People were getting tired of my shit. My indecision—my dependence on others. The line between caretaker and friend was increasingly blurred for me.
Last month, I went to a theme park with a friend. When we had hit all major rides, he asked me to do something horrible:
make a decision.
“So what do you want to do now,” he asked me. To be agreeable, I said, “I’m cool with whatever.” “Do you have anything in mind?” he said. “No, anything’s okay, really.” “But what do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know, whatever you want.”
“Jack, I want you to know what you want and assert it. You can’t always agree to do what everyone else wants.” I surveyed the various tents, venders, and stages, and made my choice. I confidently met his gaze, and said “I want… you to buy me Dippin’ Dots!”
I’m lucky enough to have a good support system. I get along with my family, and I have several close friends who are always willing to help me through a problem. And I know that not everyone has that.
But the danger of having people to lean on is that you can lean on them too much. When you’re surrounded by good decision-makers, it becomes hard to claim agency and make decisions yourself.
Overreliance has led me to be dependent and unassertive. I never offer an opinion on which restaurant to go to. I have asked the question “Can someone tell me where to sit?” more than once, including to a room full of strangers. I’m infamous for asking permission to use the bathroom while at friends’ places. Because of my discomfort with leadership, I try at all costs to avoid walking in front when with a group of friends, even if I’m the only one who knows the way. Once, while walking alone, I put a poll on my Instagram story asking if I should turn left or right at an intersection. I waited until I got a decent number of responses before proceeding. Whenever I’m faced with a challenge in life, my first thought is not “let me think how to navigate this.” It’s “I need to ask for my friends’ advice on this.”
It wasn’t just my friends, either. My therapist got frustrated with my overreliance on her to come up with solutions to my problems. She and I had been working on my self-esteem issues, which were exacerbated by a recent break-up. We made some progress in most areas, but we remained stagnant on one aspect of self-esteem: my appearance. It was rare that one session went by without us having some version of this conversation:
“I’m ugly,” I would say. And she would respond with a rebuttal: “Jack, you’re not ugly.” At this point I’d lose trust in her. How could I trust someone who didn’t see what was so clear to me? I’d double down and offer a hypothetical: “But what if I am ugly?” “Have people treated you like you were ugly? Can you think of any examples? ”I shrugged. “You know…” And I raised my hands in a “so there” gesture, as if I had just made an irrefutable point. “Are you even trying to challenge this thought? Are you putting in the work to feel better about your appearance?”
I knew I wasn’t. I was hoping I could waltz in every Tuesday and one day she’d have a miraculous solution that would make me confident and comfortable. But I wasn’t ready to acknowledge my part in this. Then she dropped a bomb on me:
“Jack, Michelle ended things with you because she was interested in someone else. You know that right?” A long silence followed. We just sort of looked at each other for a while. This could have been a time for self-analysis, to dig inside myself, to stop letting my worst thoughts control me. Instead, I cracked a subtle smile, and she gave me a knowing look. I said the inevitable: “He’s probably better looking than me.”And we were back to where we began.
I realized I had not been living my life; I had outsourced it to other people. I thought of myself on my deathbed, guided there on a path chosen by others—too late to change.
This problem became even clearer to me during a recent date. I asked which restaurant she’d like to go to, and she said, “I don’t know. You can decide.” A classic classic Jack move.
I pushed further, but she would just shake her head and shrug. I tried to narrow it down. I asked what type of food she was in the mood for, if there was anything she could rule out, if she wanted something light or something heavy, but she gave the same shrug to all my questions.
"I realized I had to take charge in other areas of my life too"
Now that the tables had been turned, I realized that my behavior was unhelpful and annoying. I don’t mean to denigrate my date, but I admit I was feeling frustrated. I had finally met my match—someone who was just as stubbornly indecisive as me. I knew that, for once, I had to take charge and make a decision, or else we’d just throw the decision back to each other until we both died and got reincarnated as mules.
And I realized I had to take charge in other areas of my life, too. When it was appropriate, I asserted what I wanted, what my opinions were. I figured the worst that could happen was that I’d become a different kind of annoying, an acceptable lateral move. I stopped asking my friends for date ideas, and I ended up coming up with some pretty good ones myself (eating cupcakes beneath a canopy in the park as it rained, but not on us). I stopped coming into therapy with nothing but moaning and groaning; I came with specific topics, and potential options for how to work through them.
I still feel ugly sometimes. A lot, actually. But I don’t dwell on it the way I used to. I’m able to have the thought, then dismiss it and move on. I have a lot more free time now. And I don’t make it someone else’s problem. I still get support from my friends. I still seek their advice, but I’m able to distinguish between matters that require advice, and matters better dealt with on my own.
For the first time, I feel like I’m in control of my life. It’s a scary feeling, thinking of all the possible options and all the possible ways to screw it up. But now, my screw-ups are my own. My failures may be disappointing, but they belong to me. They are tangible; I can interact with them and work to understand them. That’s not possible when you make a mistake on someone else’s behalf. And I own my successes, too. I don’t ask my friends for advice on certain things, because then I can come back and tell them what I did. It may be 15 years too late, but now I know the satisfaction of saying, “Look, ma! Look what I did all by myself!”