Ours is a puzzle family. A puzzling family, too, granted. Perhaps this explains our proclivity for assembling puzzles. As soon as the presents start to collect around the Christmas tree, we begin shaking and rattling to discover which shiny wrapper guards the year’s family puzzle. Once the secret is revealed, we pour out the pieces with excitement, and recognize our agenda for family gatherings is set until the New Year.

I noticed, while assembling puzzles, that the process of creating order out of chaos can teach us a lot about solving problems in life. Because we all solve puzzles differently, it has become apparent that assembling puzzles is a lot easier when you work as a team. Some of us look for color matches. Some can’t tell a red shade from an orange, and so they focus on shapes. Some of us rely heavily on the box cover to visualize where a piece might go. Others might not glance at the box once during the entire process.

My husband is very, very left-brained and I am very, very right-brained. Combining these talents completes a picture that would retain huge gaps without the other. Our different abilities enable us to solve the problem in a way that expedites our journey to a common goal.

VSC Article_Header_Allen_0001_2013Puzzles often become clearer after stepping back for a while. If we’ve been laboring over a certain segment for too long, we get tired, and fail to notice obvious solutions glaring right in front of us. In life, taking a break can often enhance our perspective. Whether pondering a major purchase, a relationship, a career change or a calling, removing oneself temporarily from the intense concentration often necessary in making big decisions can open our minds and allow us to see the problem more clearly.

Taking a break, however, is not the same as losing focus. Often while assembling a puzzle, you’ll find a piece that is an interesting color or shape, and it will take you to a completely different area of the puzzle than you were working on initially. Before you know it your eyes are darting all over the place, to the sky, to the ground, to various objects, and you feel overwhelmed, like the world is spinning and you want to yell, “stop.”

Trying to solve too many of life’s problems at one time can make us feel like we are reeling, never seeing beyond the fact that we face a slew of problems, and failing to focus on one problem long enough to find a solution. When faced with an overwhelming number of problems at once, it’s often helpful to prioritize in terms of time or space. For example, if an assignment is due in two days, forget all the other problems and focus on the one that’s most imminent. If the entire house is a disastrous mess, focus on the room you need the most; perhaps you will let the bedrooms sit for a few days and merely focus on the kitchen. This of course, would be a left-brained approach, as opposed to my tendency to do what a friend calls “pig-farming.” (No clue why that’s the term??–but apparently it means flitting from one task to another without ever completing the first one.)

Even more subtle lessons present themselves to seasoned puzzlers, such as accepting the fact that a piece doesn’t fit, even when it should fit, it looks like it fits, and you want it to fit. The sooner you can accept an ill fit, the more damage you can prevent.

Often when doing a puzzle, a piece might be the right color, but not the right shape, or the right shape, but not quite the right color. Just because it matches in one way, doesn’t mean it’s the right piece. It must be the right in all aspects. If you put a piece in the wrong place, it’s impossible to complete the rest of the puzzle.

This lesson can be extremely helpful for those looking for a relationship. If a relationship is good in some ways, but bad in others, it’s not a fit. Rather than messing up all the “pieces” in the vicinity, it’s best to find the one that fits.

You can often tell the piece doesn’t fit when you turn the section over and look at the back without all the beautiful images. In relationships, the beautiful colors and exciting shapes can draw our attention away from the core, a core that becomes recognizable when viewed from another perspective. Sometimes looking at the plain gray cardboard is the best way to accept the fact that, sure enough, that’s not where that piece goes. It doesn’t mean there isn’t another piece that will fit in that spot, or that the piece you tried to use won’t fit somewhere else. It means you need to keep searching.

Sometimes you have looked so hard for a piece you think it is lost entirely. Perhaps the dog ate it, or it got sucked up by the vacuum. A puzzle can become discouraging if you think it’s impossible to complete, due to missing pieces. A dozen times in the course of a 1000 piece puzzle I find myself thinking, “That piece must be missing, I’ve looked everywhere,” and behold, by the time we complete the puzzle, the piece has appeared and wasn’t lost after all.

Of course, in life this means never give up. Don’t think that because you can’t find a solution to a wayward child’s behavior right now, that the solution won’t eventually present itself. Chances are you just need to be patient, wait for others to help, or come back to the problem with a fresh perspective. Of all the times our family has become discouraged, and considered just sweeping the puzzle back into the box, only once did we give up. That was when the puzzle contained 3000 pieces and we simply didn’t have a surface large enough to put on it on.

JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at www.smithfamilytherapy.org