleagues and I’m being bullied.

It is also common to use other avoidance strategies when struggling with a complex problem or situation. We might withdraw from our friends and family, tell people ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ or have a few wines each night to try and forget the day. These are fine short-term if the problem will resolve on its own, but to effectively deal with a complex situation that won’t resolve on its own, you will need to take stock of your situation as it stands.

Reflecting, in detail, on your current situation and life can be confronting, so I don’t recommend doing this process whilst highly distressed. High levels of distress can cloud your judgement, prevent meaningful engagement with the process, and often lead to impulsive, poorly thought-out responses.

If you are highly distressed, your first focus should be on safety (‘Am I safe, including from myself?’) and then second, bringing your distress level down. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience as me of being so emotionally overwhelmed by a problem or situation that you can barely think straight. During those moments, your best bet is to prioritise your safety and focus on simple soothing activities. For some this is about connecting with a close friend or family member. For others it is about engaging in some self-soothing activities (e.g. listening to music in bed, hot shower).

However, once you have your distress level down to a reasonable level (and it will come down), some significant life analysis is required. You might do this in one big chunk, or in smaller self-reflective episodes over the course of a week or months. Do it at a pace that suits you.

Your main job is to get a detailed description of your life at present, with a focus on the issues/ problems you are struggling with. To do so, consider your life from a number of different angles.

What is your life like? What does it involve? What does a typical day involve?

What are the main problems you are struggling with? What are the main interactions or situations that are troubling you?

What impact are these problems having on your life. How is your mood, your energy levels, your overall health?

Who are the main people in your life and how are they intertwined in these problems? Are other people in your life also being affected by these problems?

How did the problems develop? What is the relevant history? How did the problems come to be? What role did you, others, or ‘fate’ plan in the development of the problem? What aspects of you (e.g. personality, ability, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, reactions) are contributing to the problem?

How urgent is it that you solve these problems and why? Will these problems resolve on its own? If not, why?

What things have you tried to address the problem? Which things seemed to work? Which didn’t? Which ones did you only try half-heartedly?

What are you procrastinating on? If you haven’t taken any action on the problem to date, why?

As much as possible, break the main problems in your life down into component parts to help you identify what you can change. For example, a problem like ‘I’m depressed’, which is a bit nebulous, might be less overwhelming if broken down into more manageable parts – ‘my mood is low’, ‘I’m no longer exercising’, ‘I’m eating badly’, ‘I’ve not seen my doctor in a while cause I am busy’, ‘my schedule is too packed’, ‘I don’t enjoy my job’, and ‘my neighbour’s dog barks all the time’. Instead of trying to tackle something ill-defined, you will be addressing specific issues.

Generally I find that big issues do break down relatively easily into a set of smaller problems. One of the reasons problems become ‘complex’ is that they are the result of lots of smaller issues interacting to make a bigger problem.

At first it might seem counter-intuitive to break a big problem into parts (“you’ve just given me more things I need to work on”), but the process can actually help you realise that there are parts of the problem that you could realistically start addressing straight away.

A simple guide you can use to determine how far to break a problem down, is to do it until you get to a point where you start to identify smaller problems that you feel reasonably confident you can start working on.

I encourage you to be as honest in this process as possible. The more realistic you are about what is going on in your life, the better placed you will be to start changing it. You don’t need to share the results of your self-reflection with anyone, so you can keep it to yourself.

Having described the main things you are struggling with, then explore what has been getting in the way of you addressing these issues. What are the big barriers stopping you making improvements to your life?

Is it shame about having got yourself into this situation?

Is it your own fears and anxieties – fear of the unknown, fear of getting it wrong, fear of hurting other people, fear of disappointing others

Is it because of a feeling of being defeated?

Is it your own negative self-talk getting in the way (e.g. ‘why bother’, ‘I’m an idiot’, ‘I will never be able to fix it’)?

Is it the actions of others, wittingly or unwittingly getting in your way – or is the source of the problem another person or people?

Is it because you don’t know how to fix the problems?

Is it because you don’t have the resources (e.g. money, time, mental and physical energy) to fix them?

Are you worried that attempting to fix the problems with have other negative outcomes?

Is it something else altogether?

If you identify significant barriers, reframe these as additional problems that will need addressing in Stage 3. The nature of the barriers will give you clues as to what might be required. If the barriers are emotional you might need counselling/therapy or medication. If you don’t have the knowledge required, you might need to engage in further learning. If the barriers are a lack of resources, then your focus might need to be on obtaining those resources. If other people are getting in the way, you might have to strategise how to reduce their influence or get them to change their behaviour.

It is easy in a process like this where the main focus is on problems and barriers, to forget to appropriately acknowledge what is going right or well in your life at the moment. But is important that you do. Focusing on the good things in your life is not some cheap attempt to make you feel better, but very strategic. Specifically, you can leverage these strengths to help you address the issues. For example, you might have been working hard and have saved money, which you can use to support any changes you make. Or it might be that you have developed a strong network of friends whom you can ask for help. Or you might have particular talents or abilities that can be better used to your advantage. Make sure to capture these positives in the process.

I strongly recommend that you write this all stuff down. I base this on the assumption that, if things aren’t great for you at the moment, then your mind and memory aren’t going to be operating at 100%. Asking your brain to juggle all this information, without taking notes is unfair to your brain. If you aren’t a big fan of writing, consider drawing or illustrating the main issues. Regardless, get the details of your life, the main problems, the main barriers, and the things going right, down in some form.

A couple of things to be mindful that might derail the process.

You find yourself laying all the blame squarely at your own feet – Look it is possible that the situation you find yourself in is entirely your fault, but unlikely. Be careful that the process doesn’t degenerate into a self-criticism exercise. Self-criticism is not a very effective space from which to solve problems. Self-compassion is better. Self-compassion still acknowledges that you might be responsible for some aspects of the situation, but does so against a backdrop of ‘common humanity’ and ‘kindness’  – that is, that we all make mistakes, and deserve a chance to rectify those mistakes.

You find yourself blaming everyone else – The opposite situation can also occur where you hold everyone else responsible for your situation. You might even be correct, but be careful not to describe the situation in a way that leaves you with no role to play in improving your own life. If you are just waiting for other people to change, or for things to be more ‘fair’, you might remain stuck in the situation. This doesn’t mean ignoring the bad behaviour of others, but it does mean looking specifically at what you can do to change that behaviour or reduce its impact on your life.

You just find the whole process too hard – if you are not used to reflecting on your own life, then this process is going to be difficult. But persist with it, doing it in small chunks if necessary. If you have a trusted friend, family member or colleague, consider telling them that you are trying to make changes in your life and invite them to help you do this first stage. Or maybe consider seeing a counsellor and doing the process with them. They will be very used to this kind of self-reflection and can guide you.

If this stage goes to plan, you’ll end up with a detailed analysis of what is going wrong and right in your life, with your original problem broken down into potentially more manageable chunks. Don’t be alarmed if the process generates a lot of smaller problems. This is actually a good thing. It means that you’ve meaningfully engaged in the process. The critical output of Stage 1 is a thoughtful analysis of your situation and life. This, as you will see, forms the foundation on which Stages 2-4 are built on.

The final question to ask yourself in this stage is whether you are willing at this point to make an effort to address these problems and make changes in your life. This is an important question. Not taking action is a genuine option, especially if having done the reflection, you believe there are too many barriers to doing so currently. Revisit when you are ready.


make a wish

Stage 2 – describe what you’d like your life to be like

Having spent a significant amount of time describing your life as it is, in Stage 2, you switch gears to focus on describing how you want your life to be.

Driving this process is deceptively simple question taken from Solution Focused Therapy called “The Miracle Question”. The question goes something like this:

Imagine that tonight, whilst you sleep, a miracle happens, and all the things that are going wrong in your life are suddenly fixed. When you wake up tomorrow and start going about your day, how would you know that things had changed. What would be different?

Your job in Stage 2, is to describe, in as much detail as possible, what your life would look like, if the challenges facing you now, were fixed.

What would you be doing? What would a typical day look like? How would you spend your time?

What parts of your current life would be gone? What parts would be changed? What new things would be in your life?

Who would be in your life? What would your interactions with them be like? Who would no longer be in your life?

How do you think you would feel? What kind of person do you think you’d be? What new skills or abilities would you have? What values would you live by?

There are no rules about what to visualise. If you want a life that is just a little bit different than your existing life – that is OK. If you want a life that is drastically or outlandishly different from your existing one, that is OK too. It is even OK to wish for things that are not even possible.

What is important is to consider is why you want each of the things that you describe. Say for example that your vision of the perfect life involves $10 million dollars and a yacht. Ask yourself why those things? You might find that the reason you want $10 million dollars is because you want freedom from financial hardship, and the reason you want a yacht is because you want to explore the world, on your own terms. Consider each element of your vision of the future and what it would provide you at the deeper, conceptual level.

If you find it difficult to imagine a single well-defined future, don’t limit yourself to one. Imagine multiple different futures, all of which you suspect would make you happy and address the main issues you are struggling with at present. Look for commonalities between your different views of the ideal life. For example, you might discover that in all your versions of the ideal life that the things most important to you are good close friends, and engaging hobbies and interests. There will be common themes that connect your different versions of the ideal life.

Another approach is to take each of the problems and challenges you describe in Stage 1 and imagine each of them being fixed magically. What would happen after that? How would your typical day be different from how it is now?

Another way is to consider each of the following areas and what your life would look like in each area: family, marriage/couples/intimate partner, parenting, friends/social life, work, education/training, recreation/fun, spirituality, citizenship/community life, physical self-care (e.g. diet, exercise, sleep).

I personally find this process to be quite energising, but I’ve had people report to me that they find it quite depressing, because it highlights how ‘far away’ they are from their ideal life. If that is you, I encourage you to push through that initial discomfort. Why? Well because that discomfort is blocking you from visualising and hence planning a better life. That discomfort isn’t doing you any favours by doing that. If anything, it is keeping you trapped in your current life. Gently thank that discomfort for showing up, but push through the process of describing the ideal life.


brainstorm and visualise

Stage 3 – brainstorm and visualise all the possible strategies that could move you from your current life to your desired life.

In Stage 3, you are going to start practising a skill that is incredibly valuable, not just in solving problems but in many aspects of life. Put simply, that skill involves being able to outline and visualise the steps you need to take to get from where you are at the moment, to where you want to be.

To illustrate this skill, consider how athletes use visualisation. To win at any sport (as far as I can tell), athletes need to perform complex behavioural routines, done to perfection. For example, a high jumper needs to hone the run up, takeoff, bar clearance and landing in order to do the perfect high jump. In addition to practising multiple actual jumps, athletes can practise these routines in their head, through visualisation. They can rehearse, in incredible detail, every aspect of a jump. Doing so improves their actual jumps. Detailed mental rehearsal or visualisation allows athletes to modify their technique, predict the outcomes of these technique changes, and identify barriers to further improvement.

Your job is to do the same thing in relation to the issues facing you at the moment.

Doing so involves two parts: brainstorming and visualisation.

In the brainstorming part, you are going to take the problems and barriers identified in Stage 1, and try to develop as many ideas/strategies as you can (from the sensible to the ridiculous) for how you might address those problems, with the goal of achieving the life you described in Stage 2.

There are rules to brainstorming:

  • Aim for quantity and diversity of ideas – be imaginative
  • Resist the urge to criticise your ideas
  • Resist the urge to jump too quickly onto an idea
  • Mix and combine ideas freely
  • Include ideas even if they haven’t worked previously, just in case they simply need to be tweaked
  • The more ideas you develop, the more likely it is the successful strategy is in there

Be systematic. Take each problem and barrier and brainstorm strategies for each one.

Make sure your strategies are described behaviourally – by that I mean translate each idea into a specific action or set of actions. For example, your broad idea might be to ‘get treatment for my anxiety’, which you would further break down into: make a GP appointment, write down symptoms, tell GP symptoms, ask for assistance, ask for specific steps to do next, follow those steps. The more concrete the steps you describe, the easier it will be to do the next part.

In the visualisation part, you take each of these strategies and mentally rehearse carrying out the specific actions involved. The more detail you include in your mental rehearsal, the better.

There are a number of reasons to do this mental rehearsal.

  1. Regular mental rehearsal increases your motivation to implement the strategy, because you imagine yourself succeeding.
  2. Mental rehearsal is a type of practice that will mean you do a better job when you actually carry out the strategy.
  3. Mental rehearsal allows you to identify knowledge or skills gaps that will need to be rectified before you carry out the strategy in the real world. For example, imagine that one of your strategies is to ‘approach your boss for a pay rise’. You might never have done this before, so when you go to mentally rehearse it, you realise you don’t really know how to. Addressing this skill deficit (e.g. going online to read about how other people have approached their boss for a pay rise) can get added to your list of strategies.
  4. Mental rehearsal allows you to predict possible negative outcomes or consequences of your strategies and plan accordingly. For example, you might mentally rehearse going to see your doctor about your anxiety, and realise he/she might hassle you about other tests that you haven’t had done yet. This allows you to plan an appropriate response.

Don’t limit your visualisation to just successful outcomes, as the visualisation of negative outcomes can help you identify and prepare for the factors that might get in your way. But do focus on repeated visualisation of strategies working well, so you are motivated and feel more confident in actually carrying out the strategies.

In addition to improving performance, visualisation can also help you narrow down your list of strategies from the brainstorming part. This is particularly important if your brainstorming went well and you have way more ideas for improving your life than you can realistically implement. Use visualisation to identify those strategies you think have the greatest likelihood of success. These will be the ones you implement in Stage 4.

I’ll finish this section by noting that visualisation is a strategy that sometimes people ascribe magical qualities to (e.g. The Secret). But it isn’t magical. It is just a powerful form of mental rehearsal that activates the parts of the brain that need to be activated in order to carry out the action. If you view visualisation as a way of rehearsing future behaviours, you can use it many different areas of your life. A relevant example as a student, is waking up each day and visualising yourself having a successful day of study.



Part 4 – start implementing the strategies and monitor the outcome

Phew! – this is a long post. If you need to have a toilet break or a quick drink be my guest 🙂




Ready to go? Don’t worry, this is the last section.


Ok, so if you’ve followed the logic of Stages 1-3, you will have a comprehensive description of your life as it stands, what you would like your life to look like, and a collection of strategies you think can move you towards that future. In Stage 4, you start putting these strategies into action.

Start by reviewing the main problems and barriers that you identified in Stage 1. Your first job is to select which of these you will start working on first. I generally recommend focusing your initial efforts on addressing the barriers. With these barriers addressed, you will be in a much better position to address the bigger picture issues.

I also tend to recommend that people start tackling barriers/problems that involve one-off actions (e.g. modify your study load), so you can have some immediate successes (‘wins on the board’), before tackling strategies that might involve establishing a new habit such as regular exercise or a change to your diet.

In this stage you can continue to use visualisation to rehearse the strategies before implementing them. In fact I recommend that you do.

Pacing is important in this stage. Pacing in this context refers to how many things you are trying to change at the same time. Pick too few, and you won’t get the encouragement of significant change. Pick too many, and you’ll be overwhelmed with the logistics of trying to transform your life too quickly. Remember that if you’ve been struggling with complex problems for a while, it might take some time to address these.

[Quick aside: if addressing your issues involves establishing new habits, educate yourself on what it takes to implement a new habit. I’ve written before about Habit Hacks and I also encourage you to pursue the writings of James Clear and BJ Fogg]

If you are implementing strategies for change, you will need to monitor the impacts of these strategies. Are they working? Is your life getting better? This is where all the work you did in Stage 2 becomes important. In that stage you envisioned a better future, in which your problems had been addressed. The core question you want to ask yourself on an ongoing basis is “Does this strategy get me closer to the life I imagined?” If you are moving towards the life you want, then the strategies are working.

Now i’d love to tell you that it will be a perfect straight line from your current life to your ideal life. It probably won’t be.

In fact, it is highly likely that in the process of making changes to your life, things will happen that you didn’t expect or predict. Where possible, treat this like a scientist might treat unusual data arising from an experiment. Use it to update the information in Stages 1-3.

Perhaps your current life changes in a way that makes it far more bearable, in which case you can update your vision of the future.

Perhaps you discover a strength or ability you didn’t know you had, which you can leverage to address your issues.

Maybe you discover that there were additional issues or problems not originally captured in Stage 1.

You might discover a personal need or desire that needs to be addressed in Stage 2.

Barriers might pop up which you didn’t forsee.  

Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you will need to update, or perhaps even radically change the personal self-assessments you did in Stage 1 and 2. It is perfectly normal. My concept of the ideal life is constantly shifting and changing, at least the surface description. The core themes however remain the same: creativity, writing, self-development, ongoing learning.

Also, don’t be surprised if the outcomes of your different strategies don’t match how you visualised them. Again, adopt the approach of a scientist and use this data to update the information developed in Stages 1-3.

Refine your strategies. Address skills gaps by purposefully seeking out professional (e.g. health and allied health professionals) or self-help (e.g. internet). .  help (e.g. professional help or self-help on the internet) or maybe professional help (e.g. health and allied health professionals). Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get it right the first time. During a period when I was quite sick, I had a lot of doctor’s appointments before I really got good at describing what was happening to me, and asking clearly for what I needed.

Remind yourself regularly that you are moving forward, and even though the direction might change, and the methods to do so might shift over time, that you are consciously and deliberately pushing yourself forward. As you start making changes in your life, this is another place for self-compassion. Solving complex problems can be a messy process, with lots of trial and error and mistakes along the way. Expect this to happen, and don’t be hard on yourself if it doesn’t go to plan. Imagine you were coaching a friend through the process, and remember you would likely treat them with kindness and compassion as they tackled something difficult in their life.


Takeaway message

Solving complex personal and interpersonal problems, whilst challenging, can be assisted by attending to 4 key psychological processes – describing in detail your current life, describing your ideal life, brainstorming and visualising strategies for getting from your current life to your ideal life, and then implementing those strategies and monitoring the outcomes.

The strength of this approach is that it both pushes and pulls you towards a better future. The push comes from understanding what you don’t like about your current life and visualising ways to address it. The pull comes from imagining a better future and feeling it motivate you to change, during times when you might be struggling.

I can’t emphasise enough how important the visualisation component is making important changes in your life. Visualisation is the mechanism through which you will practice connecting how to get from where you are now, to where you want to be. Visualisation is how you identify some of the key barriers to change, prepare for different outcomes, and identify knowledge and skill gaps that you can address. Visualisation is a form of mental gymnastics that you will get better at, the more you try. I’ve started using regular mindfulness practice to improve my ability to visualise.

The final thing to keep in mind is that the process described above whilst self-guided, does not negate seeking professional help. In fact, it would highly complement it. The big difference is that you might be clearer about why you are seeking help, what you hope to get out of it and the nature of the help itself. For example, you might decide to see a counsellor, but instead of it being for a nebulous reason like ‘I’m not very happy’, you would be able to more clearly articulate the help you need (e.g. “I want to learn to be more assertive”).

If you want to connect with other like-minded students who are trying to make improvements in their life, consider joining Oasis Online. Oasis Online is a compendium of wellbeing programs, services, and resources here at Flinders. Also stay tuned to this blog because in 2022 I will be releasing Healthy Habits Hub, a FLO topic dealing specifically with how to improve one’s mental health and academic performance. It draws on many of the ideas discussed in this post.

Otherwise, thank you for taking the time read this very long post.

Take care

Dr G


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Mental Fitness Psychological Tools

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