Sometimes we wait for everyone and everything–our parents, our peers, the media, tradition–to tell us what we should do, what we should think, what we should believe, and how we should feel. We let others direct our lives instead of granting ourselves the freedom to live as we truly desire. If that has been your story, stop right now. Reclaim the power you can rightfully wield over your own life. Stop waiting for others to validate your every move and do what you’ve allowed others to do for you for too long: Give yourself permission.
Give yourself permission to heal from the past.
Give yourself permission to forgive those who have hurt you.
Give yourself permission to apologize to those you have hurt.
Give yourself permission to love yourself.
Give yourself permission to love others.
Give yourself permission to love whomever you want.
Give yourself permission to have a good life.
Give yourself permission to believe what you believe.
Give yourself permission to question your beliefs.
Give yourself permission to live fearlessly.
Give yourself permission to be honest.
Give yourself permission to be thankful.
Give yourself permission to live according to your own values.
Give yourself permission to validate yourself.
Give yourself permission to express yourself.
Give yourself permission to meet your needs.
Give yourself permission to not take everything people say personally.
Give yourself permission to have your own opinion.
Give yourself permission to make your own choices.
You’re a labyrinth. There’s so much more to you than how you look, how you speak, how you dress, what you studied in school, where you work, who you’re dating, and even what your goals are.
Because you’re constantly in flux, you can never describe yourself just one way. You’re always growing, always changing, always evolving. You’re not just an employee, a mom, a dad, a student, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a sister or brother. You’re more.
You’re a collection of hopes, dreams, interests, talents, memories, personality factors, beliefs, opinions, physical features, attitudes, skills, genes, and more. You can never be “just” anything. In a society that often tries to box people in impermeable little packages, isn’t it great to know that you’re more than what anyone can label you?
They’ll call you names. They’ll put you in a crate and smack a label on you. But you don’t have to believe them. Instead, you can believe that you’re too intricate to be so easily defined. You’re the complex, wonderful you. You’re like a tree with hundreds of branches twisting and turning in their own directions while forming one strong tower. Let that be your strength.
As he accepted a BET Honors award for his storied filmmaking career, Spike Lee spoke one of the truest, saddest, most poignant statements ever.
“It has been my observation,” he said, “that parents kill more dreams than anybody.”
I shook my head and clapped in furious agreement. Yes, Mr. Lee. You don’t have to wait for your 11th-grade chemistry teacher to tell you “you’re smart, but you don’t have the logic to the complete the labs.” Sure, she can shatter your dreams of attending Johns Hopkins Medical School–rendering all your hours of studying the MCAT guide and college biology textbooks over summer vacation futile–but your hopes can crumble much earlier. The blow needn’t come from strangers tossing your resume or disgruntled online commenters with their drawers in a wad about their own deferred aspirations.
Undoubtedly, the jab that smacks your dreams to the mat can come from your parents, the people who gave you your chromosomes, the people you’d expect would offer you the most encouragement and support. Shameful.
Now, I must admit I’m coming from a slightly different angle here. Except for the stint in sixth-grade erotica, My parents always encouraged me to pursue the career that would fulfill me. At 11, it was medicine. I promised my mother I would become a doctor, and though that pubescent hope is still possible–Me, Ph.D sounds pretty good–I will most likely never be a physician. Now, thankfully, that is okay with me. It wasn’t when Ms. Chemistry Dreamkiller so smilingly offered me her .02 about my scientific aptitude, but today, I’m comfortable with being a patient. At least I can win trivia games with my knowledge of the periodic table.
[Which is the only other element besides mercury that is a liquid at room temperature? Bromine!!]
Some parents, though, really do kill their kids’ dreams, either by telling them, flat-out, that they’ll never get into college, Hollywood, or anywhere else, or indirectly leading their starry-eyed offspring to another vocation. You’ve probably seen the completely sane dance moms on TLC.
I understand how big dreams can sound to practical folks. I still get the courtesy nods–“Oh, ok, that’s good,” with the patronizing smile–when I tell some people my dream is to write for a magazine in NYC. I can’t be upset though, because that’s the same nod that I, admittedly, give to 35-year-old aspiring rappers. Some dreams just seem to farfetched for others to grasp, including parents. Parents are people, and people are judgmental.
But what good would come of us if no one dreamed of anything even remotely spectacular? We wouldn’t have half the amenities–shoot, even pants with zippers–if someone hadn’t dreamed sideways. And if the encouragement to dream big begins anywhere, it should begin at home and then in school, the two places children spend most of their time.
The world is going to give children enough heat. That’s why parents should instill genuine confidence in their children, confidence that compels youngsters to think boldly yet prudently. Kids should always get a healthy dose of realism and flexibility: Telling a child she’s a lazy bum is no better than telling her she’s the smartest kid in the world, as both statements leave no room for variation. But for the most part, parents or guardians should be the child’s first cheerleaders, even if the aspiration really is off the charts.
Without wild dreams–and someone to believe in them–Spike Lee, Steve Jobs, Oprah, and many, many more people would just be (or have been) regular old folks taking up seats on the Metro.
If you ever did time in that penitentiary called middle school, you know that preteen kids can be unequivocally mean. They’ll make up crude chants about your hair, clothes, or your prepubescent taste in zit-faced boys. They’ll spread rumors about who you tongue-kissed after school, refuse to dance with you at the spring fling, and call you “waterhead” as you put your tray away in the cafeteria. This awkward period between childhood and true adolescence can be traumatic for anyone, but it was especially harrowing for my fragile young heart.
I recently caught a flash of those embarrassing moments when I walked past a lineup of students from the Middle School of Mathematics and Science at Howard University on my way to the library. If it were 1976, pig’s blood could have fallen from the sky. But I smiled, held my shoulders back, and walked forward. I’m beyond those days, I thought. I know who I am and I accept myself. I kept walking. And, in a juicy plot twist that would’ve made Stephen King cower, a sprightly voice called out to me:
“You look cute!”
I paused for a millisecond. Well, I’ll be—a middle-school girl had something nice to say to me! Where was she 14 years ago? As I beamed and thanked her, more compliments followed. Another girl told me again, in the same tone as the first, that I looked cute. The next girl complimented my Steve Madden combat boots. I smiled like a Miss USA contestant as I walked past that lineup, thanking each charming girl for her kindness. I wore that grin long after I plopped down with my laptop in the library.
What kind of alternate universe had I stepped into, where middle-school girls are all sweet and nice and flattering? Had they really gotten that much nicer, or had my positive thinking projected an air of confidence? It could be either or both, but one thing was certain—those compliments felt great. And with all the stereotypes about black women being angry and critical, the fact that the praise came from little black girls made it even lovelier.
I don’t know what goes on in the school hallways nowadays, but I do know that those young ladies deserve praise for their candid kindness. When you’re that age, it’s easy to point fingers and sling insults at innocent people. But those girls presented themselves with an air of class that often eludes their peers. Their simple admiration helped my day sparkle a little more.
With time and some serious soul-searching—and hey, even therapy— you realize that the kids who picked on you never defined you. You learn to shed your insecurities and enjoy being yourself, whatever that entails. You learn that compliments are much more valuable than insults. So walk proudly, give praise freely. You never know what that person has gone through. If I learned anything from my middle-school retake, it’s that being nice is so much, well, nicer than being nasty—at any age.