Toxic questions, surplus problems and psychological interventions

Every person has to deal with all kinds of problems in all areas of life. This is normal. But in addition to problems, we can also have surplus problems. A surplus problem is a secondary problem that arises from the way you think about and deal with another primary problem. 

Surplus problems 

A primary problem could be a mother who has a baby who keeps crying and who she can hardly get to calm down. One surplus problem that this mother could have is that this situation makes her wonder if she is a bad mother or if her baby is bad baby. 

Another example. John has just started in his new position in a new company. After a few weeks, he made a big mistake that caused a customer to complain to his boss. John feels that this situation has already ruined his chances of success in this company. In his mind he says things to himself like, “This is never going to work, here. I might as well immediately start applying elsewhere. But yes, easier said than done because who wants to hire someone who has already failed in his previous job after only a few weeks?” The primary problem is the mistake made and the customer's complaint about it. The surplus problem is that John thinks this situation can only end badly. 

So, these kinds of surplus problems have to do with how you interpret primary problems in your life. If you have not only a primary problem but also a secondary problem, the surplus problem, these situations become more difficult. Surplus problems make solving the primary problem difficult because they undermine our sense of competence and our optimism. This has to do with the following. 

Toxic questions 

Social psychologists like Greg Walton speak of toxic questions people can ask themselves when faced with struggles, setbacks and other problems. These kinds of toxic questions are at the root of surplus problems. Two basic forms of toxic questions are: 
  1. About the self: Does this problem mean that I am abnormal (bad, stupid, crazy, etc.)? These kinds of thoughts undermine our sense of competence and self-worth. 
  2. About the future: Does this problem mean that my situation can only end badly? These kinds of thoughts undermine our optimism and our hope. 

Psychological interventions 

If you want to help people who have surplus problems, you could benefit from learning about some interventions from social psychology. It concerns two interventions that can be divided into several sub-interventions. Here they are: 

1. Normalizing: This intervention removes the danger of the first toxic question (about the self). Normalizing means showing that what the other person is saying is normal given his or her circumstances. Three sub-interventions can be distinguished: 
  1. Avoid negative labels. When people experience negative events, they run the risk of labeling themselves in a fixed, negative way or thinking that others might label them as such. Normalizing interventions prevent negative labels and encourage a fundamentally positive view of the self. 
  2. Communicate “You are not alone”. People may think that they are the only ones facing a particular challenge. Normalizing interventions reveal that others have faced the same challenge and describe how they tackled that challenge productively. 
  3. Recognize specific nonpejorative causes. People may fear that bad things reflect or may be seen as a reflection of their own shortcomings (e.g., laziness, stupidity, immorality). Normalizing interventions recognize specific, nonpejorative causes of challenges or setbacks and identify them as normal obstacles that arise for many people. 
2. Creating a positive expectation: This intervention removes the danger of the second toxic question (about the future). Creating a positive expectation means showing that the person's situation can end well. Two sub-interventions can be distinguished: 
  1. Predict improvement. People may fear that negative events predict a fixed, negative future. Positive expectation interventions emphasize the possibility of improvement, focus on the process and often describe this process collectively (we are on the same team / I do not judge you). 
  2. Recognize opportunities. In some cases, it is possible to present aspects of the “bad” event as positive, meaningful, or useful, and thus not just as something to be overcome, but as a precursor or opportunity for growth and improvement. Positive expectation interventions help the person to look for benefits and opportunities in problematic situations. 


If you are talking to someone who is having problems and you recognize toxic thoughts in that person, you could try the above interventions very consciously. What you can do first is normalize. This should help the person to look at themselves a little more positively and feel a little more competent. What you can do next is to create a positive expectation. This should help the person to start believing that his or her situation can get better. This will help to take steps forward.