Two Questions To Keep You Sane

There is a pattern in my life, and now that I’ve become aware of it, I’m starting to notice it in the lives of people around me. My goal is that you’ll be able to identify this pattern, and have some good tools for dealing with it.

The pattern I’m seeing is one of two events:

  1. There’s a situation that I’m not responsible for dealing with, yet I involved myself in that situation and become emotionally attached to a specific outcome.

  2. There’s a situation that I am responsible for dealing with, but I emotionally attach myself to an outcome that is outside of my responsibility.

Let me give you an example for each.

Example 1

A friend calls me to tell me that he is looking to purchase a new car. I know that he knows very little about cars, and while I may not be an expert, I know far more then he does. I begin to worry he will make a bad choice regarding which car to get and how much to pay for it, so I begin to research cars, worry when he's test driving them, wishing I could be there to negotiate, etc. No sleep.

I’ve involved myself in this situation and emotionally attached to a specific outcome, which is that he get a good car at a good price.

I worry that the “right” decision won’t get made.

Example 2

I'm a manager at a company, and I have an employee that is under performing.

"This is all my fault! They must be failing because I'm a bad manager and they probably don't like me."

I invest a lot of time with this employee, worry about them and their performance, worry about how they feel about me, worry about how they feel about themselves. Sacrifice time and energy from my other employees and projects to focus on this person. No sleep.


What’s going on here? My friend buying a car affects me in no way, not financially, and it’s possible I may never ever ride in this car, so why am I so worked up and emotionally involved?

What I’ve learned is the reasons for this varies for each person, and is usually associated with some deeper issue they are trying to solve. For me it’s often trust.

If I see a situation where I don't believe the other actors are capable of resolving it on their own to my standard, I will want to get involved so that it's done "right." As a manager my reason might be that I want to be perceived as a “good” person, and so get involved in situations to demonstrate that.


Whatever the reason, the outcome is usually:

  • Getting sucked into too many projects/situations/issues
  • A draining of my time/energy
  • As soon as one situation completes, another comes up to take its place

It's gotten so bad for me that at one point I found myself wanting to avoid conversations with certain people, because I was afraid that I would have to get involved in yet another situation.


I had to develop a strategy to protect myself, and the strategy is quite simple. Before I get involved in anything, I ask myself two questions:

  1. Am I responsible for dealing with this issue?
  2. If I am responsible, then what exactly is my responsibility?

I've been completely surprised by just how many situations I now don't get involved with, because the answer to the first question is "No."

This doesn't mean that if someone were to ask me for some help that I wouldn’t give it, but I'm very clear with myself that I'm not the responsible party, so I don’t emotionally attach myself to any outcome. I’m just there to help if I can.

Let’s revisit our two earlier examples, but now using this strategy.

Example 1 - Revisited

My friend calls and tells me he is buying a car. I feel that old sense of trust anxiety starting to build, so I ask myself the first question:

  1. Am I responsible for dealing with this situation?

The answer here is no. His buying a car, buying a good car, or paying a good price for it isn’t my responsibility. He's a fully capable adult and if he buys a bad car it won’t be because of me, and if he pays too much it also won’t have been because of me.

I ask him if he has any questions for me or if there is any way that I can be of service to him, and we go from there.

Example 2 - Revisited

I’m a boss with an underperforming direct report. I feel anxiety rising over the confrontation that might take place and I REALLY want this person to succeed so I can feel good as a boss. Instead of letting that anxiety take over, I turn to my questions:

  1. Am I responsible for dealing with this issue?
  2. If I am responsible, then what exactly is my responsibility?

The answer to the first question is "Yes" because I am their manager. So let's think about the second question and consider my responsibilities.

As their lead I might outline several responsibilities:

  1. Ensure they know they are underperforming and why
  2. Create a performance plan with them
  3. If they don't improve manage them out
  4. Ensure the time/effort/energy I'm spending with them does not jeopardize the rest of the team or other projects

Notice that what's not included in this list is anything about making them like me, or feeling good about themselves, or devoting all of my time to them. When I have a clear list of my responsibilities, I can easily check an action I'm thinking about taking against this list and if it's not on there, then I don't need to do it. I can if I want, but I'm clear that it's not my responsibility.


Isn't this system harsh? If someone has a situation that they are working through, shouldn’t we care about the outcome and get involved?

My answer now is: sometimes, and only if I'm clear on whether or not I'm responsible, and if I am, what my responsibility is. Otherwise it's too easy to get sucked fully into an issue when really it's not your issue to be in charge of.


This methodology is really all about setting boundaries. Most of the time when we think of boundaries we think about keeping toxic people or behaviors out of our lives, but the boundary in this case is for us to keep us in and out of the lives of others in ways that we shouldn't be.

The goal is to be intentional about your involvement or level of involvement. Using this strategy you might discover areas that you aren’t currently involved with that you should be, for instance certain civic issues. You’ll also likely also discover some interpersonal issues that you really have no business being involved in. Either way the goal is a healthier and less emotionally entangled you.

My hope for you all is that the next time you’re faced with a situation, and you feel that anxiety and emotional attachment to an outcome forming, you’ll pause and ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Am I responsible for dealing with this issue?
  2. If I am responsible, what exactly is my responsibility?