Other people’s problems are fascinating.
Some of us are partial to a late-night social media deep dive, while others find it hard not to offer unsolicited advice. Then there are those of us that seem to find ourselves actively involved in other people’s drama over and over again.
Why is it so hard to stay in our lane and mind our own business?
If you have people-pleasing tendencies, other people’s struggles can bring up an urge to fix or rescue them from themselves. When you become aware of some drama brewing, it triggers anxiety over what they’re thinking and feeling, and how their problems might end up impacting you – drawing you in like a whirlpool.
In her book A Deeper Wisdom, self-help author Patricia Lynn Reilly calls this phenomenon ‘swirling’. She says: ‘A swirl is any relationship, person, activity or project outside of oneself that becomes the controlling or organising focus of one’s time, energy and attention.’
Put simply, if you have a subconscious belief that other people’s emotions are your responsibility, the prospect of other people experiencing difficult emotions triggers a desire to feel some kind of control over the situation. Overthinking, meddling and judging are all ways our brains try to feel like we’re in control – even when we’re not.
Other people’s drama can be exhausting. So why do we get sucked in?
It turns out we’ve evolved this way.
‘We are relational beings – other people’s problems tend to reflect and validate our own humanity,’ says counselling psychologist Dr Maddie Saunders. ‘Relational beings need connection and so it’s comforting to know that other people experience similar life issues. It helps us feel less alone.’
Because we have this deep need to feel like we belong, other people’s lives are incredibly interesting to us, and there’s an urge to compare ourselves with others to measure how well we belong to the group.
‘Social comparison theory suggests that people derive an important aspect of their worth based on how they compare to others,’ explains Dr Maddie.
We’ve all heard the saying, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, but it’s very difficult to avoid it completely, as it’s such a natural part of being human. Social media doesn’t help, as it actively encourages us to measure ourselves against the appearance, likes and follower counts of others.
Of course, sometimes when we compare ourselves to others, it can bring that sense of belonging we crave.
‘The earliest researchers of social identity theory realised that belonging to a group supports the development of personal identity, including social belongingness and self-worth.’ Dr Maddie explains. ‘Social identity theory showed us that we evaluate those in the same group as us more favourably.’
If you’re in a pretty good place emotionally and mentally, seeing someone make different choices or hold very different beliefs from us might be annoying or confusing, but it ultimately doesn’t feel like a big deal.
‘However, those low in self-worth or social belongingness might feel triggered by difference,’ notes Maddie. ‘Especially if it mirrors a sense of being in the “wrong” group.’
This discomfort with difference can lead us to try to change that person’s mind, get involved in their business, and before you know it, you’re swirling away in their emotional whirlpool.
Helping others is of course a really natural, positive impulse and a sign that you’re an empathetic person. But without strong boundaries, it can end up draining your energy and lead to resentment.
Whether it’s a stranger being wrong on the internet, or a friend going through a hard time, how can you better protect your energy?
Tips for minding your own business
The good news is, there are practical steps you can take to break free of this exhausting pattern.
Focus on what you can control
Other people’s thoughts, words and actions are outside of your control. Even if it feels good in the moment to focus on how other people are getting it wrong, it’s a distraction from your own life.
‘Could your interest be a way of avoiding important issues and reflections about yourself?’ Dr Maddie suggests.
When you catch yourself getting sucked in, try turning your attention inward, to the things you can control – your own thoughts and actions.
Dr Maddie advises: ‘I find an interesting question to be “what’s good about this for me?” When this relates to a behaviour we want to stop, this question can help us realise any unmet needs and then we have the opportunity to name those needs and find alternative ways to meet them.’
Write it down
Write everything you’d like to say in a notebook or journal. Get it out of your system before taking any action – this helps to calm that initial urge to get involved.
Create a mantra
Find a short saying to remind yourself to mind your own business – it could be something short like:
- I trust others to know what’s best for themselves.
- Other people are allowed to make mistakes.
Set boundaries with yourself and others
If you decide it’s a good idea to get involved, try to avoid giving advice unless it’s asked for, and instead offer specific support.
For example, offering to walk a friend’s dog while they’re going through a tough time, or cooking meals for new parents. Make sure you stick to it and resist offering more than you can comfortably give – this helps you support others without overextending yourself.
Trust other people to know what’s best for themselves. Even your nearest and dearest know themselves better than you do, and even if you’re 100% sure that they’re making a mistake, making that mistake is their right.
By trying to steer people along a path of your choosing, you deny them the benefits and growth that comes from experiencing the consequences of our own actions.
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