A disease called ‘What will people say?’

A counsellor tells us why worrying about other people’s opinions can be disastrous for our wellbeing

Man sitting in field with head in hands

If we cannot look after ourselves, not in a selfish but in a self-esteeming way and instead spend time on speculating what other people will say or do, we are sure to tie ourselves in veritable knots of perpetual pain. In a world of billions, how many are we going to satisfy?

Sacrificing daughter's wishes for societal norms

This is just what Prakash and his family were trying to do, at the cost of their daughter’s happiness and their grandson’s future—“to save face”. Prakash’s daughter Jyoti was 19 when she gained admission to a college in the US. Though Jyoti had shown maturity well beyond her age, she was denied permission to go abroad by her family for fear that she was too young to be left alone in a foreign country. Jyoti lost her scholarship and with it, her dream of studying further.

Jyoti’s family, though well-to-do, were bound by tradition. They did what many such families do—made their daughter rush to tie the knot through an arranged marriage. In many arranged marriages, the girl in particular, has no say in the matter. In her case, every decision was taken by the parents. When everything had been finalised, she was asked what she thought of the boy and his family. Jyoti knew it was just a formality to evade any responsibility if things did not work out.

In a world of billions, how many are we going to satisfy?

Discovering that your partner is a schizophrenic

So Jyoti married Suresh, a software engineer. In less than a week, Jyoti found something strange about Suresh’s behaviour. She heard him talking to himself and often saw him standing in front of the mirror, having conversations with his reflection. She found this very odd but kept her counsel. When his behaviour began to disturb her, she spoke to her parents who advised her to check whether Suresh was on any medication. Jyoti discovered that her mother-in-law would add a little medicine into Suresh’s coffee every morning. When Jyoti reported this to her parents, she was asked to note down the name of the medicine Suresh was being given.

Jyoti’s father was told by a psychiatrist that the medicine was usually prescribed to those suffering from mental illness. The doctor said it was difficult to make an assessment without meeting the man, but he suspected Suresh could be suffering from schizophrenia and he explained what the disease was. Jyoti’s father was troubled and asked if she could get the prescription and the name of the doctor who started the medication. Jyoti found out that Suresh had been visiting a well-known psychiatrist in Delhi. Prakash then met the doctor who confirmed that Suresh was schizophrenic; he then said that Suresh would have to be kept on medication for as long as was necessary.

In Suresh’s case, the disease was reflected in the unconventional way he dressed and the grandiose statements he made. Even more noticeable, while most software engineers carry their laptops in a bag, Suresh used a big box. In this, he would carry not just his laptop but CDs with all his software. He also constantly saved all his data, music and spiritual lectures on pen-drives. In fact, he carried his entire office along with him. It was just a matter of time before he was fired.

Jyoti found out that Suresh had been visiting a well-known psychiatrist in Delhi

Living in everyone’s shadow

The family blamed Jyoti for all the ills her husband faced. When Jyoti came to see me, enough of a mess had been created in her life because of the ‘what will people say?’ mindset followed by her parents. “Stay in the marriage, otherwise what will people say?” “Don’t say a word to anyone, including your friends, otherwise what will people say?” “Look after Suresh, he is your husband, otherwise what will people say?” The situation got compounded when she got pregnant. Caught between her parents’ diktats and her in-laws’ accusations, Jyoti felt helpless. Abortion was out of the question because she was too far along. Her parents told her that her life would be lovely once the ‘bundle of joy’ arrived. As a counsellor I knew that the new arrival could also suffer from the disease as it grew up, since schizophrenia could be hereditary.

When I saw Jyoti the first time, she too suffered from the ‘what will people say’ mindset. This attitude was reinforced whenever she would go back to her parents to get away from the stressful environment at home. She would not join her parents when they visited friends or attended events, worried about what people would say when they knew she had been away from her husband for two months.

Caught between her parents’ diktats and her in-laws’ accusations, Jyoti felt helpless

Terminating my sessions

After two months of weekly visits to me, I asked Jyoti and her father if there was anything they could change in the behaviour of Suresh and his mother. The reply was that they had no control over them—one was mentally sick and the other had an aggressive stance on the subject. I then used an analogy I often apply to bring home the point—if you were to continue to travel on the same track, you would visit the same station you had been visiting in the past. I suggested they change tracks in order to get to a different destination. They insisted I choose the track for them, but that is not for the counsellor to decide. The most I could do was add to the choices that can be made by the counselee. Both Jyoti and her father fell back into the ‘what will people say’ approach and I had to regretfully terminate counselling.

Counselling is a joint venture between the counsellor and counselees and if any in this joint venture cannot add further value to the process, there is no point labouring over it.

To my surprise, Prakash later set up another appointment. After a couple of sessions with me and other doctors about Suresh’s chances of recovery, he finally concluded his daughter should get a divorce. Jyoti filed the case only to face the wrath of Suresh’s aggressive mother. She believed that the source of all the problems were Jyoti and her parents. In this narrative, you will observe there has been no mention of Suresh’s father. Whenever the subject of Suresh’s condition came up, he would be missing. He would go up to the roof of the house or step out to attend to some urgent work.

Maybe he knew the truth—only he can tell. But the sad part is that while all this was going on, Jyoti and her family continued to harp on the cursed ‘What will people say?’ attitude. Unfortunately, Jyoti’s 12-year-old son got stuck in the mire and became a loner.

Counselling is a joint venture between the counsellor and counselees

History repeats itself

I happened to meet Jyoti a couple of years later and learned that on the advice of her parents and relatives, she had withdrawn her application for divorce. She told me that since her brother was of a marriageable age, everyone felt a court case would be a slur on the family and the chances of his finding the right bride would suffer. She mentioned she had taken over the duty of adding the medicines to Suresh’s coffee—a task previously performed by his mother. She also told me she and her son were both undergoing treatment for depression—a heavy price for keeping others happy.

Let this case be the reminder that running our lives on what people say is a zero sum game. If we spend our time and energies on other people’s reactions we will end up going nowhere.

Adapted from An Insider’s View of Emotional Traumas by Dinesh Kumar, published by LEADSTART. Reproduced with permission.

A note on Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a psychotic disease that distorts the reality of a person and leads to faulty thinking and withdrawal from social contact. It literally disintegrates the process of thinking and makes one emotionally dysfunctional. Depression can be a side effect; I have known patients who completely lose touch with reality. One such patient would come to me for counselling because he needed to talk to someone. But he would threaten me saying if I did not do something fast to help him recover, he would report my poor performance to General Musharraf.


This excerpt was first published in the January 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here