When Should We Run Away From Our Problems?
31 Oct 2017
Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash
Recently, somebody asked me for advice about making a big decision.
Obviously, the fact they were asking me demonstrates terrible judgement, so I told them whatever decision they THOUGHT they should make, they should probably do the opposite.
I kid, of course. But I was interested in why they were asking:
They weren’t sure if the big change they were considering was a good idea, or if they were just trying to run away from their problems.
I think their worry was confusing a few separate issues together, but I can see where it comes from.
You know the old saying “wherever you go, there you are”? It’s the folk-wisdom way of saying you might THINK moving to a tropical island will solve all your problems, but it won’t if the issue is within you in the first place.
And it’s obviously true! If I’m always unhappy, then wherever I go won’t solve the problem.
But, also obviously, sometimes making a big change IS helpful. A genuine fresh start in a new city or job can be huge!
To an overthinker, well-meaning advice like this can become an extra thing to worry about.
Making a big decision is stressful enough, and this adds an additional voice in the back of the mind saying “hey, wait, does this count as ‘running away’?! OH GOD I’M DOOMED AND TRAPPED WHERE I AM FOREVER BECAUSE ALL CHANGES ARE RUNNING AWAY”
So, in different contexts, the same action – a big life change – could be us burying our heads in the sand, or a heroic and brave new start.
HOW DO WE TELL WHICH IS WHICH?!
Clearly, It’s Context
Honestly, sometimes it seems like “it depends” is the answer to almost every human problem, from “should I eat this out-of-date yoghurt” to “is it a good idea to quit my job and move to Gloucestershire”.
But let’s break down the context to see WHAT, exactly, “depends” in our particular situation.
In this case, I think the most helpful divide is “internal/external”.
If you have an external problem – like noisy neighbours, an unpleasant boss, or a wild squirrel living in your garden that hates you – then of course it’s possible to solve the problem by changing the circumstances.
This isn’t “running away”, it’s making a positive change to fix a negative external situation.
(And, depending on the exact problem, making the change might even be the best solution.)
But internal problems – like anxious brain habits, negative attitudes, unresolved trauma – can’t be escaped by changing external circumstances.
Of course, even with internal problems, external changes can still help. Moving somewhere you like, meeting someone new, getting a pay rise, trying new medication, a better exercise regime… any positive change can reduce our burden, which gives us more energy to address any internal issues.
And sometimes a change is the kickstart we need. If we’re currently unhappy, then doing the same things isn’t going to suddenly bring us happiness.
But, fundamentally, if the issue is internal, then we can only sort it by doing the work required – whether that’s emotional processing, changing our brain habits, learning a new technique to manage anxiety, or any of the other ways to take more charge of our own brains.
The Relevant Questions
Of course, even the fact someone is worrying about this at all suggests they’re not the kind of person to run away from problems in the first place.
It seems FAR more likely to me that they’re overthinking it and generating problems by searching for them with a tiny, detailed microscope. (I speak from years of experience of doing exactly this.)
Still, even self-generated problems are still problems. And I usually find it reassuring to have processes for figuring this stuff out, so here are a couple of questions that might be useful to explore if you find yourself worrying about this sort of thing:
- Does this potential change have a decent chance to be positive, i.e. might it make my life better, even if only a bit?
- Am I expecting this change to magically fix everything? i.e. are my expectations realistic?
If our expectations are realistic, and the change might reasonably make things better, then great! If not, then perhaps there is an element of ‘ignoring the real problem’ going on, and we need to figure out what that is, and how to solve it.
(Obviously, for any big life change there are far more important questions than these! But if you’re caught in the “oh god am I just trying to run away” trap, this might help you out so you can contemplate the really important questions.)
My friend is still deciding, but hopefully they’re not worrying about this anymore.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.