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Is There Anybody Out There?

I’m a crowdsourcer. Should I learn to make decisions on my own?

Is There Anybody Out There
Illustration by Jayde Perkin

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.

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When we returned from the trip, though, I realized — perhaps for the first time, surely because we’d recently gotten engaged — that it didn’t matter what anyone else thought but him and me.

Could that really be possible? Did it really not matter that my godmother thought Vienna was painfully uptight, or that my friend Joanna had fantasized about living abroad but now, with two small kids, felt she couldn’t and insisted that I not miss this chance?

No, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter!

(Reader: We went. We stayed for four glorious years. We had a little baby who spoke perfect German. It was all the things: terrible and beautiful and transformative. It was the best four years of my life, and the worst, all at once — but magnified and in a foreign language.)

But, more to the point here, it was utterly right for us. That much I could see. My life was on its own trajectory, one that had nothing to do with my friends or their opinions.

Did that stop me from asking everyone about everything? No, it did not.

Look, I’m like this for a laundry list of reasons, but at the top of the list is my dear mother, who never said to me: “You need to figure this out on your own; goodbye.” She is always there for me, and she will go around in circles on anything until the end of time, a constant source of reflection and reassurance. Over the years, I have sought out more and more friends who will do the same. The pull to connect is so powerful that I never learned to stop and listen to only myself.

***

I stayed down in my therapy-induced rabbit hole for a few weeks. Every time I had the impulse to call my mother or sister, or to text a gazillion friends asking for reassurance, I pulled my fingers back from the brink and left my phone buried at the bottom of my bag. Take a deep breath. Write it down. Let it go. It felt like I might implode with all the things left unsaid.

There is no fucking way I can do this, I thought. Then I’d call my mother and say, “There’s no fucking way I can do this.”

“You don’t have to!” she’d say. “Forget what the shrink said!” Super-helpful, Ma.

The next day, I’d try again. The next day, I’d fail again. I’d be desperate to consult with the usual cast of characters. “I am not a lone island!” I’d say to no one.

But then, one day, I thought: What are you doing? Is there really anything so wrong with you?

(Really, I’m asking.)

Would I like to be more self-sufficient? Yes, and I am working on it — waiting the week to talk to my therapist rather than blabbing about my problems to everyone else first; waiting until my husband and I have time at night to work through a conflict rather than growing frustrated with him for not responding to my middle-of-the-day texts and turning to friends instead.

That said, do I anticipate having a lobotomy in the near future and becoming a different person? No, I do not.

So I’ll continue to crowdsource, because I’m coming to believe that it is not proof of my incompetence. It is my way of getting close to people, of being in relationships, which is how I want to understand myself. It is how I eventually find my way to the answers, taking in as much information as I can and distilling it down to my own particular truth, like I did when we decided to move to Vienna. It is my way of entering into my friends’ minds, into their ways of troubling through problems. They help me see what I am failing to see, and I help them do the same.

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This philosophy was recently proven effective as I sat in my car sobbing with my best friend, Ariel. I was dealing with a complicated inheritance question, one that had made everyone in my family a little crazy. I was being pulled in every direction — my parents wanted me to do one thing, my sister another, my husband another, my friends another. Everyone but me felt so sure, and yet the buck stopped with me. I had to make the final call.

“Here’s what I did when faced with the same question,” Ariel said, letting me into the depths of her family’s finances and complex dynamics. “These were the variables, and this is what felt right to me.”

And then she uttered the only words I needed to hear: “I think you know what’s right for you. You’re just afraid to admit it. You’re afraid not everyone will agree.”

In the moment, crying in my Subaru, I knew that she was right. I did know what was right — I often do. Sometimes I just need a little help being led back to myself.

Is it so bad to have someone hold my hand along the way?

Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times, the Cut, Longreads, Marie Claire, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.