Before crowdsourcing was a term we used with obnoxious regularity on social media, it was my modus operandi in real life. Whenever I had a decision to make — should I get bangs? Should I break up with my boyfriend? — I started in on my ask-advice-from-every-human-being-I-know routine. My uncle would say, reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Ab, you’re just making the rounds.” He’d call it my “process.”
It was a polite way of saying: You can’t make a decision on your own.
I never saw this as bad. Although it occurred to me that there might be a more solitary, straightforward way of navigating life choices, it felt negligent not to ask for other people’s opinions, like driving without checking my blind spots.
But recently, a new therapist said to me, forehead scrunched in that serious, deliberative shrink way, “You don’t know who you are outside of your relationships.” She said it like she was delivering very bad — but exceedingly obvious — news.
“What does that even mean?” I asked, aghast. It was as if she’d said “You don’t know your own name.” Me? Not know myself? How many years had I spent in therapy? (Oh, only fifteen.) Truly, I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Can you make a decision on your own?” she asked. “Do you know what you want if you don’t run it by someone first?”
I don’t generally shy away from making my opinions known. I am also a classic extrovert, and often have, let’s say, trouble with boundaries — in other words, my local barista knows that my daughter keeps asking for a sibling and that my husband and I still haven’t quite figured out what to do about it. To the outside world, I appear to be someone who knows who she is and what she wants.
But faced with any decision, I immediately reach for reassurance from, well, anybody. The ability to text a group of friends at once — or one after the other — has only made this habit that more pathologically entrenched. I don’t even need to wait for someone to pick up the phone! I can just throw out a million ropes and know that eventually someone will come to the rescue.
I don’t want to make myself sound like Donald Trump, who is notorious for blindly concurring with the last person to whisper in his ear. I am not that easily swayed, but I have trouble believing my decision is the right one until other people confirm it. Like the Census Bureau, I go around collecting data, and when I feel that I have enough — OK, Sonya, Kate, Lauren, Ariel, and Leah all say this is the right thing, so it must be the right thing — I can move on.
Before this little talk with my shrink, I’d never felt like my friends were making major life decisions for me. I just knew I needed assistance. A lot of it. After this therapeutic bombshell, though, I wandered around for weeks feeling as if my entire way of being, for 40 years, had been foolish. Did I really not know who I was or how to think for myself?
There was only one time before my shrink mentioned my crowdsourcing as a problem that I stopped and thought about how much I relied on others when I made big decisions: when my husband and I were toying with the idea of moving to Vienna, Austria, for his job.
Rather than enjoy the city alone while he went on one interview after another, I spent most of our scouting mission holed up in our pensione, on Skype with every friend and family member on my contact list, asking each person what we should do. If they said, “Go,” I concurred. If they said, “Oh, the Viennese are so unfriendly,” I thought, The Viennese are so unfriendly! (I didn’t know a single Viennese person.) The whole thing, unsurprisingly, gave me emotional whiplash. My husband, who is my polar opposite and generally takes advice from no one, knew me well enough to just back off and let me do my crazy routine.