I strode into the darkened room and reached for the light switch. I groped around and tried again. Then, I stopped myself. Months before, I had moved into a new place after living in my previous apartment for five years. I was reaching for a light switch that did not exist. This simple action stopped me in my tracks. How many other non-existent light switches were there in my life that I was still trying to utilize?
I once read a piece of research that showed the human brain is hardwired to say “no” as a first response. This makes evolutionary sense; it is self preservation, much to the dismay of youngsters asking their parents for the newest piece of technology or a later curfew. But somewhere along the line, my brain was rewired. My default response is “yes.”
This may seem harmless enough from the outside. I give. I take on responsibilities. I help others. These are all positive actions, until the end of the day comes and I haven’t carved out enough time for myself.
This “yes” light switch served a purpose in my younger years. I was insecure. I didn’t feel a sense of belonging. I filled those holes and pumped myself up by giving to others. My purpose and sense of self came from what I could do for others, rather than what was inherent inside me.
I have a new found sense of my own value, but to break this pattern, I need to think before instinctively flicking the switch to “yes.”
People who view me as kind and giving may be surprised to know that if we sit down to share a plate of french fries, I am gauging whether or not you are taking more than your fair share. Or that if you come into my apartment and open my refrigerator, I raise my metaphorical hackles. Or that if you invite someone new to our longstanding plans, it takes some self talk to assure myself that it will be okay.
After a tumultuous time in my life, I was in foster care as a teenager. Sharing shelter, food, and attention with seven other teens meant hiding food in my dresser drawer on grocery day, barring the door to my shared room to steal some privacy, and plotting up schemes to get some alone time with my foster mom.
At that time in my life, being territorial helped me to fulfill my childlike needs. Now, those same behaviors run counter to my dedication to human services and create internal dissonance.
And then there is the light switch I reach for when my feelings are hurt. People who cause me pain frequently become the target of a quick, angry statement that cuts to the core. It is a protective instinct, built up over years of covering up my disappointments. The second a quip escapes my mouth, I am embarrassed by my inability to default to these simple words, “That hurt me.”
In the past, those words would have made me vulnerable — made me the target. Having a toughened exterior was how I protected myself.
But no more.
These instincts built up over time can only control me if I let my life run on autopilot. The beautiful thing about being sentient is that once I recognize patterns and habits that no longer have a place in my life, I have the power to change them.
And the good news is, it is simple.
I can make a list of all the times I say “yes” in my week, along with the impact it has on my life. This teaches me to learn to balance the time for myself with the time spent on others. I can be giving, and offer someone the opportunity to have that last french fry. I can stop, count to ten, and say, “that hurt me” before saying something I will regret later.
To be human is to grow and change, to learn from my mistakes, and recognize old patterns that no longer serve a purpose in my life.
Today, I choose to take control over my actions and reactions, and to stop reaching for switches that no longer create light.