Not My Pig, Not My Farm…: Are You Taking on the Problems of Others?
TODD: (16, entering) Somebody stole my effing bike!
AMY: (45, parent of TODD) And you’re surprised? Serves you right if you leave the bike outside unlocked. I put that thing away for you almost every night and I’m sick of it. So last night I left it out. I’ve told you a million times….and if you think I’m buying you another bike… and on…and on…
Chuck knows his partner Diane is upset. She’s slamming cupboard doors and huffing and puffing, and he’s trying to figure out what he did wrong. He’s working himself into a state of anxiety because she’s upset and he doesn’t know why.
Both of these scenarios are examples of getting sucked into taking on the problems of others. Is it normal that Amy and Chuck were affected by Todd and Diane’s actions…yes. But they could have greatly reduced their anger and anxiety by reminding themselves that the problem isn’t theirs. A bit of emotional distance from the problem (not the person) is called for.
Todd knows he messed up. When Amy rails at him, however, the problem shifts from ‘I lost my bike’ to ‘my mom is yelling at me again’, and he actually takes LESS responsibility for the original problem. Her putting his bike away in the first place was her taking on his problem. Imagine Todd comes home and the following dialogue takes place…
TODD: Somebody stole my effig’ bike!
AMY: That sucks.
TODD: No kidding.
AMY: What’s your plan?
TODD: How am I supposed to know?
TODD: It was old anyway. My birthday’s coming.
AMY: I was planning on spending $X for your birthday. I suppose you could put it towards a bike.
TODD: I can’t get a good bike for $X.
AMY: Probably not.
TODD: Come on Mom…
AMY: This is your pig, Todd.
End of. Now Amy showed remarkable restraint here. No “I told you so’s”. Her calm ability to let Todd own his problem prevented a blow-up. How did she do it? If we could peek at her internal dialogue, it might sound like this “He knows he messed up. I don’t have to drive that point home. I care more about the relationship than making him feel guilty. He’ll have to fix this problem, and he’s capable of doing that. He’s feeling bad enough already. Getting upset doesn’t help anything. He’ll learn from this if I let him own it. His pig, his farm, his problem.”
Let’s look at Chuck and Diane. If Diane is upset, it’s her responsibility to say so, rather than being passive aggressive by ignoring and stomping and slamming. If Chuck could ground himself in “I can let her blow off some steam. If she’s upset, she can talk to me”, he can save some energy. Going to her with “I see you’re upset.” only teaches her that her huffing gets her the attention she wants. It’s her pig…her farm. I am not advocating for a coldness that says you don’t care. If Diane comes to Chuck with her issue, she deserves for him to listen. But for Chuck to work himself into a frenzy because Diane is upset…is a waste of energy.
Problems are like a stone in that two people cannot carry it at the same time. If you carry someone else’s stone for them, then they can’t carry it themselves.
For a link to the Zen parable that the phrase may originate from…click here.
Image from dreamstime