Three Questions to Ask If You Stress Over Other People’s Problems

How often do you internalize other people’s problems, whether by aligning with their emotions or taking actions on their behalf? I have noticed that my stress often relates to what I am thinking (or doing) about someone else’s experience. Or, it could relate to decisions that are theirs, not mine, to make. In other words, I have, to some extent, taken ownership of someone else’s feelings or responsibilities. Being mindful of this tendency is an ongoing practice for me. How about you? Do you do this too?

It’s perfectly human and we do this for many reasons. We care deeply, for example, about a friend in poor health who still has an unhealthy diet and doesn’t exercise. We think we know better than the relative or manager who makes “unwise” decisions. We are caught up in unexamined groupthink with others about a person or situation. And sometimes, we would rather focus on someone else’s life rather than our own or have an excuse to procrastinate.

If you frequently feel stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, consider the following to help you set better boundaries:

Is it your experience? That thing you are upset about –did it happen to you? When you, for example, talk with a colleague who is palpably upset about something that happened to them at work, do you feel the energy in your body building into anger, indignation, or sadness? Do you adopt the same attitude as the colleague? If so, take a moment. Take a breath. Step away if you can. Consider if this is your stuff.

Not feeding into the negative energy doesn’t mean you still can’t be a supportive relative, friend, or colleague. You can still express empathy or compassion and be present as a trusted, non-judgmental listener. You can still act to help someone facing a challenge you’re not facing. But whatever you do, you do it from a more grounded place –that doesn’t impair your health and well-being from stress.

Is it your decision? That other thing that you are upset about -was it your decision? How much time do you stress over a decision a relative or a friend made? How often do you revive that stress in your body by focusing on it in your mind or repeatedly talking about it with others? I can remember being upset about a decision at work and my boss kindly asking me, “But you can respect that it is their decision to make, can’t you?” That is one way to help me be mindful and discern when I am taking on someone else’s stuff – considering whether a decision was entrusted to me or not. Then I can decide to look at it without emotional baggage over an already made decision and consider if and how I need to move forward from a more centered place.

What is the cost to you and others? While some short-lived stress is good (called eustress) and helps us to get things done, chronic stress can have significant adverse physical consequences over time. It serves no one to take on more than is necessary. Moreover, the time you spend distracted by someone else’s problem or decision is time not spent on your priorities, whether that is getting an assignment done or having more time to spend on family or individual goals. And, you are not the only one who pays the cost. Your actions could rob that person of the opportunity to grow and develop confidence and resilience by taking responsibility for decisions and resolving his or her own problems.  

Part of an ongoing mindfulness practice is the awareness of how we meet our day, whether it be routine activities like brushing our teeth or our reactive patterns. An inquiry into how much of your energy is automatically caught up in reacting to problems and decisions that are not your own and are out of your control can be eye opening. This greater awareness helps you reclaim lost time and energy for yourself and your loved ones. It also allows you to choose from a more centered place whether to act, and if so, how to act in a way that is constructive and consistent with your values.  

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