When I was wondering if I should pursue a friendship with someone that I felt doubtful about, my therapist presented me with the concept of red light, yellow light, and green light.
The concept felt at once brilliant and mundane. Traffic lights are in front of me every day! Why haven’t I thought about it before?
I had heard about red light, yellow light, and green light at dating parties in college. You wear red if you’re in a relationship, yellow if you’re unsure or if you’re in an open relationship, and green if you’re single.
But this is different. My therapist told me to think about these colors in terms of the other person’s behavior and if I would want to be closer to them or further away because of their actions. This concept can be applied towards job considerations, coworkers, friendships, group dynamics, and potential suitors. You name it.
For instance, whenever I meet a new person. I can consider if their words and actions are red, yellow, or green. If a person invites me out, it’s a green light. If that person then cancels, can’t make up their mind about when and where to meet, or ghosts me, then that’s a red light.
This kind of thinking allows me to get out of my codependent ways of rationalizing another person’s problematic behavior.
For instance, in the past, if someone ghosted me or cancels all the time or can’t make up their mind, I’ll make excuses for them. I’ll think, “Well, they work late,” or “they're too busy” without realizing that I’m neglecting and abandoning myself. Instead of moving away from the friendship, I’ll try to bring them closer. I’ll invite them out more or make them dinner or run errands for them without realizing that they wouldn’t do the same for me.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) didn’t work for me because I was always thinking about the other person and not about myself. Looking at another person’s behavior through the lens of red light, yellow light, and green light makes their actions and whether I want to be in a relationship with them clearer.
In all of my relationships, I have always tried to make myself palatable, presentable, or useful to the other person. Using the concept of traffic lights, I no longer exclusively think about whether I am good enough for the other person. I can now think about what the other person is doing in terms of creating a relationship with me. Or perhaps they’re demonstrating that they don’t want a relationship with me at all.
This concept is giving me the opportunity to become clearer about what’s a red light, yellow light, and green light for me. In the past, I would have thought that a man chronically crying about his previous relationships was a green light. I thought that meant he was “sensitive” and that it was my job to rescue him. He may be sensitive but he certainly wasn’t sensitive to me nor was he sensitive to my time.
The traffic light concept allows me to think about how other people treat me, which feels new and radical.
My problem with this concept is that often, a person can exhibit red light, yellow light, and green light behaviors. To use an extreme example, Jeffrey Epstein targeted young and often poor women so that he could take advantage of them. But he also often paid for their education and other expenses. If we look at his behavior through the lens of green light, yellow light, and red light without strong boundaries — we might get confused.
To use a mild example, I recently met a visual artist (let’s call her Betsy) who had many positive qualities but in a group setting, she laughed at a joke that I felt was targeted at me. When I gently confronted her about it, she didn’t feel that she was laughing at me and that the joke was not targeted at me. I felt confused — was I making something a big deal or too sensitive or was she oblivious? But over the course of a month, I felt that she continued to laugh or dismiss me when I felt that someone was being rude to me.
It was hard to pinpoint what she did because she didn’t actually make jokes at me or was rude to me directly. She simply went along or didn’t notice when other people were rude. Because I’ve had a history of having my feelings dismissed, I began to doubt myself whether her actions were acceptable to me or not. I don’t have a firm answer but if I were to respect my feelings, then I would say no, her enablement of other people’s negative behaviors towards me, is not okay.
Problematic people can have positive qualities just as wonderful people can make mistakes. For me, it’s hard to recognize which person is which.
Using the traffic light concept, I have to hold myself accountable. This means that when I think a person is exhibiting yellow light or red light behavior, I have to walk away from them even if I like them or admire them in some way. I find it the most difficult to walk away from a person or a group that I think can benefit my career in some way.
For me, I have to understand that it’s okay to like someone but not want to be their friend or want to spend time with them. Being in this gray area is difficult for me because I don’t want any more transactional relationships. I also want to give another person the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, I don’t want to put myself in harm’s way.
While I like Betsy in many ways, her lack of awareness is hurtful and harmful to me. I want to give her the space to grow but I don’t want to continuously be hurt when I’m around her with other people. In this case, I have to give myself permission to protect myself first, which doesn’t come easy for me.
It’s going to take time for me to fully internalize this concept and to practice it more often, but I’m glad that I’m aware of it, and I hope that it will be helpful to you.