I spent most of my life as a people pleaser. As a child, I was that annoying, prissy little one who actually volunteered to sit in the front row; who raised her hand to answer a question even before the teacher had finished asking it; who actually asked for homework; who swotted through the night before exams. All because I desperately wanted to please my parents/my teachers/any other significant adult in the hope that this would make them love me.
Nothing much changed when I turned into a young adult. When my friends were cutting classes in college and getting up to no good at college festivals and late-night parties, I was too busy playing the cleverest girl in class.
I devoured my entire reading list in a week; I handed in every essay on time; and when it came to classroom discussions on Chaucer or Shakespeare or Marvel or Yeats, you simply could not shut me up. Needless to say, my teachers loved me (you cannot imagine my happiness when one of them referred to me as “a ray of joy”). But, for some unfathomable reason, it did not make me very popular with my peers; and I stayed up many nights worrying about that.
When I started my first job in journalism, my people-pleasing instincts were entirely intact. I went out of my way to become best friends with the page-makers in the art room (ah, those primitive times before computers; how I miss them!) and the boffins in the office library. I volunteered to stay late so that my bosses would be impressed by my work ethic.
Even my interviewing technique was based on endearing myself to my subject – and thankfully, it worked a charm. One of the highlights of my early reporting life was when Uma Bharti dragged me in front of a mirror and marvelled at how alike we looked. (Ah, good times!) Apparently, you do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!
My personal life mirrored my professional life as well. Rare was the occasion on which I stood my ground during disagreements with friends. It was just simpler to go along with what other people wanted; or so I believed, in my anxiety to make and keep friends.
On social occasions, I was always the one doing all the running. There was never a silence that I did not rush in to fill. There was never a conversation that I allowed to flag. There was never a lame witticism I failed to laugh at. And there was never a moment when I truly relaxed and enjoyed myself, so anxious was I to get it right.
I can still remember the moment when it finally dawned on me that I was playing it all wrong. Then in my early 30s, I had been invited to a black-tie dinner hosted by a great champagne house. And as a mark of great favour, I was seated next to one of the wine makers. Unfortunately, though he was undoubtedly a dab hand at blending grapes, he didn’t have much by way of conversation. And it didn’t help that his English, rudimentary as it was, was almost incomprehensible because of his French accent.
Nonetheless, I persevered in my usual way to keep the conversational ball rolling. But 10 minutes into the dinner, having met with monosyllabic responses, I asked myself: Why are you bothering to do this? You will never meet this man again in your life. He is plainly uninterested or unable to keep a dialogue going. So why are you trying so hard?
I thought about these questions in one of those conversational lulls I had always felt obliged to fill. And then, I gave myself permission not to try so hard. I stopped talking. I ate my food, I drank the excellent champagne, and I told myself that I didn’t care if this famous winemaker thought I was rude. And you know what, after a moment, I truly didn’t.
You cannot begin to imagine just how liberating that was. From that moment on, I retired my people-pleasing self and decided that the only people I would ever care about are my family (well, at least, those members who I could still bear to be in a room with) and my friends (you know who you are). Other than this small group, I could not be bothered to be charming or endearing. Of course I would be polite, so long as it was possible. But that was all I was prepared to offer, in addition to unflinching honesty.
Thus it was that when a friend invited me to one of the events her guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, was presiding over, I didn’t say yes just to please her. Instead I offered her the truth. Thanks so much, I said, but I’m really not into all this spiritual stuff. She was startled for a moment. But then she laughed good-naturedly and said, “Ah, well, at least you are honest about your feelings!” And strangely enough, there was no threatening clap of thunder, the heavens didn’t fall down, and we continue to be friends to this day.
As the old saying goes, we would all stop worrying about what people thought about us if we realised how seldom they do. I am only sorry that it took me half my life to learn that lesson.
From HT Brunch, July 10, 2016
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