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  • Writer's pictureGwyneth Kerr Erwin, Ph.D., Psy.D

How Do You Solve a Problem Like . . . .


Multiple problems are embedded in moving suffering to hope.

Some are external, like conflicting needs or desires with others, lack of necessary resources (in time, money, or energy), not having vital alliances or partnerships, meaning having to go it alone. Each of these challenges means discovering external means to bring to bear on a suffering situation, usually in the form of care from self and others, improved interpersonal communication, strategizing with someone trustworthy, and collaborating to find the way out of conflict. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

At knotty as these external problems are, there can be available concrete and linear ways to cope. Much more difficult are the non-linear, dynamic processes we grapple with internally.

Dan wakes up in a full sweat at 3:00 am, struggling to wrest himself from another nightmare where he is in an underground maze he can’t find his way out of. He soon realizes that the dream is not reality, but its symbols crash into what is his reality, a threatening layoff he can’t bear to share with his wife.

Maizie, only twenty-five years of age, has just discovered she has lupus, with a lifetime of worry ahead to anticipate.

Claire, age 6, wakes up every few hours with pounding heartbeats, afraid to face another day at school.

While the “external” real-life problems are shouting at them, it is the internal landscape they live in that keeps them bound to suffering. Why? Because, intrinsically, each feels alone, and in that, helpless and hopeless.

Only 1/30 of a second is necessary for fear to convert to terror, but it can take hours, days, even weeks or longer for someone’s nervous system to recover from a single bout of that level of fear. What converts the fear to terror is the experience of being alone with what is frightening. We might have a loving partner, a parent, or a dear friend, but we can still feel or be “in it” alone for any number of reasons. Stock phrases, though sincere, such as “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “At least, s/he’s no longer in pain,” or “I know you’ll figure this out,” “It’s going to be okay,” do not relieve the terrible solitary experience of suffering.

What does?

Hope comes from a deep kind of empathy, to immediate = to be fully present with another person with their experience. Such presence requires the patience to listen, actively but quietly, no fixing, no quick “problem solving.” Then it requires an invitation for collaboration, because as someone feels truly listened to, met where they are and respected, they themselves will start saying things like, “Do you think …. ?”, or “Maybe I could ….?” They might look into your eyes with a plea for honest but kind feedback, and the two of you can begin to test some waters, together. The reassurance that your emotional presence is available brings support to their first faltering steps.

In my nearly thirty years of practice, I have never had a patient take advantage of my availability, which I offer after hours, on weekends, or on holidays. The reason: they know I show up, emotionally present. People don’t need so much in quantity; they need the right, and usually simple (not simplistic) response in quality. They are met. And with that steadfast resonance, suffering begins to move into hope.

For more understanding about our internal emotional landscape, order your copy or gift someone with The Developmental Lens: A New Paradigm for Psychodynamic Diagnosis and Treatment today.

Thank you. Dr. Gwyn Erwin

P.S. Exciting News: For those of you who yearn to immediate yourselves through writing, to begin to make use of your authorial voice or level up your writing, or develop your professional writing ideas on the page, see my Seasons for Authorial Voice: The Flow Write Card Deck available for purchase on my website, or in its brand new version Seasons for Authorial Voice: The Flow Write Journal (Annual or Seasonal) for sale on amazon. Great for gift-giving!

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