The community dinner I work with offers a vegetarian option at each meal and I’ve taken responsibility for choosing it, shopping for it, and preparing it. However, after taking on new responsibilities with the organization, I wanted to unload this obligation. Each year the local college assigns a student to work with us, and our current student loves to cook so I asked her if she would take over. She agreed to do it and I was SO pleased with myself for letting this responsibility go. Then life intervened. Sherry’s class schedule changed limiting her hours at the kitchen, another volunteer told me our kitchen manager wouldn’t buy some of the ingredients Sherry requested, and then she got sick before one meal and couldn’t be there at all. I nearly careened over the edge this week when the she sent me a quiche recipe, one she didn’t think she would be available to prepare, and the ingredient list seemed poor to me (pro-tip: plain yogurt is much better in quiche than heavy cream). Feeling aggravated and fed-up, I was on the verge of sending a text to the kitchen manager telling her I would go back to making the vegetarian option from now one when a tiny voice inside me said, “Stay out of it.”
I put my phone down but I struggled to quiet my mind. My impulse was to frame this situation as beyond my control and as the fault of those around me. After stewing about it I moved on to the question, “How did I end up right back in the middle of the vegetarian option?” and I see that I did it piece by piece. For instance, I’m the primary liaison between the kitchen and the college program that sends us a student. Sherry, appropriately, assumes I’m the person she should talk to about scheduling problems. I didn’t take myself out of that loop. Also, I assume, despite some counter-evidence, that the other dinner prep volunteers don’t want to take responsibility for the vegetarian option. I also assume that if they do take it on they won’t do it the way I think it should be done.
Piece by piece I give myself away. “It’s okay, I’ll do it this time.” “Yes, I’ll listen to your concerns rather than urge you to talk to the person who is the source of those concerns.” “No, I appreciate your offer but I’ll take care of it.” One decision at a time I hand pieces of myself over until I feel as if there’s nothing left of me. I tell myself as it’s happening that I’m patient and accommodating, that I put others’ or the organization’s needs before my own. I use that reasoning as evidence that I’m a good person. And when I feel as if there are no pieces of me left I am angry and blame others and I feel justified because, after all, I’ve been accommodating and patient and selfless.
As I learn to watch myself, to see my habits of thought as an object of curiosity, I gain freedom. And I learn to identify the actions that will keep me free—being direct about my limits, trusting others when they say they’ll take care of something, accepting that they won’t do things the way I would. Above all, I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.