The other day on the subway, Dave shared a certain quote with me that goes…

You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you“.

It took me about 10 seconds before I finally realised the meaning of that quote.


You can’t change the people around you.

Who are the people around us exactly? Family, friends, co-workers?

After living for more than 3 decades, I have come to realise this:

1. You can’t change your family. That’s it. Your parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, external relatives. In Chinese there’s a saying that goes…. “Blood is thicker than water” – this essentially means that the bond formed with our family members goes stronger than anything else (could be disputable for certain cases). The only person that you could probably choose/change is your spouse. After all, we don’t get to choose who our parents are, who our siblings are, nor our relatives (sometimes). Unless  you got married due to an arranged marriage, your spouse is probably the other closest person to you that you can get to choose and share your life with.

(So don’t complain since you have made your choice.)

It’s understandable that we can be mad with our family on occasions, and that causes us quite a bit of misery. But hey, they are family, forgive and forget. You still have a life time with them. What’s the point of wallowing in depression?

2. You will meet and be acquainted with many people in your lifetime. But your closest friends are the dearest to you. In the short span of three decades, I have met many people, befriended many others. There was a point in time where the number of friends in my facebook hit almost 600 (ok, I know it’s not that many, I know some who have hit more than a 1000.) However, how many of these friends do we really keep in touch with? How many of them would you actually invite to your firstborn baby shower? How many do you actively keep in contact with and message each other now and then? I have had a lot of friends. But I have lost contact with many. Perhaps neither of us took the initiative to contact each other, perhaps either of us rejected too many meetup sessions hence we slowly drifted apart. Or we might have embarked on different phases in life and our thoughts and values differ. At the same time though, you might meet new friends and people, through different activities and interest groups.

Some of my closest friends in my life are those whom I had attended school with, in elementary school, junior college, university. Not that many. I realised too, the group has stayed relatively constant throughout the years.

3. Work acquaintances may jump into the friends category, or they could just be a supporting character in those few episodes of your life. I have had some close co-workers too, but once we parted in our jobs, that level of closeness declined. Understandably so since we are adults who have our own lives to run, aside from our professional lives and upholding that level of friendship does require some form of commitment from both parties. I know some friends who have fantastic relationships with their colleagues, even to the point of organising overseas trips together. And I think it’s great that there’s that leap from the co-workers to friends category.

This group of individuals though, changes with each role you are in. When you transfer to a different department, or perhaps resigned and switched to a different company, or perhaps, with the assignment of new colleagues into the team.

However, it is perhaps indisputable so that these 3 groups of people are the ones that form our current environment.

And affects us the most.  

A lot of times, we feel misery in our lives and more often than not, we attribute it to the people around us.

Some say that misery is caused by others. For others, it could be self-induced. Neither is wrong though. But I tend to think it’s our capacity to handle the stress and situation. 

Perhaps you had an argument with a family member?

Perhaps a close friend of yours said something that you find offensive?

Perhaps your co-worker at work just kept pushing work to you even though it should have been their job?


You can change the people around you. 

To be honest, I am a bit skeptical about this. How do we change the people around us? There’s an old adage that goes “A leopard will never change its spots”. What are we and who are we to be able to change the people around us?

Well, rather than change the people around you, I would think of it as changing (or mitigating) the reactions of people around you.

The personality and a character of an individual seldom change, and even if it does, it might be due to a major event or occurrence in a life time, which thus changes our mindset, thoughts, and actions.

However, our personality and character dictates how we respond and react to situations. For instance, if I were to make a joking or passing remark on an individual, some might just laugh it away, or some might find it offensive and turn angry. Neither reaction is right or wrong. It’s just how different people are wired to be. I am sure we have seen loads of these from people in varying stages of their lives. Even with toddlers, there are some who cry after they fall, and some who picked up themselves and continue walking. It’s just that our capability and ability to deal with situations differ.

Similarly for adults, everyone is wired differently. Think about it this way, it there’s something or someone that we can get upset with, that means that this must be taking up quite a significant portion of that life whether we like it or not.

And if so, why not study their dynamic? Know what makes them tick? And where the “danger zone” is with words and tones. Basically you know, just to make your life easier.

For instance, my mother is the really sensitive type who would be extremely upset and say nasty things to me should I happen to raise my voice (whether intentionally or not). It is therefore something that I should bear in mind when speaking with her, so that I don’t get on her nerves and she “reacts” but saying something nasty back to me, thus making me miserable.

So what am I saying here? Misery can be mitigated?

Yes, that’s exactly what I am implying. By mitigating the factors that might cause that outburst, we are reducing the rate of that misery that might be recoiling over to our end. 

That’s easier say than done.

Well, I never said it was easy.

So what about at the work place? If my boss wants to make my life miserable or hell-like for me, what am I suppose to do? They are the BOSS after all, I can’t defy instructions can I?

Well, to be honest, that depends on you.

Although I do not deny the fact that there are some bosses or co-workers who can be extremely unreasonable. Well, remember that saying in Chinese that goes “一种米养百种人” (yi zhong mi yang bai zhong ren)? Essentially, it means that a single type of rice grain can be used to feed many different types of people, henceforth referring that you can have all sorts of people in this world. That’s just how this world functions.

Yes even with bosses, our reactions will affect how they will treat you.

Let’s say the boss who keeps giving you work. Yes you are extremely annoyed. Because that means your work keeps piling and you might have to work later. Question, did it occur to you to tell your boss that you have too much on your plate right now? Or are you just quietly taking it, but at the same time complaining at the back of your head?

Or what about those organisations that value face time. Yes, this is an extremely annoying culture in Asia. You have to stay back late in office despite having nothing to do. In fact, a friend was telling me about this the other day. He left work early because he had finished his load, and the rest of the team members did not want to pass him any work. Apparently, his boss was pretty upset that he left work earlier than the rest everyday. And hence, he started staying back in office even though he had nothing to do. I didn’t ask further but I was wondering. Certainly his boss does sound pretty unreasonable, but did he confront her and tell her the situation? That he has already finished his job, and that even though he extended help, the rest simply didn’t want to pass him the work. If he had done so, perhaps the outcome might have been a bit different. I might be assuming too much here but the point being, you need to do something first before change can happen (even if it doesn’t, at least you tried).

Well, change is never easy. Moreoever changing others. However, the fundamental point is that before trying to change others, try to change yourself first. Or rather than that, try to change your reaction and responses to induce a more favourable response from the other party. You might be surprised by that change of attitude and perhaps, it might just make your life a bit less miserable.

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