The symptoms are not the disease

by | October 3, 2016

We often do in our lives what doctors do: treat the symptoms instead of curing the actual disease.

I was once working with a coaching client who told me he wanted help with time management.

As an estimator for a construction company, his job is to meet with potential clients, review their project specs, and give them a proposal detailing all the costs. He knows his business well and he’s excellent at his job. But he was frustrated because his proposals kept taking much longer than they should.

I told him I could definitely help, but I guaranteed it wouldn’t be what he thought it was.

I asked him questions and poked around a bit, looking for what I knew was really at the root of the problem.

After a while he revealed he’s a perfectionist about his proposals and takes far too much time reviewing them over and over again before submitting them to his boss.

“Have you ever been criticized for making a mistake on a proposal?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Although it was for super petty things. My boss questioned a few line items, but even after making the changes he wanted the adjusted bid was almost identical to the original.”

“So it’s not like you’re making lots of mistakes, or big mistakes,” I said.


“So you’re being far more meticulous than you need to be because you don’t want your boss coming down on you. Is that right?”


I already had enough to know what was really going on, but I continued digging. He revealed that he takes on the work of someone on his team who is supposed to call suppliers for him. But he never got them called in time so my client ended up doing his work for him.

It was further revealed that he’s had conflicts with this person in the past, so he does whatever he can to avoid him.

At this point we had identified two problems: 1) he was taking longer than he needed to on proposals to avoid criticism from his boss, and 2) he took on other people’s work to avoid tough conversations.

But I knew these were still just symptoms, not the root disease.

I said, “What I’m really seeing here isn’t a time management problem. What I’m seeing is that you have a hard time with conflict and criticism. Tell me where that comes from.”

I continued digging until we hit gold.

He said, “When I was a kid, whenever my dad had a problem with something I did, he would take me into the bathroom and criticize me for what I had done wrong. I hated those confrontations more than anything. I felt so small and worthless.”

And there it was, plain as day.

Giving him time management pointers would have been like giving him pain pills; the pain may have been temporarily reduced, but the root disease would have remained.

The root disease of virtually every problem we experience in life is almost always some false belief about ourselves, which we create from childhood wounds.

(To uncover and heal your deepest wounds, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

Another one of my coaching clients, who helps women with self-care, recently asked her audience to complete a survey. One of the questions she asked was, “What’s the single biggest challenge you’re facing in how you feel about yourself right now?”

Consider a few of the responses:

  • “Making time for my workouts, etc. I have great intentions, but I think, ‘when I finish _______, I will work out’ or ‘I will sit and relax.’ Trouble is: I always have one more thing to do.”
  • “Making space in demanding relationships to be me, time for self care, and guilty failure feelings because of school test scores from my kids.”
  • “No motivation to exercise.”
  • “I’m too tired to fix my hair and put on makeup.”
  • “My weight. I feel like it’s all my fault that I am so big. I should have been more careful with my health.”
  • “Mentally, I feel exhausted with responsibilities sometimes. I have a hard time saying ‘no’ when others ask me to do something.”
  • “Change is hard. I wish that I hadn’t gained 10 pounds over the past 3 years. I feel like I have a hard relationship with food.”
  • “Food. Because of my bad (sugary) food choices I’m unhappy with my body and feel guilt for not trying to do better.”

In every case, what the respondent thinks is the problem isn’t actually the root problem.

Take a woman who is frustrated with her weight and thinks that her problem is that she eats too much sugar.

Eating too much sugar is just a symptom. She can treat the symptom all she wants by trying to use willpower to overcome her sugar urges, but until she uncovers and deals with the root disease, she will always relapse and eat too much sugar.

If she were to dig deeper, she will find a root belief about herself that is driving her behavior. Perhaps the belief is, “I’m not attractive.” Since we’re programmed to make our beliefs true, until she reprograms that belief she will subconsciously do whatever she can to make herself unattractive.

People with low motivation don’t need a pep talk; low motivation is just a symptom. They need to go deeper to understand what’s causing the low motivation. For example, it could be that they’re afraid to take bold action because they don’t believe they can succeed. If they were to get motivated, they would have to face the pain of that original wound, so they cover it up with lethargy.

If you want genuine, lasting change in your life, you have to see beyond symptoms and uncover the root disease. Here are just a few of the symptoms people try to treat, to no avail:

  • Time management
  • Excess weight
  • Low energy
  • Low motivation
  • Addictions
  • Money problems
  • Marital conflict
  • Job struggles

Just as prescription drugs abound for health symptoms, so do quick fixes abound in personal development for these and other issues.

The last thing you need is more pills and quick fixes. If you truly want to be healed, you have to identify the root disease.

(To uncover and heal your deepest wounds, click here to download my free toolkit now.)


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