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The luxury of saying no.

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

I was a nervous kid growing up. But it wasn’t apparent to everyone. The nervousness was cloaked in layers and layers of pride, a confident stance, a steady gaze and a loud obstinate voice that just said, “no.” I came across as a stubborn yet lovable child, although my cute pigtails and impish smile may have let people cut me more slack than I deserved.

I didn’t say no to most things because I was a brat. I said no because I was afraid. Afraid of being shut down, of being made to be someone I was not. In a situation I wasn’t comfortable in, the butterflies in my stomach would start fluttering and all the negative possibilities of the situation would swish around my brain until I could think of nothing else.

So, I said no, and I said it often.

I grew up in a household that encouraged it. Parents that told me that while there were some things I just had to do, like mind my Ps and Qs, and go to school, and read books and eat my vegetables, I didn’t need to do something I didn’t HAVE to do. I didn’t have to continue piano lessons if I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to go into sports, or music or grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. I didn’t have to socialize with my peers immediately, I could ease my way into it.

You’d think this type of parenting would be counterintuitive, that it would create a child so afraid of everything that she’d never try, but the opposite happened. Without the pressure of feeling like my parents were trying to fit me into a box I didn’t belong, I was free to do anything. So, I wrote stories. I sang in choirs. Took part in dance recitals. Won speech competitions and debates and participated in Model United Nations. Got straight As for the most part and was the queen bee in most of my social circles.

My family never made me dim my light. Ever. They encouraged it and fueled it. They marveled at all the bits and sketches I put on for them. Laughed fondly at my idiosyncrasies. I was different from their oldest, a precocious, yet generally amiable sister, who like my parents encouraged and even contributed to my creativity.

In their daughters, my parents had the best of both worlds, the yes and the no.

My dad would wait outside my kindergarten classroom so I could see his face and know I wasn’t alone in that room. My mother would softly chastise me when I complained I “just didn’t get math.” “Of course, you do, it’s all in here,” she’d say, softly tapping my head. “You just need to stop telling yourself you don’t know it.”

Over the years, I have had good times and I’ve had bad. And my own relationship with my family has evolved. But the one lesson I’m grateful they’ve imparted to me is that there are multiple paths to success. Success is seeing my mother being an accomplished doctor, loved by her patients but also be home in the afternoons to take a nap and help my sister and I with our studies. It is knowing your priorities and what truly matters. Success is seeing my father never lose his creative spirit and continue to write and sing and publish books. Success is seeing my sister get a graduate degree from a top university in a year and a half and leave everything she’s known behind to pursue a life with the love of her life and build a formidable career.

I’m a little different from my family. I’ve moved abroad earlier, I’m more temperamental, more opinionated, more idealistic yet oddly pessimistic at times. I’ve traveled to multiple cities in the US, partied hard yet had a bunch of internships, attended conferences, gotten degrees from good schools, and built a community in a foreign country, oceans away from everything I’ve known.

But as an adult, it is easier to see how the way I was brought up has shaped my outlook on life. That even during the times I feel out of my territory, I can always say no. And I can always stand up for myself.

Never once have I been told to “just take it” “to just do it” “to not question it.” It’s a gift I’ve been realizing more and more as I see how people who didn’t have that in their lives turn out. Weighed by the burdens of all the “could’ves” “would’ves” and “should’ves.”

I’m 24 now, and in many ways at this stage in my life, I still feel like that four-year-old who doesn’t know what’s next. Who feels terrified that the world will stomp her idealistic spirit and she will be left with scraps and no answers. But deep down, I hear a voice in my mind and a gentle tap, that says ““Of course, you do, it’s all in here, you just need to stop telling yourself you don’t know the answers.” And I know, I can always look out my classroom window and see a friendly face. I can only hope that one day my children will be able to say the same about me.

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