How to manage the monkeys in your life

As part of Stress Awareness Month, Ann Carter offers advice on how to ‘manage the monkeys in your life’, which is about leaving work behind and enjoying some leisure time at the end of the day

The following suggestions are based on the original version of The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, by Kenneth Blanchard (2000). In this context, the ‘monkeys’ represent events and problems, which are created during the course of the day, or they are past situations that remain present as larger monkeys. Often, the monkeys are thoughts and perceptions concerned with things we can’t do anything about; however, we find ourselves thinking about them repeatedly – so leisure time is infiltrated with monkeys from the past.

Everyone has pet monkeys and all monkeys need to be fed and watered overnight. Monkeys like to be looked after until they can be gently persuaded to leave, take a holiday, or find something more purposeful to do elsewhere. Kind and caring people love to look after monkeys. Sometimes, we like to think about other people’s monkeys, as well as our own, and they too need to be fed and watered. If we aren’t aware of the ‘monkey trap’, kind and caring people may have a tendency to attract monkeys which don’t really need to have a presence in their lives. These ‘extra’ monkeys are gathered up like a monkey family throughout the day and taken to the therapist’s home at night, where they are very well attended to.

Gathering up monkeys during the day often happens without us even noticing. We all like to feel we have done a therapy session with a really good outcome for a client, but not all sessions have a ‘feel good outcome’. So, before we invent our own ‘monkey troop’, composed of what we could have done differently, we need to be aware of some of the processes which may influence a treatment. For example, if working in healthcare setting, some of these might include:

  • The patient didn’t really want a treatment but accepted the offer to please a partner, doctor, nurse or another therapist.
  • The patient wanted a treatment, but it wasn’t a convenient time – but they said, ‘yes’ when they really meant ‘not now’.
  •  Patients and health care professionals had unrealistic perceptions of what could be achieved and may have ‘oversold’ or misinterpreted the treatment.
  • The therapist’s personal perception of the outcomes of a treatment may be different to the patient’s perception.

We don’t know how the patient really felt or what they said to family and friends when they arrived home. Unless something awful happened (which is highly unlikely), it is possible that the patient hasn’t given the treatment another thought – the therapist could be rewriting history on the patient’s behalf.

So what can we do with the monkeys?

  • Take home thoughts about the good things that have happened during the day – they don’t need to have a ‘Wow!’ factor. (The past has gone and cannot be changed, however many times we like to rewrite it.)
  • Learn from the situation and leave the monkeys in the therapy room – they will have disappeared by the next day, having realised they no longer have a purpose.
  • Give the monkeys a fixed amount of time when the monkeys can have their say – and then tell them it is ‘time out’ and move on to something else.
  • It might help to be nice to the monkeys – after all they are only trying to help. My strategy is to thank them for sharing and send them somewhere pleasant where they can have a holiday (the Caribbean or the Mediterranean might be good places). I also reassure them that if I need to consult with them, I will bring them back for a summit meeting. I then find something I like to do which will ‘take my mind away from the monkeys’.

Our own time is too precious to keep entertaining monkeys. We need to take action so that the monkeys don’t rule our lives. If there was an emergency with a family member, friend or pet, the monkeys would automatically assume a different amount of significance.

Do have a think about the monkeys in your life which would be just as happy being somewhere else. I have found all of the above approaches to be helpful to myself, friends and other therapists.

Ann Carter has a background in training and health promotion, working as a complementary therapist and teacher since 1989. For ten years she was the co-lead for complementary therapies training programme at The Christie NHS Trust, Manchester. Ann also created the HEARTS process.

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