A letter to my 21 year old self

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Congratulations! You are probably basking in the sun on a long, quiet beach in some country I never even thought I would get to see for myself (a girl can dream, right?). I can’t imagine the year you’ve had. Isn’t it weird how things that seemed totally impossible are now you’re reality? Knowing how hard it was for me to get to where I am, I won’t assume you have an easy year ahead of you.

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We become so accustomed to the new that we forget the big steps and little ones we took to get there. So in case you forgot (which I won’t hold against you) here are my top 10 lessons I’ve learned leading up to the big 2-0.


  1. School 

Let’s face it. I thought I would be done by now. That expectation was always a bit rushed because I’ve always been so eager to BE DONE. But that’s not the approach we took this year. That’s right! I knocked it down a few notches and decided that the diploma could wait just a little bit longer. Instead of rushing through assignments, avoiding professors, and approaching school as death in disguise I have decided that this whole thing could be a little more fun. I am no longer willing to compare myself to other students or friends. I am happy and proud of their accomplishments and I recognize that everyone goes at a different pace. That’s why I am committed to enjoying the journey along the way. Laugh a little more, worry a little less. I figure the rest will take care of itself.

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  1. Faith

As a Muslim, one of the biggest tenets of our faith is prayer. That prayer comes in the form of 5 daily reminders with ablution made prior to it.  As a child, prayer was as easy as memorizing the periodic table or willingly taking a bath. As I grew older, I hoped the desire to pray would just come naturally. Unfortunately it was not as easy as that. I found myself in a sporadic prayer frenzy ever so often, counting down the hours till the next prayer and giving up if I missed even one. A year would come and go and I wondered when I would become “religious”. Now I pray just about every day. You’re probably wondering “How on earth did she make such a 180?” Well, I didn’t set out to intentionally pray. My mistake the first go of it was probably fanatically checking off each prayer and putting such weight on the matter. That doesn’t sound very Muslim of me, but let me break it down. Human nature makes us want to defy authority or rules. So naturally when you are very strict about something you wouldn’t automatically do, like eat or breathe, your mind/body will naturally want to rebel against it. I found what worked for me was just trying. I tried to pray and if I missed a prayer, I wouldn’t write the entire thing off. When I started to pray more consistently, I felt like I had a personal connection to Allah. After all, I met with him 5X a day, right? Surprisingly, my newfound connection made me more confident in my decisions. It helped me learn more about myself on my journey to finding out who I am (which is still happening FYI). Most importantly, I finally felt like God was on MY side. I would receive some sort of surprise and I knew that someone was looking out for me. ME. It’s nice to know I’ve got someone in my corner. I didn’t expect all that from prayer and dua. It was just one of the many bonuses. So if you’re having issues with faith and finding that bond or desire to pray, I would recommend finding a personal reason to follow that faith and act on it. Nothing is accomplished without doing your work. Work on it and be patient. They weren’t lying when they said patience is a virtue because it took me 20 years to get to this point. Good luck.

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  1. Communication

Oh gosh! This is a big one. I found that if you feel wronged by someone close to you, NEVER hold on to that shit. If that person or relationship really matters to you it is absolutely necessary to let that person know how you feel. Take them aside somewhere private and in a non-accusatory and calm way, explain to them the situation and how that made you feel. If the person apologizes or tries to explain they meant you no ill, then it is your responsibility now to not hold this single act against them (different story if this happened multiple times before or continues to happen). If the person denies any responsibility or minimizes your experience, it might be time to move on.  Some people are simply unwilling to have compassion for your story and that’s okay. And it’s also okay to not put up with that bullshit. Know your worth. Talk it out if you can, let it go if you can’t.

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  1. Unbreakable bonds

Some people are destined to be by your side through the best and the worst, the bad and the ugly, and the absolutely unimaginable. Some people never get to experience that connection. Maybe the greatest blessing in my life was that I had someone like that from the start. Ilhan and I maybe 18 months apart but we may as well have come out of the womb together. My life has been a rollercoaster this past year and my sister was right through it all. Even when she didn’t agree with my decisions she never tried to deter me or knock me down, she always let me make my own mistakes (and sometimes the best decisions I ever made). Her love was purely unconditional. Something I know not many people even around me have experienced. In its raw form it can push me towards the light when I want to walk towards the darkness. Every day, I thank God she is in my life and I pray that I die before her. I really cannot imagine a life without her my sister, better half, savior, confidante, sometimes enemy, fellow joke insider, healer, supporter, protector, guardian, equal, soul mate, and most importantly my best friend. I don’t even doubt for a second she’ll be there celebrating my 21st with me. I learned never to take her for granted, not even for a second. And to nurture and care for relationships you care about. Some of these people will be near my deathbed and some won’t even come to the funeral. I can only hope that these relationships grow as old and withered as us.

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  1. Friendships can die

Believe it or not, someone you are close to right now may not be in your life next year and death won’t be the reason. A few years ago, I wouldn’t believe all the things I’ve experienced and done in the past year. I also wouldn’t believe that some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are no longer a part of my life. Some of those friendships died a natural death. I held on because I thought that if I let go some of the most meaningful moments of my life wouldn’t matter anymore. I was wrong. When a person leaves your life, they don’t take with them all the moments you created together, all the laughs and tears you’ve shared, or all the stories and secrets you’ve whispered. You can keep those and cherish them, respect them for what they are, and hold them close to your heart. Other friendships die painful, long overdue deaths. You keep them on the respirator in hopes that things would go back to the way they were, maybe deep down knowing that it’s not likely. Sometimes the best thing to know is when to let go. It doesn’t have to be your fault and sometimes you don’t need to blame anyone for why things ended up the way they did. If it’s better for you to let the friendship die, than let it be. LET IT BE. Remember, you don’t have to hate the other person to let them go. Sometimes you just have to love yourself.

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  1. New friendships

You might be getting tired of hearing about friendships so I will keep this one short. When you’ve been friends with the same people for so long, stepping outside of your comfort zone to make new friends might be a little intimidating. Don’t be intimidated. You are every bit as deserving of a friendship as anyone else. Other people are nervous too. It’s natural to be. But you didn’t come into this world knowing who your friends are going to be. So don’t limit yourself by not wanting to step out and take a chance. Some of the best moments of your life have yet to happen. It’s equally as likely that some of the greatest friendships have yet to be made. I learned this year that friends can come in all shapes and sizes and from the most unlikely of places. Be open minded.

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  1. Fear

I have many fears both rational and otherwise. Fear can be a great tool. It can help you get to lab on time and it can help you run from a raving lunatic wielding a machete. Fear can also be a major burden. It can prevent you from making new friends, trying new things, living an ordinary (or extraordinary depending on how you look at it) life, and from doing things you really want to do. The thing I learned about fear this year is that when I do the thing I’m usually afraid of and I have some time to adjust, it’s not as scary as I thought it would be. When we don’t know how things are going to turn out or feel like, it’s easy to imagine the worst. But it can be just as likely that you will experience a fantastic thing and feel wonderful about it. The key is not to shy away from being afraid but to stand in that fear and do what you want to do anyway. Fear is just an emotion. So is happiness, anger, or sadness. It’s like water. You can be afraid of it and avoid it your whole life and in turn miss out on all those moments and emotions. Or you can get in that water, learn how to swim, and use it to your advantage.

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  1. Self

Be nice! No one in the entire world has lived your life or made the decisions you have had to make. Take a moment to think about all the things you like about yourself and then thank yourself for having those qualities. Don’t allow yourself to think negatively about you for a second. It is poisonous and self-defeating. Instead think about things you’d like to improve or work on and make goals to do just that. Be reasonable. You are not impervious to time, laziness, sickness, influence, or the summer heat. Allow yourself to accomplish goals at your own pace and celebrate the little milestones. They count just as much as those big goals. Admire yourself privately and publically! Confidence is not arrogance. You don’t have to knock yourself down every time someone compliments you or tries to lift you up. Appreciate what they said and take it to heart. In the same breath, when people try to bring you down or shit on your parade, take it with a grain of salt. They don’t know what you’ve been through and the work you’ve done in order to get to where you are. Take pride in that. I’ve learned that my biggest ally is ME! I’m the only one who has to the power to make my dreams come true.

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  1. Craft

My writing has always been a big part of my life. Even when I was a little girl, I used my writing to express myself and validate my experience before I even knew what I was doing. I know that it is my weapon to harness for good or evil (for now, I’ve chosen good.) My writing has the power to bring together people who wouldn’t normally intermingle. It has the power to relate to someone’s inner most thoughts without ever having met them. My writing has the power to let me speak for myself. Whether I am blogging for my website, journaling for self-care, or working on my novel, my words have given me to the power of purpose. Purpose is something so key to our lives that it’s oftentimes confused with things like wealth or greed. Purpose is not dependent on other people to flourish. I could live my entire life never having shared my story and I could probably still make it. The act of creating something from nothing is the most important chunk of my words. I can share them, I can shout them from the rooftops, and I can make every letter public knowledge. However, my experience and emotions are not validated through circulation; it is the act of determination through writing which gives me purpose. All the other things are bonuses that we should not take for granted. I hope I celebrate my 21st birthday by writing something meaningful to me so I can hold on to that moment for life.

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  1. Self-care is not selfishness

I belong to many marginalized groups. For some reason people think that because I am a woman, a black woman at that, I should willingly and gleefully hand over my childhood, education, or career in sacrifice at the first sign of trouble. To that I give a resounding NO. I am not exempt from living the life I see fit for myself because of someone else’s ideals. Would you like to know my ideals? In the perfect world children would remain children. My race would not affect the job I get, the school I go to, the way people unconsciously and consciously treat me, my sense of safety or lack thereof, and my ability to provide for my children. My gender would not impede on my sense of personhood, what I am expected to do, and I would not be the first person considered to lay my life on the line and be expected to determine my worth through others. That’s not fair.

I know what you’re thinking life’s not fair.

Newsflash, neither am I.

I won’t feel guilty about wanting to take care of myself first before I worry about carrying for everyone else in a 50 mile radius. That’s not selfishness. That’s self –care, boo. In this past year, the most important thing I’ve learned is to put myself first. If I am unstable and burned out, what good am I to anybody, much less myself? Since the moment we’re born, sacrificing yourself has been drilled into our heads before we have a chance to figure things out for ourselves. After all, your own mother sacrificed so much for you and her mother before that and her mother before that and so on and so forth. It’s only natural to assume I’m next in line because we’ve been programmed to think it is selfish to care about ourselves. The notion that a woman can juggle a career and motherhood is mind-blowing to some people. What’s mind-blowing to me is that some women go their entire lives caring for someone one and the next and never once consider taking care of themselves. When we take care of ourselves, we heal and empower ourselves. And when/if we decided to care for others, it is only that much more powerful. Self-care is not selfishness, and don’t you dare let someone tell you otherwise.


2 thoughts on “A letter to my 21 year old self

  1. Wow Ayan! This letter was really relatable. I’ll be reaching 21 next year too and I felt so connected to each lesson you mentioned. Some of them I have completely got down while others are still challenging to implement especially the whole “self-care is not selfishness” ordeal but inshAllah I’ll be working on finding the middle way in helping others while also keeping yourself at priority. Oh & I am legitmately pasting this quote on my bedroom wall so I can stare at it everyday…”I’m the only one who has the power to make my dreams come true.” Quite the quote, we tend to forget how much of an impact we can have on ourselves. Ramadan Kareem btw!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sabrina,

      I dedicate all my words to girls like you. I am so delighted to know that this piece really resonated with you. As soon as I started writing this I couldn’t stop but I had issues thinking about the most important lesson I learned. Caring about myself enough to CARE about myself was so foreign to me in the past it was hard to put into words. But I am glad I did because I hope hardworking, intelligent girls like you can embrace self care and give attention to the most important person in your world; you. I think to sum it up best I will leave you with another quote: “The greatest gift you can give somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, “If you will take care of me, I will take care of you. “Now I say, I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.”

      ― Jim Rohn

      Ramadan Kareem sis! May Allah bless you :)


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