Existential Psychology

Minimization Of Problems

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When people complain about a problem area in their lives it’s tempting to try to help them by minimizing the severity of that problem. “It’s not so bad, others have it far worse, look on the bright side, keep your chin up, etc.” The appeal of this type of feedback for the people with the complaint is that nothing has to change about the situation except their perception, which means distress can dissipate without having to do any of the hard work of change.

Such feedback usually ends up being detrimental to growth though because it transfers responsibility for understanding and solving the problem from where it belongs. Oftentimes things really are that bad, not intolerable, but bad. A romantic relationship that has run its course, a job that offers little intellectual stimulation, a lonely existence without many friends. All of these situations can go on indefinitely but this doesn’t mean they should go on indefinitely. Only by taking the responsibility for change into their own hands, no longer accepting the unwanted situation with rationalizations like ‘it could be worse’ or ‘others are doing fine in similar circumstances’, can things improve.

The secret concern is that just listening and empathizing, agreeing that the situation is bad rather than minimizing its severity, will make things worse for the people going through a difficult period. But this concern misses the underlying existential truth that what we all need is to feel understood and validated, that what is infinitely more painful than a set of bad circumstances is facing these circumstances completely alone, and alone is usually how we feel when complaints that are very real to us are minimized.

Accepting a complaint at face value throws the responsibility back on the people lodging this complaint, who will then be likely to minimize its severity on their own if they really have blown it out of proportion. If they haven’t blown it out of proportion then they can move from the contemplation stage to the planning stage. No longer content to let things lie, they can summon their strengths and potentialities, bringing them to bear in order to actually change their lives for the better instead of continue to accept an unwanted situation.