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ER3: Problem Solving

If we can change the emotion by solving the problem, then first solve the problem!

Problem solving is an emotional regulation strategy when:

1) a problem is what triggers an emotional reaction, and

2) the problem can be resolved.

If the emotion is too intense to go into problem solving mode, then distress tolerance, self-soothing, self-validation, or other acceptance strategies are probably necessary as a first step. However, when an unwanted emotion fits the facts and the facts are a problem, then we need problem solving skills.

If you have a loved one in this situation, do NOT solve their problem for them!

RESIST solving other people's problems.

INSTEAD, accompany another as they solve their own problems. Help another to identify their problem, identify solutions, and select a solution to try.

The best way to do this is by ASKING QUESTIONS!

Like...what questions???


Can you describe the situation that is causing this distress? Is this the first time it happened or is it a repeated problem? (your apartment needs repainting vs. your apartment needs cleaning) Is this a chronic problem? (living with an abusive person, working at a job one hates...)

Are you being judgmental? Are you holding on to any criticisms, opinions, or beliefs regarding the situation? Can you let go of them?

So what is problematic about the situation? Why is it a problem for you at this time? (This may seem obvious, but it is useful to clarify exactly why it is a problem.

What are the obstacles to solving the problem? Are you doing anything that might be destructive or ineffective around this situation? (self-injury, substance use, angry outbursts, missing work or school...) Is there anything or anyone in the environment that is preventing you from solving the problem? Is indecision an obstacle?

Are all the facts so far correct? Just the facts! Check to make sure there are no interpretations about the facts, nor any black and white / all or nothing thinking. How distressing is the situation? Are there conflicts or obstacles that reflect the facts?

What are your goals? What is really important to you in the medium and long-term regarding this situation? What do you hope will be the consequences of solving the problem?

Can we brainstorm solutions together? Can we generate as many new and different ideas as possible, without censoring or judging our ideas, including ideas that are far out? Brainstorming welcomes all ideas. It is important to include some outrageous ideas to get or to keep the ball rolling here. It is all too easy to evaluate ideas as they emerge instead of just listing them and continuing to generate new ideas.

When an exhaustive list of possible solutions has been completed, then a review of the list may help to identify a solution which may include one idea, a combination of ideas, or various priorities to try. At this point it is time to step back and review the pros and cons of a selected solution or a selected first step toward a solution. Consult WISE MIND here!

Now comes the most important step in problem solving. Put the solution into action! But that is not the end of the story. Evaluate the results. If it did not work out as expected, remember, problems are often sticky and require multiple attempts before they get resolved. Everyone needs to practice RESILIENCE to bounce back and PERSISTENCE to try again!



1. Clearly identify the problem to be solved and the obstacles that might get in the way.

2. Get creative and list possible solutions.

3. Evaluate the possible solutions and select one.

4. Implement the chosen solution.

5. Repeat if it doesn't solve the problem.

Try this for yourself before accompanying someone else! Use this worksheet. Let me know if you have any questions!

Problem Solving Form
Download PDF • 50KB

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