Putting yourself first is not selfish… it’s the bravest thing you’ll ever do.
Overwhelming stress and exhaustion coupled with fear and doubt pretty much summarize my emotional state during my junior and senior year of high school. Those sleepless nights spent finishing up essays before the 11:59 p.m. deadline and flipping through page after page of the SAT Study Guide are forever embedded in my mind as some of the longest days of my life.
As one of the first in my family to go university in the United States, I was under tremendous pressure, most of which was a result of my own built up frustration to prove myself. My parents had always been present and supportive in my life, and unlike many others in my culture, they encouraged me to pursue my passions and never give into what others expected of me.
Still, as a flawed and vulnerable teenage girl, I had a strong desire to be accepted in order to make others proud of me, without ever really stopping to consider my own feelings in the matter.
Susceptible to peer pressure, I began to take remarks like “Indians are only successful in medicine and engineering” to heart. I genuinely believed I’d be met with disappointment if I chose to venture into another field — as if it’d be a betrayal to the long line of successful doctors in my family.
As the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” became one people expected real answers for, “a doctor, like my dad” was the rehearsed response sitting at the tip of my tongue. The encouraging nods and pats on the back only added to the false perception of my future, one I’d managed to convince myself was something I’d always wanted.
It wasn’t until my senior year when the time had finally arrived to narrow down my college choices and begin sending in my applications, that I began to see through the facade. Scrolling through university websites and reading college essay samples from excited students gushing about their career path, I questioned everything — why wasn’t I feeling any sense of fulfillment despite receiving the support I’d always craved? Why was there no “spark” when I thought about studying medicine?
Was it too late to choose myself for once and figure out what I wanted?
The answer to that, I suppose, had always been right in front of me. I was reminded of what my mom kept saying to me — probably unbeknownst to her, I actually paid attention — whenever discussions about college would come up, “You’re young and you have all the time in the world, and you’ll never get that back. You don’t ever want to look at your life with regret.”
The image I’d had of my mother instantly sharpened into something even more beautiful and inspiring than before: because for the first time, I truly understood what she’d meant. Married young with children, she’d placed her dream as an artist on hold for so long but had the drive and motivation to delve back into it as soon as she felt she could.
How could I possibly think it was too late for me when a woman like that had followed her heart despite all odds?
The greatest love of my life was buried underneath all the pent up doubt, and uncovering it freed me. Words. Writing. My hands were meant for healing, just not in the way I’d thought — I was gifted with the ability to touch hearts, to hear them, to feel their pain, to fight for them. I’d fooled myself into believing my calling lay elsewhere.
To the high schooler going through a similar situation: you are most definitely not alone, and putting yourself first is not selfish. If there’s one thing I wished someone would’ve told me when I was in your shoes, it would be that.
A year or two ago, I would’ve laughed at the prospect of choosing writing over medicine. A year or two ago, I would’ve feared the worst about what people would think of me for making that decision. It’s funny how things work out because what I got was just the opposite of the rejection I thought I’d face.
When you decide to choose yourself, to choose happiness over fear, people actually respect you.
In the process, you’re able to weed out toxicity, which only makes for a healthier community to surround yourself with. As you step into this next phase of your life, always remember that you are still young. That you have all the time in the world. That you don’t ever want to look at your life with regret.
And, most importantly, that it’s never too late. Never.