Not my circus, not my monkeys

One of the core principles of transactional analysis is that nobody can ever MAKE us feel anything. They can invite us in very strong terms to do so, but ultimately it is our own values and our beliefs about ourselves and the world which cause our emotions. We may care what others think about us, but their beliefs do not need to define what we think about ourselves. Our emotions are our responsibility to manage, and others are theirs. There is a very evocative saying in Polish which encapsulates this: “not my circus, not my monkeys.” Learning to let go of someone else’s ‘stuff’ is a powerful way of disengaging from negative emotional spirals that can ultimately lead to the drama triangle and other self-defeating patterns.

If someone taunts, namecalls, makes a false accusation about me, belittles me, or expresses a negative belief about me, I might be dismayed by their dehumanizing treatment or concerned about the reputational effect of such negative characterizations on how I am percieved by others. I might step into their invitation to believe those things about myself, and I might react defensively. Other negative beliefs (such as anxiety about my ability to manage myself under pressure) might get triggered, causing a self-confidence spiral.

But I have another choice: I can step back and ask myself if any of those things really reflect who I am. Is this outburst about me, or is it about something they believe or something they are going through? Is it my responsibility to manage their emotions? If there are negative self-beliefs at play within me, this is an opportunity to examine them, discard the unnecessary and irrelevant ones, and use the rest to think about what changes I want to make for my own sake–not for someone else’s ideas of who I should be.

We all get triggered at one point or another by someone else’s negative invitations: this is a natural part of relationships. Often once we’ve cooled down from the encounter we can usually see things much more rationally and sympathetically both to ourselves and to the other person in the encounter. But with practice, we can learn to hold that rational and sympathetic self close even in the midst of a tense encounter: it doesn’t have to be tense for us. They can send us a gilt-edged ticket to the circus, but we are at liberty to decline the invitation: not my circus, not my monkeys.

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