Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: Learning to Know Your Emotions from Those of Others

By: Gitu Bhatia, Psy D
: November 01, 2016

"Not my circus, not my monkeys": this polish proverb appropriately and wisely directs us to not get pulled into other people’s problems when you are going through your own emotional journey through divorce and separation -- even though it is true, that while you are experiencing the impact of your divorce, others in your life are also coping with this change to some degree or another. Those close to you, as a couple, may have a different reaction than those who know you or are related to you.

It is not unusual for people to want to express their opinions on the relationship, whether or not you are seeking that opinion. Many of their comments, even those that are meant to support your feelings and well meaning, may add to the weight of your own feelings. Learning to distinguish between what is your responsibility and what others can handle themselves is very important.

While you may feel like you are successfully managing your emotions, others around you may lag behind you in their ability to manage their feelings. Your children and your parents, people closely affected by the divorce, may not be able to accept your decisions or have feelings, which may be very different from yours. Clearly, your responsibility to those directly affected by the divorce is different than to those who are peripherally impacted.

When you are faced with intense emotions in people close to you, it is important to remember a few things:

1. Everyone will have feelings, which may be very different from yours at various times.

2. Emotions aren’t “right” or “wrong”. Emotions are feeling states in your brain and body. They may feel good or bad, and those feelings may change over time.

3. Listen to others' feelings, but you are not responsible for those feelings. Each person has their feelings based on what is happening inside of them.

4. You cannot control someone else’s feelings. You can listen, hug, comfort, and cry together, but you cannot control how they feel.

Everyone, including you, may need to practice a little more tolerance and more checking in with each other to help people vent and express their feelings. Remember that not all feelings need to match at all times and that your capacity to cope may grow, or diminish, depending on external events. Ideally, keeping track of your emotions over time, through journaling or daily check-ins, is helpful to manage your emotions.

The most important others who you have to help manage their emotions are your children. Allowing your children a chance to talk about their emotions and checking in with them is critical. Children often feel like they need to take care of their mom or dad when they see them overwhelmed. Let them know that they can always talk to you but that you are managing your emotions and that you will help them with theirs. Have a jar on the kitchen table and allow everyone to write down feelings or situations that are hard. You may have a family meeting once a week where you take turns reading different things that were put into the jar. This is like taking the emotional temperature of the family for the week. Children often feel that they have to take sides in the divorce and feel conflicted about loving both their parents.

Encourage your children to talk about good feelings about your ex. Giving your children the space, and permission, to talk about loving their other parent is an invaluable gift as you go through this divorce. Allow them to experience and talk about the full range of emotions they are experiencing. This will serve as a model for the rest of their life about dealing with difficult emotions.


Dr. Bhatia has co-created a self-help app "Divorceworks" to help you self-monitor and manage your emotional journey.