When supporting a loved one through an intense experience, we need to remember: “Not my circus, not my monkeys”
“Not my circus, not my monkeys” is one of my favorite expressions. Coming from Polish, the phrase, simply put, means, “Not my problem.” What I like so much about the expression is that its particular metaphor indicates that something—in this case, monkeys—has escaped and is now running amok.
Sometimes I think of that phrase when running amok is a very real possibility. For instance, before becoming a therapist, I was very briefly an elementary school teacher. One of the dual horrors/joys of NYC elementary schools is traveling to field trips by subway. Imagine 28 or so 7-year-olds changing trains at Borough Hall in matching yellow T-shirts, along with five anxious parents and a brave teacher in tow. It’s delightful but also terrifying. Since I left teaching and became a therapist, I see a crew of field trippers on the subway maybe once a month. When I do, my heart jumps—I’m so glad it’s not me! I think: Not my circus, not my monkeys.
Other times, this phrase comes to mind when helping patients with the challenge of maintaining separateness when someone they love is going through an intense experience. Supporting a friend who is struggling is hard; supporting a spouse, a best friend, a sibling, or a child is even harder. As much as we can ache for someone, be scared for them, and care deeply for them, we also have to remember that this terrible event isn’t happening to us. We are okay and safe.
We bring our own feelings and experiences to the challenge of supporting someone else
Maintaining separateness is especially difficult because we’re always bringing our own feelings and histories to the task of supporting someone else. “Don’t make it all about you” is something that is frequently said about supporting another. It’s typically used as a pejorative (it is considered unkind to make it all about you). However, it also implies that it is possible not to bring our own feelings to a given situation. The truth is we’re just not built that way.
In situations where we’re wrapped up in the drama of the moment with someone we care about, we have to first recognize that, of course, we’re caught up in it and, of course, it’s raising our own stuff. The work is to notice and make room for both.
When maintaining separateness is too hard to do on our own, we need to bring in a third person
When that’s too hard for us to do on our own, we may need to bring in a third person. This is a necessity for even the most talented trauma therapists. In traditional trauma therapy in which therapists work with people who have, for instance, survived a mass shooting or been victims of torture, two therapists are often brought in. One therapist does the therapy while the other’s sole purpose is to support the first therapist. There is a recognition here that some experiences are so severe and so intense that even a skilled therapist needs a third person to help them maintain their separateness. In certain extreme circumstances, being one step removed from something scary comes with its own blinders.
Even when a given struggle isn’t that extreme, we may need to organize help while supporting a loved one. This can be someone outside of that relationship who we can talk to, who can primarily look out for us, and who can help us process what is being raised related to the places where the loved one’s trauma overlaps with our own.
Why does a third person help? We’re able to see things with some objectivity when talking to someone outside of a difficult situation. When talking to a third person, our nervous system and transferential histories are just not so bound up. Things become less scary and are able to be put in perspective. Think about the fights couples get into. Unlike their friends outside of their relationship, they’re not able to see the silliness of a fight over toothpaste or an argument over how to load the dishwasher because, well, the toothpaste and the dishes (or one another) are each others’ monkeys.