Learning to say no to my mother saved our relationship. You have to understand, my mother is a freight train. She will steamroller you with her thoughts, opinions, and judgments. You can feel her searing intensity, especially when she’s getting worked up. Did I mention she stands a terrifying five feet tall?

This is the woman who decided in elementary school that she would make sure her siblings went to college in America so no one in her family would be poor again; who studied late into the night after only eating a bowl of rice with soy sauce; who would take a bus and a ferry to go to school, over an hour journey each way; who walked in shoes that pinched her toes because they could only afford one pair of shoes a year; who scored high enough on the gaokao (高考) to get into college in Hong Kong, only to be told there was no money to send her because she was a daughter, not a son; who trained to become a nurse so she could come to America.   

Nothing stands in her way. In the dictionary next to the word persist, there’s a photo of my mother, not Elizabeth Warren. She doesn’t take no for an answer. If a door closes and all the windows are nailed shut, she will climb out of the fucking chimney or tunnel her way out underground Shawshank-style. All her siblings got a college degree because she manifested her vision to haul her family out of poverty in one generation.

But these same qualities don’t predispose her to listen

When she makes up her mind to do something, nothing will stand in her way. She finds the way. And her way is the only way. She doesn’t know when to quit.

The problem is when you get the headstrong, independent daughter you wished for. Be careful what you wish for right, Mom?

***

My “enthusiasm for life” created all kinds of tension, fights, and rebellion. It would take a book to write the story of how my mom and I came back together after I went almost-no-contact for the better part of 2 years. The most important thing to heal our relationship was learning about healthy boundaries and enforcing them with my parents. The hardest, but best thing I learned to say to my parents is NO.

Growing up, my “no’s” felt like they were made from tissue paper. She would trample right through them, obliterating any of my rebukes or disagreement. I played the piano for 12 years, and in those 12 years, I tried to quit THREE TIMES. She finally relented at the end of my senior year of high school when she thought it would interfere with my AP exam studies. I had to fight for every two-piece swimsuit, homecoming dance, prom night, movie night with friends.

Growing up, my “no’s” felt like they were made from tissue paper. She would trample right through them, obliterating any of my rebukes or disagreement.

I spent the first 17 years of my life living for my parents so when I FINALLY went off to college in another city, I imploded. With no tiger mother breathing down my neck, I went crazy. I’d play pick-up basketball for hours, walked onto the NCAA rowing team, partied too hard, and nearly failed out of college. Once I left, I just couldn’t continue the relationship I had with my parents before college. I needed so much space to breathe that after I left home for college I never once lived at home over summer vacation.

Because of the physical distance between us, I could finally say NO by:

  1. Not picking up the phone when they called
  2. Not returning voice or text messages
  3. Not coming home for the holidays
  4. Hanging up the phone when they talked to me in a way I had communicated to them was hurtful or unproductive or when I felt like they weren’t hearing me.

At the time I didn’t realize what I was doing was establishing boundaries, it’s what I knew I could do to feel like I could breathe. It didn’t go well for most of my twenties, but I clung to my nascent boundaries because I realized I’m the one who ultimately has to live my life – the highs, lows, successes, failures, and consequences.

***

As the oldest daughter who experienced the “absolutely NO dating in high school”, but “college is a good time to find someone to marry” whiplash, I started to recognize unhealthy behavior patterns as I dove into the dating scene. I was so clingy and overbearing, crashing through others’ boundaries just like mine were trampled. I often didn’t take responsibility for my emotions, reacting to them, especially when I ran into someone else’s boundary. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted to date me at this time in my life. More than anything else I wanted to find a better way to behave, but had no idea how to proceed.

When my maternal grandfather died, I was all of the stages of grief. But I was mostly angry. Angry at how our family and extended family treated each other, talked to each other, passive-aggressived each other. Weddings and funerals, man. The things we say. I sought out a grief counselor who listened for a few moments before basically handing me Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You need this in your life.

Did I ever.

More than anything else I wanted to find a better way to behave, but had no idea how to proceed.

From the first chapter of the book, I felt like a drowned person taking their first gasp of air… Right after coughing up and vomiting. The words on the page reached deep into my chest of #allthefeels, affirming and explaining the source of anger, resentment, sadness swirling like a hurricane in my head.

I remember thinking as I read the book, this is me. You mean I don’t have to LIVE this way? SIGN ME UP.

I learned I had no concept of what healthy boundaries looked like or felt like. Most of the swirling negative emotions stemmed from a lack of boundaries. I had to learn the hard way that I was responsible for me, and to others, while also unlearning decades of behavior patterns that helped me survive, but not thrive. I have to remind myself that boundaries are like a fence with gates. The fence is meant to keep the bad out, while allowing the good to come in through the gate. I am responsible for my feelings, attitudes, beliefs, choices, values, and limits. Limits are incredibly important, especially to LIMIT our exposure to people who are behaving poorly, as well as, internal limits because “...we need to have spaces within ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, or a desire, without acting it out. We need self-control without repression(p. 44).

The anger I felt was not a shameful emotion I needed to hide or bury, but is a necessary signal that there is a problem I need to addressed. “Anger is a friend… Children who can appropriately express anger are children who will understand, later in life when someone is trying to control or hurt them” (p. 70)

The resentment that festered stemmed from my forced compliance to my parents’ pressure, control, and demands. Somewhere along the way I learned to fear abandonment or losing relationships by saying ‘no’. My compliance was given out of this fear and often left me feeling out of control of my life. As a recovering people-pleaser, I needed to set healthy boundaries so I could take ownership of my life instead of trying to please everyone and running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

The book gave me a tangible way forward, helping me to understand how boundaries are developed, boundary problems, debunking common boundary myths (ex: aren’t boundaries selfish?), and boundary conflicts found in numerous types of relationships from family to children and even God.

You bet I got a copy of the book for my mom.

***

Today, my mom still says what’s on her mind. We agree more on things than before. But when we don’t, she’s better at picking up my boundary, the NO, the thanks for your opinion, I’ll take it into consideration, Mom. I’m better about setting the boundary too. And she hasn’t bulldozed any boundaries recently because she knows I’m not afraid of hanging up. At the same time, I’ve become more understanding of her. Where she came from, why she says and believes what she does. I’ve allowed her to become human and fallible. It makes it easier to forgive. 

Time has given me the gift to gain perspective on her life experience that made her the incredibly strong woman she is. Distance gave us the chance to heal trampled boundaries, dismissed feelings. I respect the hell out of my mom and what she went through to survive. But I have to remind her she’s doesn’t just have to survive anymore, she can switch gears and thrive a little. 

Author’s Note: While Boundaries by Dr. Cloud and Townsend was (and still is) incredibly illuminating and helpful for my personal experience, the language used in my (earlier) edition center cis/heteronormative relationships and have dated parenting advice (such as the ever-divisive topic on spanking). The book is also Christian based, often citing scripture to support their reasoning.

About the Author: Marsha Ungchusri (she/her) is a Chinese-Thai-Texan-American currently living in the DMV area. Grocery shopping is her shoe shopping. When she isn’t practicing yoga, you can find her experimenting in her kitchen, refining recipes and flavor combination to feed the people she loves. You can find her cooking adventures @princesshungry and bite-sized reflections of her yoga practice @marsha.fierce