To Do or Not To Do

September 24, 2012

Non-doing has nothing to do with being indolent or passive. Quite the contrary. It takes great courage and energy to cultivate non-doing, both in stillness and in activity. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

We humans are problem-solving creatures, capable of sorting through complex problems. We have survived as a species, in part, because of our ability to make quick appraisals of situations and to identify courses of action most likely to lead to positive or desirable outcomes.

For our ancestors, quick thinking and reacting frequently made the difference between life and death. In our time, we still face situations when our immediate assessment and response help prevent or minimize negative results. Because of it, when difficulties arise in our relationships, we frequently feel compelled to jump into action. Problem-solving is a most useful and necessary skill, but it is not always what is called for in response to all our interactions with others.

When faced with challenges in our relationships, we may feel inclined to “fix” problems right away. But, while taking charge of an issue may initially help us feel more in control, it can also prevent us from getting in touch with our real feelings and needs. Also, our jumping into problem-solving without acknowledging the feelings and needs of others, may leave them feeling frustrated and unheard, even if we are trying to make thoughtful and constructive suggestions.

Our society values action and results over reflection and acknowledgement. We need to know how to work through challenging situations, but problem-solving can get in our way. At times, our fixing of a problem is done at the expense of acknowledging emotions that, while uncomfortable, can enhance our acceptance and understanding of a situation. Sometimes, the best thing that we can do for ourselves and for others is to be present.

“Don’t just do something, sit there” is the title of one of Sylvia Boorstein’s books. It reminds me of the value of slowing things down, and taking in an experience before jumping into action. I believe that challenges in our relationships can be best handled when we pause, stay in the experience of the moment and take into account the feelings and needs of all involved; and we can not do that if our primary focus is the quick fixing of the problem. Sometimes non-doing turns out to be the most helpful and productive thing to do.

Pilar Poal, PhD is a licensed psychologist and Senior Staff Therapist in Council for Relationships’ Paoli & Exton offices. She can be reached at 610-594-9808 ext. 6.