When your head hits the pillow at night, does your brain immediately tell you to run over all possible scenarios? Again? Some of us just can't help it. We like to worry. About things that matter and things that don't. We feel responsible for world peace but pay for it with inner peace.
But it doesn't have to be that hard. All you need to do is ask yourself if the circus and the monkeys you're worrying about are yours.
USA Today has come out with a new survey: Apparently, three out of four people make up 75% of the population – David Letterman
The irony is not lost on me. Surveys, especially the more unscientific ones, should be taken with a huge grain of salt. That's because most of us can't be trusted to answer correctly when we're asked random questions. For instance, just asking my family of four even a non-random question—what to make for dinner—will elicit at least nine responses.
Our answers to surveys, or for that matter, our faith in humanity, vary widely depending on any number of arbitrary factors—how our day's been, whether or not we've eaten, if someone cut us off on the road, and so on.
That said, while most polls, with their utter disregard for the cause-effect relationship, can make any scientist or philosopher squirm, they are still fun for us laypeople. We like their pseudo-predictive nature. Reviewing poll results feels like a visit to the fortune-teller without paying a fortune. This poll-fascination is why so many of us while away our time on random Buzzfeed quizzes such as "What piece of Ikea furniture are you?"
Not all polls are as shallow, though.
Perception v reality
Well-conducted surveys can highlight key trends and give us an idea of which way the wind is blowing. One such survey I follow with fascination is the respectable annual Gallup social series lifestyle poll. This poll reveals how men and women split household responsibilities. In other words, this is the survey you need if you're looking for data to bolster your position in an argument with your spouse or partner. If ever there was a contentious subject, you have to agree this is it.
One item on the survey, in particular, though never ceases to amuse me—the perception of how much household work we do. While it's true that the distribution of household tasks is more equitable between the sexes now than a couple of decades ago, I find it charming that both men and women assume they contribute to a larger share of the household work than they actually do.
This exaggeration of responsibilities is a phenomenon not limited to just household work—the pattern repeats itself across the board—work, social life, and even community situations.
The weight of the world
It's tempting to laugh this exaggerated sense of responsibility off, but the perception that we work more than we do can have, at least for some of us, serious repercussions. It can generate the feeling that life is somehow unfair and difficult for us, while everyone else has it easy. If you like holding grudges, this is the one you want to hold.
Worse, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To prove the point, we end up shouldering more than our share of responsibilities, thus translating perception into reality. At this point, we start to walk around with metaphorically stooped shoulders like we have the weight of the world on our heads.
We feel responsible and accountable for everything—our children's homework, the entire work project's success, climate change, GOT's ending, One Direction's breakup.
Our actions are propelled by one guiding principle, "What if someone drops the ball and I'm not there to hold it?"
No Inner peace
Just writing about it is stressing me out now. Forget lofty inner Peace; it's hard to even enjoy a cup of coffee without worrying that someone will burn your house down.
But first, a disclaimer. Not everyone has this problem of being overly responsible.
Not a universal problem
I've seen individuals who avoid responsibility like it's a contagious disease. Even before we'd ever heard of a pandemic, these individuals had figured out how to mask and distance themselves from situations that required even a whiff of accountability.
So why do some of us feel overburdened while others are happy-go-lucky not just about the future but about taking up any responsibility? Many theories abound, but most point to "personality." In particular, the personality shaped by birth order is said to determine whether you are the responsible sort or are generally nonchalant in life.
The theory is that an older child is more uptight, responsible, and controlling. In contrast, the younger ones tend to be more carefree. Apparently, parents impose more responsibilities on the older child, with chronologically reducing duties for the rest of the brood.
If you are an older child, plagued by overthinking and accountability, and use your birth order as an excuse for why you can't let go, or attain inner peace, allow me to burst your bubble.
There is now compelling evidence to debunk the birth order theory on personalities.
There seems to be a growing consensus that birth order does not influence personality in a way that can be measured in adulthood.
Drat! There goes your excuse. So, here is the $64,000 question.
Is Inner Peace a mirage?
Can worrywarts find inner Peace? Or, do they simply have to resign themselves to a life of overthinking and overdoing?
Spoiler alert—worrying is not a life sentence.
Inner Peace is within reach even if you are stooped from carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. And, surprise, it doesn't require you to trek to the top of the Himalayas. Or turn into a Zen monk. Or need hours of meditation to find yourself.
All that's needed is a slight attitude change; a reframing of the challenges around you.
Not my circus, not my monkeys
Remind yourself that most of the time, "it's not your circus, nor are all problems your monkeys."
Not my circus, not my monkeys is translated from the Polish proverb "Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy." It simply means you don't have to personally resolve, nor feel responsible for every issue you encounter.
Conventional wisdom says the responsible are rewarded. True, to an extent. But always picking up others' slack will only leave you flustered. Sometimes it's helpful, even necessary, to let the ball drop for the sake of your own inner peace.
Here are three key questions to ask yourself to know when to keep juggling and when to pack up.
1. Is it your circus?
If you're stressing about a situation, first identify whose problem it is to solve. Are you the only person who will either bear the consequences or can rectify the problem at stake in the whole wide world? If so, it certainly is your circus, and you better assume all responsibility.
However, if you are fretting about a problem that will impact someone else (and they seem to be okay), or one that you don't have the wherewithal to solve, then, sorry—wrong circus.
Practically, this is what it should look like.
Let's say you find a faucet that's constantly dripping.
If the leaking tap is in your house, then you have no choice but to either fix it yourself or get someone to perform the repair. You are squarely in your circus.
Now, on the other hand, if you find a leaky tap at work or a restaurant, be a good Samaritan and let the facilities team know. Then, walk away. Your job is done. It's not your circus. Any additional effort you spend worrying about all the wasted water or getting annoyed at just how callous people are to let the water run is simply a drain on your time and energy. Your ROI for all the worry – zilch! Negative, in fact, if you factor in the stress hormones that are at play in your body.
2. Are they your monkeys?
Sometimes our curiosities get the better of us.
Let's say there's a minor crash on the freeway. Traffic slows, the cops show up soon after and redirect traffic to other lanes while they take stock of the damaged car. Thankfully no one is hurt.
Notice how traffic moves slowly even after the accident is cleared away? We simply can't resist ourselves. We have to take a look. And then recount the incident on social media or wherever else we're off to after that. By then, the story has developed legs. We posit on what the people involved did/didn't do, or should've/shouldn't have done. All based on five seconds of observation.
Worse, it kickstarts a cycle of overthinking. What if the accident had happened to you or someone you love? And then, just like that, you are careening down the slippery slope of worry. With no brakes.
The question to ask yourself first, before you dedicate resources (physical or mental) to worrying about something—are you nervous about your monkeys or someone else's?
Then, the final question.
3. Are you just a control freak?
Affirmative, would be my response, if anyone were to ask me this question. Although I may not admit it in the moment.
Here's my advice based on decades of being a control freak.
Wanting everything to happen your way, on your timeline, and worrying when things go awry, is like watching the Titanic for the fiftieth time and hoping the ship wouldn't sink.
Worrying whether your teens turn their assignments in on time or your adult children end up in good, loving relationships are not battles worth losing your inner peace over.
Everyone has their own circus and monkeys to look after. Inject yourself all you want into other people's dramas, but ultimately, when it isn't your circus or monkeys, you have no power to influence outcomes.
Instead, spending that time, even if it's in pointless endeavors such as learning to make soap, is a better use of your resources.
The point is, being a control freak will only freak you out. With nothing left to show for it.
Sporting cute coffee mugs that say "Not my circus, not my monkeys" while running like a headless chicken worrying about every possible thing that could go wrong, is the textbook definition of irony.
Our worrywart personalities aren't set in stone. They can change. Just ask yourself before you worry if it's your circus and whether the monkeys you are worried about are yours.
It doesn't make you less empathetic or less friendly if you stop concerning yourself with all matters of the world. It simply means you make deliberate choices on what to worry about. Give inner peace a chance. I'm told it's worth it.