Being conditioned to say “no”

“Why do you always say ‘no’ when someone asks you if you want something?” Ed used to ask me, always exasperated and annoyed. “They’ve brainwashed you into never wanting anything. But that’s not normal; everyone wants something from time to time, and it’s okay to want things!”

Occasionally, Ed and I would go shopping together. He very generously took me shopping to purchase my very first prom dress for my junior prom in high school. Ed was always very generous, especially in the years when he was working, and so he’d always offer to buy me things just for the sake of it. There didn’t need to be a birthday or Christmas coming up; he just thought it was good to indulge every now and then. “I don’t pay rent, so might as well use the money to buy you something,” he’d say.

It pains me to remember these moments. All Ed really wanted was love, attention, and our time. Unfortunately, he never got any of the above from our father. Our mother gave him the wrong kind of attention (critical, scrutinizing, eager to compare to “the kids upstairs” aka our cousins).

For whatever reason, I remembered these moments when Chris and I were strolling through the Santa Fe Farmers Market yesterday morning. The farmers market here is famous for being very strict about how all its products are sourced: all of the items or foods either need to be grown and/or made right here in New Mexico. In addition, if it’s a food product, it needs to be certified organic. I stopped by a lavender vendor and perused her lavender based soaps and skin products. Did I really need to buy more soap or lip balm? Not really. But in the moment, I thought, well, I haven’t traveled for so long, and we can always use more soap and lip balm, so why not? Plus, I like supporting small, local businesses. So I purchased a couple items from this vendor and went on my way.

Ed used to hound me all the time for being cheap for myself. And well, it’s not too far from the truth; if I purchase something that isn’t food-related for myself, even to this day, I obsess over whether I really actually need it, even if it’s just a $20 shirt. I will spend at least 4-5 days wondering if I will really wear it enough, get value out of it, etc. I’m just not comfortable splurging on things for myself and I never have been. He’s right, though; it’s likely because our parents 90 percent of the time always said “no” to everything when we were growing up. I even started saying “no” to events with friends before even asking for her permission because I’d be so sure that she’d say no.

The two times I knew she’d never approve of that Ed knew about, which he got really mad at me for: the first time was in middle school, and a good friend of mine was going to get tickets to a concert in San Jose that my all-time favorite singer Mariah Carey was going to be doing. The tickets were around $100, and she asked if I wanted to go; her dad would be taking her. When I heard how expensive the tickets were, I knew my mom would never agree to pay it, so I told her that my mom said no. Ed overheard this phone conversation and lashed out at me after.

“You didn’t even ask!” Ed said, raising his voice. “Who cares if it’s a hundred dollars? She (Mariah Carey) never comes to the Bay Area! You should just go!”

I just shrugged. I told him that there was no way our mom would agree to let me go. In fact, she and our dad would likely get angry and accuse me of being spoiled just for THINKING that they’d even consider letting me to go to an event that cost that much, an event they’d likely deem as “unnecessary.” Everything to them was seemingly unnecessary.

The second time was during my senior year of high school. I had already accepted college admission at Wellesley, and I really had nothing to do the summer after. Two of my friends were planning a Hong Kong and Japan trip that their parents were gifting them as a graduation present that one of my friend’s moms would be going along on, and they asked me if I wanted to go. I knew my mom would say no, so I told them I couldn’t go with them.

I later told Ed this, and he had a similar reaction. “You always do this to yourself!” he said, shaking his head. “You prevent yourself from having fun and enjoying yourself. Just because they don’t want to enjoy life doesn’t mean you can’t.”

I already felt guilt for how much my college education was going to cost; going to Wellesley was going to cost my parents over double what going to UC Berkeley would have cost. My parents never gave me a high school graduation gift; to them, my college tuition was gift enough. My mom was already laying the guilt on heavily on me for deciding to attend a private college on the East Coast, three thousand miles away. My parents were not shy or quiet in the slightest about reminding me every step of they way how much my education was costing them, from the moment they wrote the first check for the deposit to hold my spot there. During one of our many arguments, my mom shrieked at the top of her lungs, “WE HAVE TO EAT LEFTOVERS EVERY NIGHT BECAUSE OF YOU!”

That’s very likely an exaggeration, as my parents were hardly scraping by to send me to college, but it did not feel good to have her say crap like that all the time to me; that was not an isolated incident. I don’t even want to know what my life would have been like every day if our parents decided to send both of us to K-12 private school. I’d likely never hear the end of it.

So I guess every time I buy something that may be perceived as “unnecessary” now, I feel like it’s a small form of rebellion against my parents. They perceive most of my life choices since college as “unnecessary”: all the trips to Australia to see Chris’s family (she actually did say it was unnecessary, if you can believe that), all the travel we’ve done outside of work and San Francisco (going to SF to see them, however, is always necessary), both domestically and internationally; all the apartment living in Manhattan, even my hair highlights.

Small acts of rebellion. I hardly appear like the rebellious type, but it’s easy to “rebel” against rules when the rules are so stupid and insipid.

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