By Najya A. Williams. Photography by Deun Ivory.
My mama often talks about how I have always had an innate curiosity about the world around me. I listened dutifully to her when she spoke, clapped with enthusiasm for my educational toys, and tuned in to the Discovery Health channel, right next to her side. I drew from what surrounded me, and worked hard to absorb every piece of knowledge that I could, so it wasn’t surprising for my mama when my neighborhood school encouraged her to move me to a more rigorous institution that could challenge me in the way that I deserved. Without hesitation, my mama did her due diligence and found another local school that had an intense curriculum designed to push students toward their fullest potential.
As soon as I arrived at my new school, I remember feeling nervous but excited to learn and continue making my family and teachers proud of me. However, the joy that I attached to my education began to drain from my spirit from the moment that my peers decided to bully me. I became disinterested in what fed my intellectual thirst and went as far as to beg my mother to let me stay home so I didn’t have to listen to the other girls call me kiss up, teacher’s pet, ugly, fat and a host of other ridiculous insults that an elementary schooler doesn’t deserve to hear.
After several years of antagonism, I finally stood up for myself and moved through the rest of my academic career with relative ease. Although my bullies didn’t leave physical scars on my body, I didn’t realize the amount of mental and emotional ones I still carried from those experiences until I approached young adulthood. I believe that I sat in my bully’s treatment for so long not only because of fear, but also of a powerful desire for friendship and sisterhood. Raised as an only child, I often clung to my school connections because they provided the companionship that I didn’t have at home in a playmate and built-in best friend.
Bullying changed my perception of myself, and made me question whether or not I was the best person and friend that I could possibly be so that I wouldn’t give people a reason to walk away. This carved out a long and extensive journey through fatigue and burnout, as I cycled through a host of relationships that were 150% one sided, all at the expense of my time, energy and sanity. I refrained from saying no, even when I genuinely didn’t feel like being bothered, all for the sake of being a “great, supportive friend.” To this day, there are several people who have gotten the absolute best from me and I can’t even remember the last time they looked me in the eye and said thank you.
My mama is a strong, fearless woman who isn’t afraid to tell someone to kick rocks when they’re bad for her, so she often served as my protection and voice of reason as a child and teenager, even when she was met with my tears and reluctant ear. However, once I left home for my freshman fall, I fell into a familiar pattern of people pleasing by saying yes without any discernment and giving more of myself than I should’ve offered.
By the end of my sophomore fall, I was tired, burned out, and once again, disappointed by a host of people who only appreciated me for the “yes” I gave and the “no” I avoided. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognize the woman staring back at me. I could only see the scared little eight-year-old who cried into her mother’s lap because she didn’t have friends. I saw the frustrated sixteen-year-old who refused to let her friends down, even if it meant letting herself down. I saw the fragmented pieces of myself that I refused to work on over the years finally bubbling to the surface. I saw that the time for healing had long been waiting for me to slow down and recognize it. Upon reflecting on my young life, I realized that I was stuck in a cycle of chaos and insanity by anticipating different outcomes when I had done nothing to address what had long impacted me and my ability to look at myself, authentically.
In devoting the entirety of my junior year to restoration and renewal, I soon shifted from fear in saying “no” to power, firmness and intention in saying “no”. I unraveled the deepest parts of myself and learned to love them, wholly, because I knew that I couldn’t demand that the world around me subscribe to my boundaries if I couldn’t do so myself. My energy was being stolen freely from me, and I ultimately have the power to draw lines to establish not only what I can provide for others, but also what I deserve and expect to receive for self-preservation and growth. I am allowed to define what toxicity looks like, and from there, can use my “no” to be intentional about the land I step on, the air I breathe in, and the souls I am surrounded by. I used to believe that saying “no” would prevent good people from moving into my orbit, but I soon realized that my “no” taught others how to treat me and if they care about me, it will be accepted with love and full belief in my future “yes”.
Boundary building isn’t meant to trap us in a bubble of loneliness and isolation; it is meant to foster a culture of safety, support, and true love in a malicious and taxing world. Now, when I look toward the brightness of the future ahead, I carry my “no” with me in confidence, in hope, in love, and in full faith because I know my “yes” means so much more.
A native to “Chocolate City”, Najya Williams is a writer and poet studying Sociology at Harvard College in Cambridge, MA. She has committed to participating in numerous poetry and spoken word driven events to shed light on issues present in her community that many consider taboo. Najya looks ahead to continue making a difference in not only her community, but the nation as a whole, one word at a time. You can find Najya on Twitter @NajyaTheAuthor and on Instagram @NajyaTheAuthor.