• Amber

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys


I'm told this is a Polish proverb, and as I always am when it comes to language, I was pretty intrigued when I first heard it. Pithy sayings are two a penny on the internet; between WikiQuotes, Instagram and Memebase a body could get away with never having to express an original thought in their lives - which is not to say the re-drafting and sharing of other people's ideas necessarily denotes a lack of imagination. After all, the whole history of language is about appropriation, words and phrases finding their way from culture to culture through migration, education, politics, popular song, myth and legend. The languages which have survived have had to endure a certain degree of osmosis, and perhaps now more than ever our cultural understanding is deepened by this shared linguistic heritage. But I digress. Quite simply, the circus/monkey idiom is just a clever way to say 'not my problem', which is something I've historically not been much good at. It's a mix of typical British politeness and the genuine desire to solve problems and make/keep people happy, and consequently I find myself in some ridiculous pickles (not an idiom I'm covering this week). You've probably been there: saying yes to a favour for a colleague when you've had a long week and should really take some downtime; volunteering to get a friend out of a mess and winding up doing more of the work than them; casually wandering into a situation you didn't realise was horribly complicated and before you know it, you've had a whole load of the proverbial hit the fan and you don't even know what you're doing involved in the first place. My problem is that I always feel it's selfish to say no to anything I'm technically capable of, if it will help someone out. I was brought up to be a helpful person and somehow that translated into a chronic inability to say no, which I've had to unlearn or at the very least suppress. It was university that taught me finally that saying yes and being helpful were not always the same thing; there was so much to be involved with, at points I found myself rushing from pillar to post contributing barely anything but stress-led efforts that left me exhausted and didn't actually bring much value to anyone. When you fail to get out of bed for an 8am meeting you are hosting, because you've been up most of the night proofreading someone else's essay at the last minute, it's time to re-think the strategy. Because you might be one of those uber-organised, barely needs to sleep, inspired all the time people, but me? I'm only useful to others if I've sorted myself out first. This is now my approach to other people's monkeys: I stop to think through a few points before saying yes. It's fundamentally important to establish boundaries that protect your peace of mind. How many things are going to be worth upsetting it? Am I realistically able to take this on, and why am I getting involved? Is this a genuine need or am I being taken advantage of? I'm not the most pragmatic of people and I hate to let anyone down, but for the sake of my own sanity I have to go through this process, because frankly some things are just not a good use of time and abilities. I also learned from being the eldest of five siblings that actually, my 'helping' them with some things was an unwanted interference that came off as a lack of trust in their own capability to deal with situations in their lives. As much as I like to be needed, as I've got older I've had to let go of it, because they're all grown-ups now. If my family or friends need me they can come to me, but it's not fair on them or healthy for me to even partly measure my value by how well I can deal with other people's monkeys. I'm always going to be a pitch-in kind of person, and that doesn't bother me - there are plenty of good reasons to do it. But sometimes it's chaos and I just have to remember: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy!


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