Acorns to Oaks #4: That’s Not My Monkey

I sometimes find that ‘themes’ run through a week with my social work and coaching clients, and this has been one of those weeks. I’ve had three or four conversations this week with people who are feeling overwhelmed with the problems/behaviour/presentations of others, and it is significantly and negatively impacting on their mental health, and in some cases, their physical well-being as well. When we’ve unpicked this, they’ve come to realise something very important and this has instigated a huge change of perspective and behaviour in my clients, almost immediately. It is this learning that is the focus of Acorns to Oaks #4. 

My sons are now 8 and 9 years old but when they were toddlers we had a few of the books from the ‘That’s Not My……’ series. And one was called, ‘That’s Not My Monkey’. This always reminded me of the old Polish saying, ‘Not my circus, not my monkeys’, which in its original meaning is basically saying, ‘that’s not my business so I’m not getting involved’. Another way of looking at it is, ‘that’s not my monkey so I’m not making it my responsibility’. 

A long time ago now I came across a story that really resonated with me, as it continues to do with clients I share it with, and I hope does within you now. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin………. 

Once upon a time a man was hobbling along a road. He was in a lot of pain, bent over and almost crippled, needing a stick to support himself. Now, this man was not old, but over his years he had collected a lot of monkeys that he carried every day and everywhere on his back. Some of these monkeys were his, some had been forced upon him, some given to him, and some he had taken from people. This man felt he was doing a good and kind thing, taking other people’s monkeys, and sometimes it also made him feel needed. But, the weight of his ever-growing troop was literally weighing him down. One day, he met a wise old man who, as he approached, questioned him as to why such a young man was so ill and crippled. He noticed the troop of monkeys on the young man’s back and made a suggestion, rightly assuming that they were the cause of the young man’s troubles. The wise old man suggested that in order to make his journey through life healthier and easier, the young man needed to lighten his load. He suggested that he took each monkey off his back and decided whether it was his monkey to keepwhether he needed to leave the monkey on the side of the road, or if he needed to give it back to the person it originally belonged to. The young man did this and do you know what? When he put the monkeys that were only his back on his back, he was able to immediately stand up straighter and walk more freely. His pain subsided and he was able to carry on his path happier and healthier. 

In turn, this story always reminds me of one of the most useful lessons I learned from a very wise manager, very early on in my social work career. It has stood me in good stead in my professional and personal lives: There is a massive difference between being RESPONSIBLE FOR and RESPONSIBLE TO!  

There is a huge misconception of what being responsible FOR means and we often say that we are responsible for our children, for example. However, in my opinion, this is misguided, as most definitions of ‘responsible’ or ‘responsibility’ talk about having CONTROL over someone or something. If we accept that control is part of a definition of responsibility, responsible FOR can only be applicable to ourselves because the only person we can have control over is ourselves. ‘You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’ the old adage goes. The only person you can make drink is yourself, therefore, the only person you are responsible FOR is yourself. Try as you might (leaving the very complex question of victims in abuse aside), you can’t actually control others’ behaviours, thoughts and actions. You can manipulate and threaten and cajole and hoodwink, but you cannot make someone do what you want or think they should do. You can support and reason and provide logical explanation, but you can’t make someone do what you want or think they should do. People always have a choice. Sometimes it’s ‘Sophie’s choice’ but there is always a choice about their actions, thoughts and behaviours. However, when we look at responsible TO, that is where we have a duty and role to be the best parent, employee, worker, partner, friend, offspring, sibling we can be, and there are often expectations and actions we need to take in being responsible TO. In addition, we can support and help and listen as part of our responsible TO, but we then have to be careful not to tip into responsible FOR. 

This tipping point often happens because we get the FOR and TO mixed up, and that is when we become overwhelmed, when we let people place far too many of their monkeys on our back, or we take too many monkeys off of other people’s backs. Because what happens when we take on FOR rather than TO? Yep, we become disappointed and stressed and upset and guilty and sad when the people we’re trying to help don’t change or accept the help. We think it’s our fault for not being good enough at our role with them. And we can get angry with them. And with ourselves. We try to do FOR and not WITH, and that can in turn make us feel all those overwhelming emotions and have all those negative thoughts. We take on responsibility, monkeys if you like, that isn’t and aren’t ours. And it weighs us down, stresses us out and overwhelms us. So we just think, ‘I must try harder, if only I try harder then x,y and z WILL happen’. But it won’t. Well, not unless the person we’re trying to help or support wants to drink the water!  

So, what can we do about this? No one is saying don’t help, support and listen but it has to be healthy for everyone involved, otherwise we get caught up in what’s called the Drama Triangle, which this diagram shows (thank you google images) but which will be the topic of a future Acorn to Oaks blog. 

Firstly, make a list of all of situations and people and things that are overwhelming you, the monkeys on your back if you like. Then label them. Where did they come from, who gave them to you, are they yours? If they are yours, own them, acknowledge them, and keep them to manage and deal with later. If they’re not yours, give them back to the person they belong to. You may experience some resistance in doing this, but you can be supportive and empathic without having to be crippled by monkeys that aren’t yours. Giving them back may involve thought and planning and small steps, but back they must go if you are to be healthy yourself. Self-care is something that many of us are not good at. So maybe, in the first steps toward self-care, we need to be kind to ourselves and say, ‘hey, that’s not my monkey!’, and, flipping the old Polish saying on it’s head, ‘if it’s not my monkey, it’s not my circus’. 

If you feel that you would like to start ‘de-monkeying’ but don’t know where to start or you have overwhelming emotions about starting, then please contact me on 07523 830377 or at for a FREE initial chat to see how I can support you.  

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