Not my monkey – Not my zoo
I don’t remember where I picked up that phrase, nor who coined it. It’s probably the punchline to a tired old joke.
But I can tell you, it is one handy way to help you recognize your boundaries.
I remember a former co-worker of mine. I’ll call her Mary. She is a loving mother and grandmother. Her son is a pretty good guy, but he married an incredibly self-centered woman. Her idea of nutrition for their two young boys was a bag of chips.
Of course, Mary’s heart was broken over that match for her son and the upbringing of her two young grandsons. When wifey left in a self-absorbed huff and son was devastated, Mary opened her home to the boys. She gave them the structure, nutrition and medical care they needed.
This is a beautiful story, right? I love that those grand boys were surrounded by things that their mom could never provide. This is an example of honoring values and extending love.
But it doesn’t end there. Her son, unable to cope, moved in as well. A capable person and a loving father, he somehow lost those abilities under mom’s roof. Mary would come home from work to a wrecked kitchen, garbage cans that never made it to the curb for pickup, and her son playing video games.
All she wanted after a long day of work was the peace and quiet of her own home.
We want to help.
We come from a place of loving kindness. Our generous hearts have a deep desire to make it better for other people. I think women fall into this more often, but I have certainly met my share of guys with the same motivation.
The danger comes when our desire to help overrides healthy boundaries that put our needs first. By fixing other’s problems, we fail to help ourselves, and we rob them of the opportunity to grow.
When Mary lamented how tough it was for her, I helped her see that her needs were not even in the conversation.
She realized that the monkey of providing for the grandkids when wife was incapable was something she took on. To not embrace them went completely against her values. The zoo of how it came to be, however, was not hers. It was his.
Her monkey, her zoo.
She realized that her home was her zoo. Her peace and quiet were essential to her functioning. Her peace of mind was her monkey, and her zoo was a wreck.
And she did something about it. Through her own backbone stiffening, she set clear boundaries and consequences for not honoring them. He couldn’t live with it, so he moved out and left the kids there. That was his choice.
Then son and wife tried reconciliation. Mary’s response? Not my monkey, not my zoo. She steered clear of judgment or advice-offering. She just kept in touch with the boys, driving them to and from school as they lived with their battling parents.
Eventually, the boys returned to the stability of grandma’s house, and I left that workplace before I learned the final chapter on son and wifey.
But I watched Mary focus on taking care of herself. She set household rules for the boys that they follow. She keeps tabs on her zoo and doesn’t take on any monkeys that don’t belong to her.
Here’s what’s true
Other people’s problems are not your obligation.
If you are constantly invited to fix, it’s because you have trained them to come to you. They want you to carry their monkey and play in their zoo. They’d rather be a victim.
You feel good because you think you have the answer for them.
Except you don’t. What you have is your answer if you were in that exact same situation. Which you aren’t. If you offer your answer uninvited, then you create even more resentment.
Even if it’s family, even if you love them, even if they want you to fix the situation. Even if you think you have the right answer.
Repeat after me: not my monkey, not my zoo.
The way to effectively help is to ask them questions that allow them to solve their own problems.
Say, “Wow, that’s tough. How are you going to handle it?” Or maybe, “What are your options?” When their answer includes you, say, “I’m not available for that, where else can you find answers?”
Send that monkey back to their zoo. Empower them to find their own answers. They are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. You do not need to fix them or their situation.
You have your own monkey and your own zoo.