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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Frankly, my dear, I (no longer) give a damn!

After a lifetime of people-pleasing, it is incredibly liberating to not care what anyone else thinks

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 marveled 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 realized how seldom they do. I am only sorry that it took me half my life to learn that lesson.


Yashiba Sanil said...

Hello Ma'am,
I'm Yashiba and I'm 16 and I read all your articles and love them, yes, even though the start may seem like I'm trying to sell a pitch to you (which I'm not), it may be kind of clear that the people pleasing bug has bitten me since I was a child. I think it's something that was instilled and drilled and made sure to stay in me since childhood. When I read your article and the descriptions you made of yourself as a child, I literally widened my eyes because you described me precisely within a few paragraphs. You would think a sixteen year old would be out living like the stereotypical teenagers being described in everyday novels and serials but here I am, neatly planning my life into a checklist, dreaming big and working towards it, and of course, I may come off as exactly as you when you were a kid, given the descriptions. Infact, even I aim to become a journalist when I grow(ironic, isn't it?) and I fear not being able to achieve what I aim for, that doesn't mean I'm an uptight prissy who doesn't have fun, I do. But I have always been more inclined towards devouring my reading lists and then of course unintentionally coming off as a people pleaser. Since you seem almost exactly a mirage of what I might grow up to become, are you saying that all along what I'm doing was wrong? Because that thought is not very re-assuring.

Anonymous said...

Good one. I think I can easily identify with this and shamelessly confess that I have been through these thoughts often enough. First time came across the expression "cutting classes" instead of the usual "bunking classes". In Calcutta, I remember the Bengali equivalent used to be "class kata", which implied bunking classes, but never seen it used in English.

Vasudha.N.Jadhav said...

Hello Ma'am
I can relate to these observations as well though not at the perfectionist degree but rather I mostly underperformed than what people thought /think I am worth as ....my teachers always thought I am intelligent but it rarely reflected in my marks as I always was in out of syllabus literature and free play after school hours leaving less time for structured studies....but I felt guilty later for not living up to their expectations even now I tried my best to accommodate my in laws,though they are good ppl they will never like my fancy cooking style ,soups salads etc so I gave in and started eating like them and put on weight as I ate less food and more junk to reach satiety
Then gifting their kids on their be days spl occasion though I dint recieve any back....I am convent educated and feel those values inculcated are so outdated...my hubby and fly are vernaculars and desi ..it's an arrange marriage of 6 years and though my hubby pampers me with unaccounted money I don't feel appreciated or worthless as I try fitting in their mould of ideal.So trying to reclaim a career in digital PR that I had put on backburner as it requires erratic schedule
Like the saying goes
Go where u r celebrated not tolerated
Your Fan
Vasudha Jadhav

toopsi ray said...

two of my most favourite journalists have always been Vir Sanghvi and you.I started subscribing to HT Sunday only because of brunch.today while I was reading the July 3,2016 HT,I came upon you saying my husband was in a wheelchair.....I just read Vir s article on Vienna and sciatica!I actually googled you to find out if you two were married!I didnt know!!I am thrilled to now know you are...I love your husbands rude food and really miss his Counterpoint.He has a way of explaining politics simply..and I almost always agree with your point of view! I do hope at some point I can meet you guys in Kolkata!!i am not usually a fan girl sort of person but I am a huge fan of both of you.thank you for many hours of reading pleasure....Toopsi