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Why That Problem You Have Keeps Coming Back (Treat the Root Cause, Not the Symptom)

Noam LightstonePsychology Leave a Comment

Jake is a good dude. He’s smart, well liked, and has a lot going for him. He’s been at his job for over a year and basically knows what’s going on at his company. His boss isn’t the best though, sometimes raising their voice a bit and demanding Jake does things faster. But Jake doesn’t really think much of it. He just tries to push himself with some overtime hours to make his boss happy.

At home, Jake’s wife, Annie, works part-time from home to be able to spend more time looking after the kids. Annie is really happy to be taking care of the kids as they grow up but Jake notices she often looks starry eyed when Jake talks about his job and the stresses he’s under. It seems like Annie wants that stress for some reason. Annie’s started bringing up the idea of needing to consider daycare more so she might be able to go back to working full-time, but Jake is worried that the kids will suffer not being around a parent as much. This has led to some frustration and arguments between them.

Jake’s also been dealing with a nagging sports injury. He has to go to multiple appointments a week and do specific stretching routines every day to keep on top of things.

He’s noticed he’s started getting some headaches. Usually a Tylenol fixes that, but he also hasn’t been sleeping as well. He goes to the doctor who gives him a prescription for something to sleep, which works amazing! But after that, Jake finds he needs to take it every night, which he’s not supposed to do. With some will power he stops, but then on those nights, he stays awake thinking about work, his wife, the kids, and the injury.

He now comes to work annoyed by all the stuff going on and by most of his coworkers as well. They ask him for things and he thinks, “Why can’t these people do it themselves? Can’t they see how much stress I’m under?”

Jake continues to try to meet his boss’s requests but now the overtime is getting pretty heavy. He doesn’t see Annie as much because when he comes home and on the weekend all he wants to do is veg out alone. Even the kids are taking too much of his energy, and because his sleep is still off, he has a hard time managing everything.

Things come to a point where Jake checks into psychotherapy. He needs a fix to these problems and to not feel stressed anymore. He doesn’t see himself in a positive light. If he can’t take those pills every night, maybe a therapist can give him something else. So he goes to his therapist and says:

“I’m feeling stressed. It’s like I always need to do whatever my boss says and work overtime, but then I come home and my wife and kids bug me, and then my wife gets annoyed when I go to my room because I need some space to get away from everything. And my coworkers ask me for stuff and it annoys me because I’m already so tired from not sleeping and trying to fix the injury that’s been bugging me for so long.

I wish someone could just make my life easier or I could be on Valium all the time or something. Isn’t there a way to make this all easier?”

“Well, yeah, that all sounds pretty overwhelming. Let’s break that down a bit…You said “I always need to do whatever my boss says and work overtime.””


“Why is that?”

“Because I don’t wanna get fired, ‘duh!”


“Because I like my job.”


“Because it has good benefits and a lot of freedom, and I love what I do. And before when I could sleep properly I loved the people I worked with other than my boss.”


“Because it’s so hard to find places where I feel like I belong.”


“Because when I was a kid I didn’t feel like I fit in.”

“OK, now we’ll have to come back to that. But another question for you: Have you ever tried saying “no” to your boss in working overtime?”

“Well…no! Again, I don’t wanna get fired!”

“What’s the worst case that would happen then?”

“I would feel ashamed and embarrassed, like I messed up somehow. I guess I might feel some relief too initially. I have savings but I’d have to find another job and would worry I’d never find something with the benefits like this.”

“Have you considered transferring teams?”

“Well, no…”

“Why is that?”

“Well I like them, and they should understand that I’m feeling stressed.”

“Why should they?”

“People are smart. They can figure it out.”


“Well, that’s how I’ve always operated!!!”

OK this was a bit of a compressed timeline and an over-simplified example getting to some answers. You can see Jake just went to a therapist and things just came out.

I’m not saying that this is all that was going on here. The point of the story was that Jake’s headache and the things that started to snowball were symptoms caused by poor boundaries and beliefs that led to him not getting needs met. The poor boundaries and beliefs were caused by some of his ideas about not feeling like he fit in, wasn’t good enough, and that people should be able to intuit what his needs and feelings were.

The therapist in this case used the 5 Whys technique and also asked some questions to lightly poke at what were supposedly “solid” beliefs.

We usually think things are very simple but really, we are driven to act by deep, underlying subconscious beliefs, principles, and patterns we’ve held on to or learned over our lives, constantly engaging in self-sabotage. Until we become aware of those patterns, if they are causing issues, and treat or process those root causes, we will always suffer the symptoms that result from them.

The challenge is that symptoms are waaaay easier to treat. Root causes can take YEARS of painful, challenging, and frustrating work to process. Also, many people don’t WANT to find the root causes, either because of the pain associated with them, or because it’s easier to just try to keep throwing quick fixes at the issues.

But then they bubble up to the surface and cause problems again.

From your own relationships and introspection you can learn about some of your root causes. But by far the quickest and easiest way to learn about them is with a trained and licensed medical health professional (therapist, psychologist, doctor, etc.). EVERYBODY has stuff. You might as well get at the root quicker rather than later to live a happier and healthier life. You can find a link to a list of some different types here.

The longer you wait, the the deeper the roots take hold.

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