How Saying “No” Taught Me To Say “Yes”

I grew up the youngest of two (three if you count my older brother from my dad’s high school girlfriend) with no say in my life. I attended private, Christian academies, with rigid uniforms and dress codes, from pre-school through senior year.

Outside of school, my mom dictated every detail of my outfits – from color and patterns to fit – and my bedroom furniture. Questions like “what do you think of this shirt?” were purely window dressings as the decision had already been made when it was plucked from the “Husky” section of whatever off-brand, discount clothing warehouse we were in that weekend. Sunday suits were of the “brown and boxy” Steve Harvey style with equally ill-fitted shirts, shoes, and ties – like a small child playing businessman in his dad’s clothes.

Sure, I’d wander off down the cluttered aisles while absentmindedly running my hands over itchy polyesters, “silks”, velours (it was the early ‘00s), and cottons of questionable quality and cleanliness. I might have even found a shirt I disliked less than all the others; however, I certainly couldn’t get them – they were pink and “boys don’t wear pink unless they’re ‘sweet’”. I grew up in a world where I couldn’t say yes and I wasn’t supposed to say no – but I did.

Surprise, I’m “sweet”!

Sometimes loudly and declaring “I’m not wearing that” (to which my mom would insist I would wear it or else I’d be in trouble) or, more commonly, a quick, quiet, dismissive glance at whatever leftovers I was handed. These bold and defiant proclamations of self were never appreciated and always met with anger and fury and punishments – sometimes physical but always public and humiliating – but I said what I said and I meant it.

Leaving home for college (another private, Christian institution) gave me the opportunity, for the first time, to define myself and my style. I had no clue who I was or how to even begin defining myself. I’d spent the first 18 years of my life being told what to do, where to go, when to show up and leave, how to act, who I should be and suddenly I was in control?! I had no idea what I wanted much less how to ask for those things or get them. All I knew how to do was say no – so that’s what I did. By process of elimination and paying attention to what made me happy, I got closer and closer to myself. The process has not been easy for sure. Could you imagine asking a supposed “adult” what they wanted in regards to…anything…and all they could say in return was “I don’t know” then they turn around a say “no”, like toddler, to whatever you do present?! The friends I made at the start of this journey are, truly, saints for putting up with my self discovery phase(s). At one point the group decision making process became

“Did you check with Chris-Tyler?”
”Did he say yes?”
”Well he didn’t say no”
”Good enough! Let’s go before he changes his mind!”

Sometimes, I rely on the same “no” process of elimination when faced with new scenarios and opportunities now. In work, love, style (very rarely in this category), and life I still don’t always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want. Most days however, I can tell you immediately what I want and I do not settle. I spent the first 18 years of my life settling for whatever anyone else decided I was worth.

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