Dilemmas are different from ordinary problems.  

Problems have solutions.  Dilemmas are more about resolution than solution. 

Here’s what I mean. Consider the following dilemmas I hear about on a regular basis:

  • “How can I let myself be happier — without losing my drive to do better?”
  • “How can I set better boundaries and say no — without coming off as selfish or mean?”
  • “How I learn to express my true feelings — without risking being taken advantage of or humiliated?”
  • “How can I influence others — without manipulating or triangulating?”
  • “How can I go for what I want — without feeling guilty or selfish?”
  • “How can I connect better with other people — without feeling fake or phony?”
  • “How can I eat less — without feeling deprived?”
  • “How can I learn to relax —  without losing my edge?”


Resolving dilemmas like these seriously challenge us in three ways.   

  1. It won’t be quick.
  2. It won’t be easy.
  3. You’ll have to do something different. 

So the bad news is the resolution of a dilemma requires some kind of change.  Somehow you have to find a way to disrupt your ingrained, habitual, conditioned behavioral pattern and replace it with something fresh, new and different enough that you get what you want. That’s the good news — you get what you want.  What could be more satisfying than getting to help people get what they most deeply desire?  That’s why I like doing this work so much —  I get to work with people on the things that make life worth living.  

You can change faster and easier than you thought. 

More good news:  Recent research suggests that the ability to change ourselves is easier and faster than we thought.  I’m not talking about a new year’s resolution or “I’m fired up from a motivational talk!” temporary behavior change.  I’m saying that our personalities, the very traits that define who we are, are more flexible and changeable than previously thought possible.  A meta-analysis of over 200 studies by Dr. Brent Roberts and his colleagues at the University of Illinois revealed that even relatively brief courses of therapy (averaging about six months) can shift such traits as emotional stability and extraversion.  

Here’s an interesting twist:  Brett Steenbarger, Ph.D. and his colleagues at SUNY, specialize in the teaching and practice of brief approaches to counseling and psychotherapy.  Steenbarger primarily works with traders and portfolio managers in “trading psychology” and how traders can improve their trading performance and their personal lives.  Steenbarger and his colleagues reviewed the major evidence-based forms of brief therapies in a recent text, The Art and Science of Brief Psychotherapies. 

Consistent with other studies, they found that the specific type of therapy doesn’t seem to matter.  They also discovered what does matter.  Their review found three essential ingredients that create the conditions “allowing profound changes to occur, often within a matter of months”:

  • Active engagement:  The use of a supportive relationship to encourage and sustain focused change efforts and promote an environment of hope and optimism.
  • Discrepancy:  The ability of therapy to provide powerful emotional experiences that disrupt old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior and promote the exploration of new patterns.  
  • Consolidation:  The ongoing reinforcement and rehearsal of the new patterns so that these become internalized as fresh parts of the self.  

Here’s how to put this in perspective.  

Before we get too excited, let’s think big-picture.  This is not intensive psychotherapy for serious forms of debilitating, abnormal behavior.   This is a newly emerging branch of psychology with a focus on treating not just mental illness, but also on how to cultivate mental wellness.  In other words, it’s the scientific study of how ordinary people deal adaptively and intelligently to the inevitable and unavoidable curveballs of life — adversity, difficulties, obstacles and setbacks.  

What keeps me excited and engaged (and not burned out) is that it’s not just about getting rid of something you don’t want — depression, bad relationships, anxiety or addiction.  It’s also about getting something you do want in the process — better relationships, more peace of mind, more happiness and meaning in life.  

Even though the prognosis is usually good, not every issue responds equally well.  For example, the meta-analysis revealed that people with anxiety disorders changed the most and those with substance abuse changed the least.  

Finally, let’s not pull any punches.  If you take a close look at the three factors that make profound change possible in a relatively short period of time, you’ll notice it’s not a casual approach.  In fact, you pretty much have to be “all in” to win.   

The University of Illinois researchers quantified how counseling stacks up with a do-it-yourself approach:  If you are really counseling-adverse, you can work on your own for 40 years and get halfway there—or you can accomplish the same result in less than a year.  The catch?  You’ll need a little help to get there.