The Double-Edged Sword of “Not My Problem”

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In almost every social circle, there’s at least one busybody who habitually sticks his or her nose where it doesn’t belong and someone else who is oblivious to what’s right in front of them. If only we all could learn to say “that’s not my problem” at just the right time.

One of the eternal truths is that we’ll never have enough time or attention to attend to everything around us, and so we must choose. Even if we don’t realize we’re editing out most of what’s right before us, we are. At the risk of oversimplification, picking the “right” things to attend to is to avoid making two major mistakes: first, to put your mind on too many things, or the wrong things; things that don’t serve you, or aren’t the most important issues before you. The second kind of mistake is to miss what’s really important, to “tune out”, to be “clueless”. I am confident we all make both of these mistakes all the time, but some of us make one kind of mistake far more often than the other. Even if we don’t know which type we are, our friends and family surely do. These patterns play out in common personality types and in extreme cases, personality problems.

Busybody

Some of us are just “over-engaged.” Nearly everything matters. Every news story is important. Every charity cause warrants our attention. It’s a good thing there’s Facebook, because otherwise we’d probably be texting or calling our friends all the time for updates. We’ve got the TV, the Internet, and a phone conversation going on at the same time and probably at some level we’re still convinced we’re missing out on something.

Over-engagement also shows up as overcommitment: the person who seems to be on every committee and in every sports team. External expectations can drive this tendency, especially in the young, as evidenced by Amy Chu’s account of “Tiger Mothers” who drive their kids to extremes of performance, as well as educational systems documented in the film Race to Nowhere, describing how college hopefuls are driven to pack their days with heavy-duty AP classes, sports, and other extracurriculars — not for their personal betterment but in the hope that a fatter transcript will yield an acceptance letter.

Clueless

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On the other hand, some people just don’t seem to “get it.” It varies from person to person and situation to situation. From your co-worker with bad breath, to post-graduation young adults camping out in their parents’ basement for no apparent reason, while some folks won’t talk about the “elephant in the room,” others really can’t see it at all. Causes of cluelessness abound. Often depression can blank out entire dimensions of a person’s life, and usually the good parts. Complacency is another major factor. If anything stays the same for too long, we start to notice it. I know friends who regularly rearrange their furniture or art just to avoid this sort of blindness. Others have been taught by their families that certain things Aren’t Talked About and what started as a learned behavior converts to an automatic reaction over the years.

Eyes on the Ball

If it is so easy to get caught looking in the wrong direction or miss what’s so obvious to everyone else, how can we avoid these recurrent mistakes? David Allen, organizational guru behind Getting Things Done offers up the “weekly review”: an appointment you make with yourself to review everything that’s on your mind and in your environment. It can mean empowering trusted friends or family to let you know when you’ve gone off track. If you keep a journal, skip back a few weeks, months or years and look at your life from a different time and perspective. Individual therapy adds not only an outside observer, but a trained professional to help light up any dark corners in your life. In therapy, words like “self-awareness,” “mindful” and “in the moment” are used to capture different aspects of well-used attention.

Once you can see what’s right in front of you, the decision remains: should you do something about it, or is this “Not your problem”? Often the decision is far from clear cut, but here’s a checklist I use when I’m confronted by a decision. First, does the issue make a difference in my life? It sounds too obvious at first, but often what starts as a mountain becomes a molehill when you discover that no matter how something turns out, it makes no long-term difference in your life. Second, who’s pressing the issue? Is this something that you put on your agenda, or was it a parent, a boss, a lover, or a friend who made this an issue? If somebody else tried to make it your problem, chances are, it’s really their problem, not yours. Finally, do you have a credible chance of affecting the outcome? Sometimes even if the outcome matters to you, it’s out of your hands. The only thing left to do is to realize you’ve done your part and whatever the final outcome is, it’ll be because of someone or something outside of your influence.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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