One of the most life changing things I’ve learned in the last few years is the power in the word “no.”
The two-letter word is quite radical when you think about it. Particularly as a young brown woman, whose surroundings confirmed the lack of boundaries that predicate her existence, I had never seen what it means to say no without being villainized for it.
The ability to say this word freely is a luxury I am afforded that my mother and the women from generations before her did not have. The instinct is passed down through our lineages—to stifle our inner voices, shrink ourselves, be the obedient daughters or partners and bite our tongues, silencing our individual pain to not disrupt the collective peace.
We continue down this trajectory for much of our lives due to sheer momentum and habit, never stopping to question it. It’s like we are continuing down a certain path uninterrupted, unless something or someone knocks us off, and causes us to rethink what it is we even want.
The first time I encountered this was when my relationship of seven years to the man I thought I was going to marry ended during the pandemic.
It was a mutual decision that didn’t come from any malicious fights, any massive wrongdoing or intentional hurt on either end. It was just two kids who fell in love, and eventually grew apart.
It’s part of what made it one of the hardest “nos” of my entire life.
Seven years is a long time, especially when your entire formative years were spent with this person by your side. Our lives and families had become intertwined, and it was understood that we were going to be together forever.
Many people, including my mother, were perplexed by the decision to split after many years together.
“What happened?” my mom asked. “Something had to have happened.”
Nothing has to happen for two people to love each other but decide to no longer stay together, I told her.
In a culture where it isn’t even normalized for women to speak up and walk away when they are being harmed, how could I possibly walk away from a situation that didn’t have an outright “problem?”
She was confused. How could a partnership founded on “love,” (one that wasn’t arranged, she meant), fail? How could we spend that much time together and still decide to separate?
“He was such a nice guy,” my mom said.
He was. He is.
But sometimes, mom, that isn’t enough.
It was a difficult concept for her to understand because for her, it had to be enough.
She expected that I would accept what I was given and make the most of it because it was what she had done.
My mom listened when she was told by her parents to go to school, get married to a man she barely knew and move to a country she was unfamiliar with, have kids, and then listen to her in-laws, without ever contesting.
It was the “good daughter,” “good wife,” and “good mom,” thing to do. Saying “no,” or questioning or pushing back simply wasn’t in her repertoire. In the event she wasn’t happy in any aspect of her life, she was expected to stay, because that’s what people do.
It reminds me of an excerpt from Untamed by author Glennon Doyle, where she talks about how mothers are often expected to be martyrs, sacrificing themselves for the wants and desires of their children and families in order to prove their love.
“If we keep passing down the legacy of martyrdom to our daughters, with whom does it end? Which woman ever gets to live?”
My mom was so focused on survival, she never got to think about self-fulfillment like I do.
Saying “no,” and walking away from this relationship, although it was the end of life as I knew it, was really just the beginning of something more.
When it came to telling people I knew, at first I felt shame. How could I explain that it didn’t work?
But the more I thought about it, I realized that our cultural narratives around breakups had permeated my psyche and made me think that a relationship ending was meant to feel like a failure.
As I shared the news with my loved ones, however, I told them that I didn’t regret it. I didn’t regret the years we spent together and all of the memories we shared.
I didn't regret that our families and friends had met or that we had so many pictures together or experiences spanning over the years.
My mom on the other hand thought it was terrible that our families had met and that we were both so intertwined.
I explained to her that at the time, that was my life and my reality. That was what I had wanted. I was happy. And although it faded, I don’t feel ashamed that it did.
I had a funny conversation with my cousins about it recently, where one of them shared that they hesitated to send pictures from an old family vacation because my ex was in it.
Another cousin said they hesitated to delete him off social media. I laughed.
I recognize that I'm lucky that I don’t look back on those years with hate in my heart.
I don’t punish myself for not staying and making it work. I also am not upset I didn’t leave sooner.
I just accept that this “no” came when I needed it most.
Since the end of that partnership, my “no” muscle and boundaries have been tested tenfold, but I have become so committed to not settling for anything less than what I wholeheartedly desire and deserve.
In this time, I’ve turned down low-ball job offers, said no to opportunities that aren’t aligned with me, and gone running in the opposite direction of men who are waging their own internal battles.
I’ve met some men who just weren’t what I was looking for, some who hadn’t taken the time to get to know themselves, and some who were just outright sociopaths.
My other lesson learned from my more recent dating debacles is that time spent alone is much more meaningful than having to shrink yourself to make a small man feel big.
It doesn’t make walking away any easier though.
Saying no to the really nice guy who I just didn’t feel a spark with, was just as difficult as saying no to the narcissist who knew how to say all the right things.
Each time I had to reassess if letting go of someone who wasn’t for me, mattered more than my need to feel wanted.
But every single time, it was the decision I needed to make.
Being alone has ushered in some of the greatest growth of my life, allowing me to shed what I am not in order to find who I am.
I learned that something being “good enough,” or “good most of the time,” is not enough for me, and I will continue to be relentless about what I deserve, even if it means being alone.
I'd rather let go and walk away from everything than hold on to the scraps of what I deserve.
Navigating the dating pool as a newly-single woman in her mid-20’s, I often learned this the hard way.
But contrary to what we may have been taught to believe, struggle is not a prerequisite to receiving what we deserve.
Unlike my mother in several circumstances, many of which for pure survival, I don't need to endure unnecessary pain, or bite my tongue when something isn't serving me.
What I learned in these last few years is that this voice has always been inside me. Sometimes I doubted it, and sometimes I still do.
But loving myself enough to demand more from my life is a radical act of self love.
I hope you too find that voice deep within you and feel the empowerment reverberating through your body the first time you utter the word “no”. The first time you take up all the strength in your body to walk away and never look back.
Every time I’ve walked away from something I'm certain it's going to be the end of my world, but as cliché as it sounds, it has, and continues to be just the beginning.
I get to rewrite this story as many times over, and sometimes it involves living through unimaginable pain and loss and grief.
But the reward is that I come out each time a little more me, and a little more relentless that every time I say no, even if in my mom’s words, “nothing happened,” I am making space for all things that are a wholehearted, full stop—an 1000% yes.
It reminds me of another quote from Doyle in Untamed:
“We are alive only to the degree to which we are willing to be annihilated. Our next life will always cost us this one. If we are truly alive, we are constantly losing who we just were, what we just built, what we just believed, what we just knew to be true. What I lose is always what is no longer true enough so that I can take full hold of what is.”
I’d rather lose everything than risk losing myself. I owe myself that much.
About the author
Rumneek JohalMore by Rumneek Johal
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