(This is material that will serve as the basis for a future chapter in Notes on Emotions)
There’s a concept of a life-complete problem that I first have from Mechanical Monk on his now-retired alt:
A life-complete problem is any problem (usually a simple, concrete, one) that you cannot solve without improving your life, because no matter how simple it seems, it is actually a manifestation of underlying issues.
Other problems that seem to be life-complete:
Keeping your home clean
Stopping procrastinating on work
Replying to your emails
Having great sex
Resolving relationship problems
Fixing sleep quality (a subtly different problem than getting in and out of bed)
Improving physical health
Importantly, not all of these are life-complete for everyone. Some people have spotless homes, productive work lives, great relationships with great sex after which they sleep perfectly, and are also in perfect shape. Believe it or not, those people often do still have major life problems other than the rest of us glaring daggers at them (cf. Nice Problems to Have). I suspect some people even have these problems in non life-complete ways which could just be solved by the right system or training course, though my guess is that most of those people will find that whatever they do to fix their problems without fixing their lives falls apart after a while.
(If you’re wondering which of these problems I have in life-complete ways, I regret to inform you that the answer is all of them, though some more than others)
When you run into a life-complete problem it can be very frustrating, because you want to do something simple and seemingly straightforward and you can’t, but I’d like to convince you of something counterintuitive: Under the right circumstances, life-complete problems are great, and you are really lucky to have them.
What are the right circumstances in which you can take advantage of them this way?
Well, roughly the same circumstances that allow one to fix any major emotional problems:
You have to be willing and able to change your life in major ways, including confronting a whole pile of emotional issues underlying the problems.
You have to actually know how.
Why? Well because you can solve them, and in solving them you will have improved your life, to a degree that would be very hard to achieve if you’d just set out to improve your life in some vague undirected sense. Life-complete problems give you a concrete measure of progress. It’s hard to kid yourself into thinking you’re making progress when all of your problems are still there.
This ties back to my definition of emotional health as having your emotions well integrated with your every day practical reasoning and experience of the world. Life-complete problems reveal places where your emotions are poorly integrated with your practical reasoning, because they result in you getting bad outcomes in things that shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
So how do you solve a life-complete problem?
You do the simple obvious thing that clearly works and everyone knows clearly works.
You pay attention to the emotions that come up when you do that that causes this not to work.
You use feedback between the two to resolve each (cf. How I fix anxiety triggers), improving both the plan and the emotion.
The weird thing about this is how underacknowledged this is as a general pattern. There’s a weird sense that trying to actually solve your problems is somehow pathological (e.g. therapists) or unenlightened (e.g. Buddhists). I’m sure most of them don’t actually believe this, but it’s somehow implied by the theoretical frameworks they operate under.
In order to find any good advice on integrating problem solving and emotional skills, you tend to need to go to the literature for specific problems. The literature on cleaning is (perhaps in retrospect unsurprisingly?) quite good at this - e.g. Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is basically “Here is how to do Focusing in order to clean your home”, and Unfuck Your Habit is a guide to managing anxiety and guilt that crop up in the course of cleaning.
Another area where things are a bit more err… hands on… is sex therapy, because people can only kid themselves into thinking that their sex life is going great for so long (although, oddly, sex therapy doesn’t seem to focus much on great sex, only not bad sex. I read Magnificent Sex recently, which makes interesting points in this space, although I’m unsure how actively to recommend it for various reasons), and this acts as a driver to address the underlying emotional issues.
One of the main purposes of the book, and in general of a lot of the things I’m writing about in this space, is to take this interaction seriously: Start from the idea that emotions are for things, and that we should consider them in the context of the things they are for. Success isn’t just about solving our problems by working around them or papering over them, and it’s not just about feeling better without fundamentally changing anything, but about figuring out how to ensure that we actually get better at life in mundane practical ways by paying attention to the emotional context.