Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

The downfalls of controlling what is not ours to control.

Posted Dec 18, 2014

I wrote in my last blog about "Not my circus." I am starting to hear this a lot of places, and it is so perfect to talk about codependency and taking control when control is not in your power. I wish I knew who said it first. I would credit that person. 

I talked in my last blog about not trying to be the ringmaster, taking control of the whole circus, but there is a little more to this. 

Not My Monkeys 

What if we don't try to take charge of the whole show? The ringmaster directs, but each animal trainer has a specific job. The lion tamer does not train the elephants. There are specialists for that. And whoever trains the elephants is probably not training the monkeys. Within any circus, only certain performers, trained for their task, can do specific acts. You are part of the circus, and you want it to go well, but you cannot do every job. If you try to take over for others it may not go very well. You may mess up the job or you may be intrusive, taking over what others can and should do for themselves. 

When you remember "not my monkeys" it can remind you that you are not responsible for other people and their lives. And it is best if you know what sorts of circus rings are yours to perform in and which are not. 

Brianna, a grade school teacher, was upset about a new test proposed by the administration to measure overall academic progress for her mostly ESL students. She feared all her students would fail. She focused all her teaching efforts to coaching students to pass the test, going far outside the bounds of what was reasonable effort. She felt terrible not teaching as she normally would have. She thought her students were not actually learning what they needed while she worked to help them get answers on the test right. 

She got confused about which monkeys were hers. She was trying to handle the administration's monkeys. They needed to demonstrate that students were learning. She needed to teach her little ones to read and do math. She did not stop to consider that if the entire class failed it did not make her a bad teacher. It might be the only way for administrators to realize that the test did not measure the right things. 

"Not my monkeys" helped clarify what was her realm. She agreed to do her part: teach the curriculum that would help her young charges really learn. If she tried to take over the administrative monkeys of grade-level testing and got her students trained to take the test rather than learn their subjects, it might even defeat her goal of getting a better measure of their progress. 

Taking charge of someone else's monkeys might look different at home or at work: 

"Training" your spouse's behavior by telling him to talk less when you are out with friends: his way of being with friends are his monkeys. 

If it is your job to layout the company newsletter but you decide to manage a contributor's "monkeys" by helpfully (NOT!) rewriting the content of her article as you set it, you will not only make more work for yourself, but you will annoy the person who wrote the article you are rewriting. 

If you "help" your child by doing her homework project because she is too slow or careless to make it neat, you won't be helping her learn or do better. Her performance is up to her. 

Trying to compensate for a boss' deficient supervisory skills by giving your peers directions will increase your stress. Even if they do a little bit better, you won't get credit and they will be irritated with you and not with him. 

"Not my monkeys" is code to let other people do their own work and not get in the middle of it. Whether they succeed or fail is their responsibility. Your stress will go down. Ask yourself:

1. Do I have some responsibility? What exactly is it for? (Which monkeys are mine?)

2. Who is the ringmaster? (To whom am I accountable?)

3. Am I doing my own actual work or taking over work that others are responsible for?

Learning to let others do their part and let them succeed or fail is actually kinder than taking it over. Most of us learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Being allowed to do our own part of a job helps us learn it, as we see what part we have mastered and what monkeys we still need to train. 

The next time you are feeling negative, expecting a situation to fall apart, take charge of the correct set of problems and lower your stress, by asking yourself: 

Is this my circus?

Are these my monkeys?