Not my circus, not my monkeys.
maitrī karuṇā mudito-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam
To preserve the innate serenity of the mind, a yogin should be happy for those who are happy, be compassionate toward those who are unhappy, be delighted for those who are virtuous and be indifferent toward the wicked.
My parents got divorced when I was 10 years old. My dad moved out and my mom went back to full-time work. This is when I developed the vehement belief that it was my responsibility to look after everyone and fix everything. (Just a side note, this was in no way my parents' fault. It was a coping mechanism I developed all on my own to deal with the trauma of what I was experiencing.) This belief and controlling way of life followed me through my teen years and all the way through my 20’s. Only when I was well into my 30’s did I start to understand the concept of boundaries.
Since I took on that responsibility at 10, I have been a “fixer” my whole life. So much so that in every friendship and relationship, I took on other peoples problems as if they were my own and did my utmost to solve all these problems for the people around me, more often than not to the detriment of myself, my health and my own well-being.
The friendships I had through high school and into my 20’s were mostly pretty unhealthy, co-dependent and enmeshed. (Sorry to you darling friends of mine, that we didn’t realise it then). I was, in particular, obsessed with my friends and their happiness and would do everything in my power to make and keep them happy. I would compromise myself and who I was if my “best friend” didn’t like something about me. I would get involved in other people’s friendships and fights as if it was all my stuff. I would become inconsolable when one of my friends called me out on this behaviour. I always felt like I was putting in all the effort and get heartbroken because no-one saw these friendships as I did.
Some of those friendships have ended in heartbreak, loss and trauma, some have progressed with the introduction of boundaries and taking responsibility for ourselves. In others, we took a break from each other and have reconnected with a much deeper respect and understanding of each other with those healthy and iron-clad boundaries in place.
In my relationships, the exact same thing happened. I took responsibility for my partners’ happiness and state of being. If they were unhappy or feeling lost or incomplete, I felt it was totally my problem and my responsibility to fix. This culminated in an awfully abusive and manipulative relationship that started my very necessary relationship with boundaries.
This is when the very simple but very powerful saying “Not my circus, not my monkeys” made its presence known in my life. My mom, Jo-ann, taught me this saying a good number of years ago. When we’re chatting about stuff going on in our lives, we often remind each other that what’s going on is “Not my circus, not my monkeys”. It is an old Polish saying, explaining that something that is going on is not your problem. It’s understanding what IS your stuff and what ISN’T. It’s the ability to look at something happening around you and identify whether you have control of that thing or you have no control but just want to be involved. Or, whether you have the ability to fix your own stuff or you’re overstepping a boundary to try and fix someone else’s stuff.
The thing about being a fixer is, in the short term, you may feel like you’re helping someone, but long term, you’re showing people that you don’t trust them to look after themselves and you can do a better job of that than they can. You’re diminishing other’s capacity to take control of their lives, set their own boundaries and help themselves. You’re telling people that they are incapable of looking after themselves so they might as well just let you do it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing to be there for people, to offer help, guidance and support but with steady boundaries and knowing how far to take it. Sometimes, the best way to help people is to let them help themselves. If you always swoop in to fix everything, no-one else gets the opportunity to try, to learn, to find the lessons and to grow within themselves. When we behave in this way we deny people the opportunity to be independent and to develop their own coping skills.
Over and above all this, fixing everything for everyone can lead to you being taken advantage of and manipulated. In my case, until you feel like you’ve lost your damn mind and you have an anxiety-induced breakdown.
As you can see, none of this is conducive to healthy and happy friendships or relationships. After that awful relationship and the collapse of another “best friendship”, I decided I had had enough and it was time for me to lay down some strong boundaries and put myself first. This is when my relationship with Self-Love started and it has dictated the course of my life since.
Here are a few good questions to ask yourself before you decided to get involved with something:
1. Does this situation really involve me?
2. If the situation doesn't really involve me, what is my motivation for getting involved?
3. What will it cost me to get involved? We're talking time, money, stress, etc.
4. Can I really bring something to the table that will help all parties get to a better resolution?
5. What will happen if I decline to participate in this situation?
If getting involved causes you to lose your peace of mind, step away. It’s as simple as that. Patanjali says in this week’s Sutra that your state of being is one of deep serenity, and to keep that state of being peaceful and calm, we have 4 ways in which to behave:
Be happy for those who are happy.
Be compassionate to those who are unhappy.
Be joyful toward the virtuous.
And indifferent towards the wicked.
If we apply these 4 ways to whatever comes up for us and remember to stay inside our own boundaries and look after our own circus, our state of will be peaceful, equanimous and handle-able.
Iron-clad boundaries and realising what is not my stuff has helped me grow so much over the last few years. It has helped me make and maintain deep and healthy friendships and it's helped me develop a remarkable and very healthy relationship with my husband. It's given me the ability to show up for and be a solid support for my mentees and my online Self-Love community. It has made me the very best possible version of myself.
Taking these steps of setting healthy boundaries for myself, my life and others I allow in my life has not always been easy. Setting boundaries and putting yourself first can look very selfish and unkind to someone who has benefitted in the past from your lack of boundaries and Self-Love. The term “you’ve changed” is thrown around quite a lot. In these cases, if someone is unable to respect you in your journey to becoming healthy, happy and loving yourself, then they have no place in your life. And that’s okay. Again, that’s their stuff to deal with, not yours.
Taking control of my own life and giving up the need to control others, has been such a life-changing and healthy action. I know for a fact my life would not look like it does right now if I hadn’t taken these steps. Trust yourself. You have everything you need inside of you to take control of your life and fall in love with yourself.
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