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Draw Upon Your Existing

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

At the most basic level, what you know about how personal problems occur and may be solved comes to you from the cultural teachings you have been exposed to since birth. What you've learned from your parents and family members, your religion, your school teachers, your television watching and magazine and book reading, and from your peers all amount to culturally learned knowledge. You will naturally draw upon this learning as you try to determine what is causing your problem.

Because every person is exposed to different cultural teachings, different people learn to interpret the same problems differently, and end up having very different reactions to them. Each person's peculiar and unique background makes it so that particular aspects of their problem will tend to leap out at them as being significant, and others aspects of their problem may not be attended to. People's varying backgrounds will also influence what types of solution occurs to them once they think they understand their problem.

Consider the following examples which illustrate the diversity of ways that different people may view similar problems. Imagine four different people who each have developed a fear of going out into public places, including to the grocery store. 

  • One person, born and raised in America, college educated and a frequent viewer of the "Doctor Phil" television show, might view her fear of leaving the safety of home as a kind of "anxiety disorder". She fears experiencing the intense panic feelings that sometimes occur when she is out shopping and so avoids shopping. This person's fear might easily be thought of as a "personal failing" or identity problem, except to the extent that she thinks of it as a medical or mental health problem first. Because the problem has been identified for her as a recognized disorder that many people get (e.g., Agoraphobia), she is less prone to blaming herself for having it.

People living in other circumstances might generate very different explanations concerning similar problems: 

  • Someone from a highly traditional culture which cloisters women, might think, for instance, that her fear problem exists because she don't have a spouse or male protector who can accompany her as she shops so as to keep her safe. She might interprets her personal experience of fear as a type of shameful relationship problem she has (that she is unmarried, or otherwise unprotected), and not as a specifically personal failure.
  • A different person might subscribe to a religion that forbids people from working on Saturdays. That person might fear that the sin of going out to market on a Saturday will result in their being punished by God. In this instance, the fear is a religious problem (so long as it is limited to Saturday Shopping), and not a personal failing.
  • Still another person might be afraid to go out shopping for food because he is inexperienced. He has never been to the market before, and it feels overwhelming to him to know what to purchase. In this final example the problem is again a personal one, but a slightly different sort of personal problem than before.

These examples show how four different people might generate four different explanations for what otherwise would appear, on the surface of it, to be the same problem. As we better understand the context of the life each person is living, we begin to understand that though their problems appear to be similar, they are in fact, distinct.

The best problem solutions are based on personalized problem understandings. The various ways that these four fearful people come up with to try and solve their fear problem will almost certainly be consistent with their own culturally derived personal explanations for why their fear occurs. The person who fears shopping on a Saturday for religious reasons might solve the problem by shopping on another day. The person who fears shopping because he has never done it before might ask someone go with him to the store and teach him how to shop. The woman from the traditional culture where spouses are responsible for providing protection might decide to seek out a relationship with someone who will become her spouse and/or protector. These example self-help solutions are tailored to the needs and expectations of the people who have generated them. Because each solution is so nicely fitted to the needs of the fearful person who came up with it, that solution is likely to feel 'right' for them and to have a reasonable chance of working out well for that person. To the extent that a solution doesn't feel right to the person who tries to use it, it is likely that that solution won't work for them. The approach that might work for the religious man won't work for the inexperienced man, or vice versa, for example.