“Becoming clear on what is our problem and what is someone else’s is revolutionary.”
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working with a wonderful, life-changing phrase: not my problem. It might sound harsh, cruel, or maybe like a cool breeze on a hot day, but, perhaps surprisingly, it can be an incredible source of compassion and care.
I am someone who cares a lot about the people in my life, and a lot of my work centers around helping people with their problems. I’m often the one my friends turn to for advice or simply to talk. As a woman, too, I have learned from my culture that it’s my job to take care of everyone else’s problems. Women are usually the caretakers, the emotional laborers, the ones that will soothe and calm everyone else’s pain.
As much as I love being in this role, it can be exhausting. I have my own problems, too, and when I’m so busy worrying about everyone else, I can conveniently avoid dealing with my own stuff. As I watched myself overextend for others for years and years, I also watched myself slowly burning out. So I learned a fantastic question to ask myself when falling into someone else’s black hole: whose problem is this?
This question is really about boundaries. Because women have so often been recruited to handle everyone else’s problems, we often forget to take care of our own. We don’t rest enough, we don’t treat our bodies well, and we get so exhausted worrying about everyone else that we have nothing left at the end of the day. Becoming clear on what is our problem and what is someone else’s is revolutionary. (Read more in our story “Keeping Healthy Boundaries.”)
Getting involved in other people’s problems isn’t always about helping them. A big part of it, for me, has been about meeting my own needs—feeling wanted and needed when I didn’t know if I was enough on my own. In this way, making other people’s problems my own wasn’t even about them—it was about me.
It’s still true, however, that I love helping people and I’m pretty good at it! The trick, for me, has been clarifying that just because something isn’t my problem doesn’t mean I can’t care about it or the person whose problem it truly is. I can still help without taking the problem on myself.
In fact, acknowledging where the responsibility lies has allowed me to stay present as an even more compassionate witness, as someone who can be present without getting tangled up in the issues at hand. If someone is sad about something and I cry and wail, I’ve made their problem my problem—essentially taking up emotional space that rightly belongs to the other person. I’ve made their problem about me. If someone is sad and I let it be their problem and not mine, I can sit with them in their sadness, validate that sadness, and be a shoulder to lean on while they cry. When something is not my problem and not my responsibility, I can still witness, I can care, I can help while allowing the emotional response and decision making to stay with the person it belongs to. That is: not me.
The truth is, people don’t want me to take on their problems as if they were my own. People rarely even want advice. They want a compassionate witness to sit by them while they sort out their own problems. Trying to solve something for someone else takes their power away. Giving someone the space to resolve their own issues while you stay present and stay loving empowers them to figure out their own way through. Letting other people’s problems stay with them where they belong isn’t selfish, harsh, or mean. It’s deeply loving.
Love Julie Peters? So do we! Check out her “Guided Meditation: Healing Waters.”