The other day, my elder daughter showed me a video titled, “Seven signs that you are an older sibling.”  It listed a lot of traits: a heightened sense of responsibility, desire for control, anxious personality, feelings of guilt followed by resentment towards family, and being a people-pleaser.

Now, if you are the oldest sibling in your family, I am not sure if you identify with any or all of these qualities. I don’t for instance, have a heightened sense of responsibility. But one of the things I have been wrestling with is the fact that I am what psychologists call a “people-pleaser.” This plays out in ways big and small in my life, causing grief and angst, not just in me but in people around me also. If you are a people-pleaser you know what I mean. The boss asks your opinion and you massage it to suit what you think he or she wants to hear. Later, you wish you had spoken your mind. People talk over you in meetings and you wish you had been more assertive. Someone mocks you and you simmer in silence and later think of all the things you could have, should have said. A stranger on a plane asks you to change seats and you do it to appear like a good person because you want the stranger to “like” you. Later, you feel bad about the uncomfortable seat foisted upon you.

A year ago, at a friend’s milestone birthday, a group of us went around the table and talked about one thing that we wanted to change about our lives. Time management, said one. Joining a start-up, said another. Eat better, said a third. My pick was to stop being a people-pleaser. But this is part of the larger aspects of change that I have been mulling.

How do you change yourself? Often, change comes with, or as a result of pain. You have a heart attack and you change your eating habits. You lose a loved one to lung cancer and decide to stop your lifelong smoking habit. Personality traits are harder because they are more nebulous. I have decided to take a two-pronged approach to this change. One is what I call, ‘returning to myself.’ The second is changing myself.

One of the things that all of us ought to do in the second half of our lives is take stock of the people we have become and decide if we can make peace with this older version of ourselves. Ever been in a situation where your spouse turned to you and said, “Who have you become? This isn’t the person I married.”  Ever been in a situation where your college friends call you out on how much you have changed and not for the better, “Arrey, year, you were not like this. What happened to you?”

Life happened is the answer. When you work, when you hustle, when you struggle, you become hard. You develop body armour as a way of protecting your feelings. Often in this struggle, we lose ourselves. The second half of life gives us a chance to reconnect with who we were and reclaim ourselves: to become who we want to be rather than what the world expects us to be.

There are many ways to do this. My journey began with a list of two. I would list two personality traits that were central to who I was as a child; two traits that I wanted to reclaim. I would also list two traits in my current self that I wanted to change.

Who were you as a child? A good way to find this out is to ask your parents or your siblings. For example, I was a suppressed leftie. In other words, I was born left-handed but my parents forced me to become a right-hand dominant person. The second quality that I had as a child was a high level of enthusiasm and creativity.  I decided to reclaim these two qualities and perhaps they are linked.  So these days, I have consciously been trying to use my left hand more: for cutting vegetables, playing table tennis, and even writing— my writing looks like a school child but I persist because I believe it is my original nature.

Reclaiming your past self is one thing but changing your present self for future wholeness is more difficult. I decided to address being a people-pleaser in this context. Stopping this behaviour or for that matter any behaviour requires planning. It requires thought and introspection. For me, the easiest way to address my people-pleasing behaviour was to promise myself that I would speak my mind. This means that I need to know my mind and know what I want.  Then I have to work up the courage to say what I want. All of this is very difficult for me. It is not “me” or at least the ME that I have constructed. It involves breaking apart some habits that I have been following for years. But it is possible.

So these days, before an important phone call with a client, I inhale deeply and tell myself that I will speak my mind even if that is hard. I will figure out my opinions about the project before the call so that I can speak my mind. And I will not second-guess or back-pedal simply to please the other person once I have stated my opinion. Breaking the habit down in this way helps me create a new habit— one where I stay true to myself rather than the people around me.

The benefits of changing these core behaviours are subtle yet profound. They return me to who I am and who I want to be.

What are two things about yourself that you would like to change? And what are two things from your past that you would like to reclaim? Go ahead. Take a paper and pen, write out four things and get to it.

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