Live Through This

The Choice Is Yours

Confessions of a lifelong decision-hater.

Illustration by Kelly

Freedom is about being able to make your own choices in life instead of having them made for you. It’s being able to eat what you want, go where you want, and wear what you want. Your life is up to YOU. I hate freedom.

I’m one of those people who can’t make a decision to save her life. I bow to my friends to choose what movies we’re going to watch. When asked to pick a restaurant, I name the places I won’t go, and make the person asking pick from the remaining options. Shopping is the worst—I go to the store to buy socks, and I leave empty-handed because among the plain white socks alone there are ankle socks and bobby socks and about three identical-looking brands with different prices. Is the expensive one more comfortable? What brand are those socks of mine that are all covered in holes? ALL I WANT IS A PAIR OF SOCKS, AND I CAN’T HANDLE ALL THESE CHOICES.

This runs in my family. I was once part of an argument over which take-out restaurant to order from that lasted two hours. And we lived in Middle of Nowhere, Ohio, so the choice was basically pizza, wings, or fried chicken. When I’m alone, I’ve been known to go hungry rather than settle on what I want to make for dinner.

This is stupid. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, where we choose to eat on Tuesday is not a big deal. But if I don’t have a strong opinion, I don’t want to choose. There’s a feeling of security when other people make the decisions. What if I pick a place and we have a horrible time? It would be ALL MY FAULT. I like knowing that someone else can take the blame if things go wrong. Bad movie? Late pizza delivery? Got lost on the way to the bowling alley? Hey, I didn’t make the plans.

My parents made the decision for me to have my jaw operated on when I was 14. I was rather averse to letting someone GO IN MY MOUTH WITH SCALPELS AND TAKE APART MY JAW, but I knew it had to be done, and I was relieved that my parents were legally allowed to arrange this. If I’d been 18, I would have had to make that scary decision all by myself, and I probably would have chickened out.

This was around the time I realized that I couldn’t keep pawning my choices off on other people. After my surgery, my mom told me how scared she was that something would go wrong and how she would have blamed herself, because she knew I didn’t want it. And suddenly I realized how unfair I’d been, letting other people take responsibility while avoiding any myself.

But knowing that doesn’t make choices any easier. Some choices are easier than others, even if they stress you out at the time. If I just closed my eyes and grabbed a pair of socks off the shelf, I’d probably be fine with them. And even scary medical decisions, like jaw surgery, make sense if your doctors say it’s the best option for you. But sometimes you have to make monumental, life-changing decisions with no clear answer. And that’s hard for anyone.

My first huge decision was choosing where to go to college. When I was a sophomore in high school, I knew I wanted to become a marine biologist, so I zeroed in on the University of Miami in Florida. Shortly afterwards I admitted to myself that I had no aptitude for lab work and just wanted to play with dolphins. So I put this dream to rest, but I looked at Miami’s brochure anyway. And then I made an amazing discovery: they offered a major in CREATIVE WRITING.

I had no idea such a thing existed. It was PERFECT. I could go to college and spend four years doing what I loved, and I wouldn’t have to make a career decision, because “creative writing” doesn’t exactly force you into a profession like “education” or “accounting.”

(Side note: this is not an example of a good choice. I don’t regret choosing a major I loved, but if I did it all over again, I’d double-major in something practical, because creative writing doesn’t easily lead to a career, and that first year after graduation involved a lot of ramen and tears.)

The surprising thing is that my parents totally supported my choice, probably out of amazement that I had actually MADE a choice. But then came the hard part. I had to pick the perfect school or else I’d spend four years being miserable, and the rest of my life would be ruined. It’s kind of funny to me now that I didn’t put any weight on my choice of majors—which would impact my future—but picking the “perfect school” felt like a life or death situation. I turned researching colleges into a career, becoming an expert on the rankings, dorm life, and application process of every college in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. I pictured myself at each of these schools and imagined what my life would be like: doing service work at Allegheny, eating at Ashland’s famous dining hall, hanging out in Bowling Green’s student union. It was like choosing a pair of socks, but these were socks that I was going to have to wear for a long time, so they had better be the BEST SOCKS in the world. It never occurred to me that, like socks, I would probably be comfortable and happy no matter what school hoodie I was wearing.

After visiting about a dozen schools and applying to four, I eventually narrowed it down to two. One was a very small college close to home. The campus had a community feel, and I loved every minute of my visits from the courses I sat in on to the dorm life (although I was both amused and alarmed by a sign in the bathroom stalls that read “Give people in the shower a shout before flushing”). They might not have had the best facilities, but you knew the people there were going to be down-to-earth.

The other school, surrounded by miles and miles of cornfields, was the opposite. It was expensive and far from home. Every visit was horrible in a unique way. Visit number one was a summertime tour where all the buildings were locked, and we had to peek in the window while our guide explained what was inside. Visit number two was an overnight stay where I ended up “sleeping” in a sorority house. This was how I learned that sorority girls literally don’t sleep (probably a stereotype, but it was true for this house). They would lay down for five minutes, then get up and get on their computers, then lay down for another five minutes, then get up to examine a birthday cake some girl was carrying around at 2 AM, and then they’d run around the halls and laugh and yell and everyone seemed to be shocked that I was lying on the futon SLEEPING in the middle of the night. This did not turn me off of the school, but I didn’t ever consider joining a sorority after that. On visit number three, I attended a scholarship competition in a skirt and open-toed dress shoes when a freak blizzard rolled into town. The campus was known for its large open spaces, and I just hoped my interviewers were impressed with my extreme dedication to their school in the face of frostbite and hypothermia.

Despite all this, the school had an amazing English department, tiny enough for that community feel, but big enough to have FIVE publications. It was pretty much exactly what I was looking for, but the campus just didn’t “fit” with me like the small school did.

How was I to choose? Small school with great people and atmosphere, or expensive school with an awesome English program? As it turned out, my interviewers did take pity on me and my cold toes and gave me a scholarship that actually made the second school cheaper.

I thought about it, then decided to listen to my gut. I told my parents I wanted to go to the small, homey (and now more expensive) college. They told me no. That’s right, I made a HUGE decision all by myself, and they SHOT ME DOWN. The university had better facilities and programs, they said, and I’d get all that for less money.

I was a little grumpy about it at the time, but they were totally right. I ended up going to Ohio Northern University, and it turned out to be WAY BETTER than the tours (except for those winters). Is there any wonder why I don’t trust myself to make my own choices? Everyone else is SO MUCH SMARTER. Or at least it seems that way at times. (And if I’d hated ONU, I could have always blamed my parents!)

At one point during my sophomore or junior year, I became burnt out from all the important choices college students have to make—picking courses, minors, extra-curriculars, internships, careers—and told my (very feminist) college roommate that I kind of wished I’d been born in the past, at a time when I wouldn’t actually have any choices and would just have to do what men told me to do. She gave me a very disappointed look and basically told me to think about what I’d just said.

So I did. And I realized how many choices I have made in my life, hard choices that led to great things. I gave into my desire to be a vegetarian, and I’ve been happily meatless for six years now. I chose to follow my passion and become a writer. I chose to listen to my parents when they made wise decisions about my health. Being able to decide my own future is a gift, even if it’s an intimidating one.

And you know what? As scary as making the wrong choice is, it’s important to screw up sometimes too. Decisions are hard for me because I always think of the worst possible outcome. But usually when things turn out badly, it’s not actually that big of a deal. For instance, I wanted to see Edgar Allen Poe’s house and gravesite while I was in Baltimore for a summer and convinced a friend to come with me, which was pretty much the only time I made a plan that entire summer. We got on the wrong bus and ended up in a run-down part of town, and when we asked a police officer for help he just vaguely pointed in the direction of where a bus stop should be, but wasn’t. This is basically my worst fear, and I’ve missed lots of interesting opportunities in the past because I was afraid of getting lost. But my friend and I walked around until we found a bus stop and we eventually made it to Edgar Allen Poe’s house and IT WAS AWESOME.

Most of the time, the consequences of a wrong choice aren’t that bad! Sitting through a boring movie isn’t the end of the world. Your friends/family/acquaintances are not going to harass you for the rest of your life if one decision led to a lackluster outing. (If it’s disastrous enough, it actually becomes a better story!)

And making choices is empowering. It shows that you’re a person who knows what she wants and is determined to reach for it. It took me a long time to trust my decision-making skills, but eventually I made some choices ALL ON MY OWN. I chose to move out of my parents’ house and work towards a career in nonprofits in Washington, D.C., and I survived.

So fellow choice-avoiders, there is hope. Have faith in yourself. And respect the wisdom of others. Sometimes they’re right. ♦

25 Comments

  • Elizabete July 19th, 2012 3:16 PM

    Great article!

    This is the story of my life. At least it used to be. Oh, gee how i always asked my parents to choose a dish at a restaurant and how i could never decide on what to do on holidays ( it’s still true about the holiday part ). I also was afraid to tell my parents what bands or movies i liked because i worried that they’d think i am a cheap and boring kid – which is hilarious because i have the most accepting mom ever. Now i have remarkably improved, so, yes there is a hope ;)

    http://melodyfairitale.wordpress.com/

  • Susann July 19th, 2012 3:18 PM

    Great article! I’m at a point in my life where I have to make so many decisions – and I think your last sentences sum up everything that’s important for me! Thanks :)

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • clairee July 19th, 2012 3:19 PM

    Definitely relate to this again! Decision making is SO hard, but I find that the more decisions you force yourself to make, the easier it becomes. You start to realize that no decision is ever the end of the world or set in stone. The hardest part is actually the wavering before the decision, but I find that after you do it, you realize it wasn’t so hard, maybe even awesome, and you would have missed out if you hadn’t made the decision. Like jumping off really high cliffs into the water (which I totally recommend doing if you ever get the chance).

    http://modalityblog.wordpress.com/

  • rosiesayrelax July 19th, 2012 3:24 PM

    This could not ring true any more for me. I just got an interview for a job my parents thought wouldn’t be worth my while!! Happy choices!!

    Rosie Say Relax

  • LeatherStuddedFae July 19th, 2012 3:24 PM

    Sounds a lot like me, Rachael. :))

    I used to be really indecisive about myself and making choices. And if I do make a decision, I always feel like it would turn out wrong. There are times that I wouldn’t want to be the person to decide because I don’t want to cause any trouble. There used to be times where people would just ask, “Where do you want to go or should we eat here or there?” and my answer would always be, “I don’t know. Wherever/Whatever you want. It’s up to you. I’m fine with anything.”

    It just sucks because when I also make the decision, they end up not taking my choice. :P I used to have trouble in picking my right course for college. Sometimes I just don’t know what I want or what’s right for me.

    There’s always that voice in the back of my mind questioning, “Are you really sure that’s what you want? What if it’s wrong? What if that choice will ruin you forever?”

    http://stylestuddedfairy.blogspot.com/

  • ravenflamingo July 19th, 2012 3:25 PM

    This was a great read! I second-guess myself a lot too, but usually I just go with my gut or make spontaneous decisions based on what feels right.

    http://agirlnamedraven.tumblr.com

  • azultardis July 19th, 2012 3:34 PM

    This is how I am most fo the time, I’m about to be 22 and I’m so scared of making life changing decisions, cause I always think the worst things are going to happen.
    But when I do make choices, things turn okay not so awful as I imagined it… I still live with my family, but I’m planning on moving out but it’s so scary…

  • Tyknos93 July 19th, 2012 3:34 PM

    Well this summed me right up. Unfortunately, I have to forcefully compel myself to tell others what I want and think. I have very polarizing opinions, but I never feel comfortable sharing what I think with others. It’s one of the reasons I’m in the school situation I am now. At times, I’m miserable for listening to my parents advice, but it makes me more adamant that I’ll be my own person and set my own rules in the future.

    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

  • Claire July 19th, 2012 3:36 PM

    Indecisiveness (that’s a word, right?) drives me nuts. I know that sometimes people leave decisions to other people in a group to be nice, but it’s so annoying. As someone who’s usually the decision maker, everyone else’s docility tends to make me feel like a jackass.

    • caro nation July 19th, 2012 6:10 PM

      Ditto. My being the sole decisive member of my posse has led to some overly dramatic altercations in the middle of movie theaters. My friends seem more like my very own camarilla than my partners in crime sometimes.

      But I also think there’s a definite difference between being overwhelmed by decision-making (which is what I think Rachael is talking about). and being completely asleep at the switch when confronted with a choice.

  • soretudaaa July 19th, 2012 4:06 PM

    This is actually exactly what I’ve been wanting to hear.

    I’ve always been an extremely indecisive person (just like you described), and I recently had to make the biggest (well, probably the first) decision in my life. And it was the wriong one. I know that now. AAAnd I gave myself a LOT of crap for it, but now I’m happy that I actually MADE a decision and decided to take the matter in my own hands, and now I’m able to make better decisions (starting with how to fix my previous mistake) because of it.

  • SiLK July 19th, 2012 4:58 PM

    At times letting other’s make decisions for you is just so much easier, but there can be a fine line between that and obsessive worry over having others make a wrong decision that you will not be able to fix… Decision making skills are so important :/

  • emine July 19th, 2012 5:35 PM

    I’m applying to university this fall and it is ABSOLUTELY KILLING me to decide which school is the “right” school for me. I can’t even decide which ones to visit! ODKJFDJHHJSS Thank you for this, even though it doesn’t help my situation it’s nice to feel I’m not alone. Much love <3

  • NotReallyChristian July 19th, 2012 6:43 PM

    My advice is also to consider this: how much money does your university have to give to students? I’m very lucky that many rich people went to my University in the past (it’s all ‘historical’), and they have donated a lot of money for things like travel and book grants. Books I buy for school are paid for, and if I go abroad to study during the holidays some of my expenses will be paid. I can row in my college rowing club for free, and there is a big hardship fund for students from low-income backgrounds.
    There are SO MANY travel funds, you guys. One will give you money if you go to India, another if you go on a walking holiday in the mountains, and one if you’re doing something to further the cause of world peace. There are some where they’ll only give you the money if you promise NOT TO DO ANY STUDYING while you’re away – I’m not kidding! There’s also a guy who donated money so that anyone who stayed in his old room in college could have a free ticket to the summer ball. And everyone who gets a First (the top grade) gets £100 as a gift!

  • rubyhobbit July 19th, 2012 8:10 PM

    Oh man, making choices is just part of life that we have to deal with… I’m scared but at the same time I like the challenge, it makes me feel powerful. Now that I graduated high school there’s gonna be a lot of changes… thanks for the heads up :)

  • abbs July 19th, 2012 9:56 PM

    I am SO indecisive about what career I should pursue. I have so many interests and options! Should I go for one that involves something I love, but might not be too practical? Or should I choose a practical one that I guess I’ll learn to love? And what if I regretted my career choice or get bored with it?! It’s such a hard decision!!!

  • Cerise July 19th, 2012 10:58 PM

    Great article–I can definitely relate, especially when it comes to things like medical stuff or taking on a job. For me, it’s not just the obvious outcome (will the surgery go well? Will I get the job?) but all the other things (Can I pay for this procedure?? How long will I need to recover? What if I hate my job? What if I’m a failure? Am I being irrational???) That’s when I try to step back and breathe a little bit. Or maybe watch some BBC Sherlock.

    Also, I love the art for this piece! Did anyone else used to (or still does) play MASH?

    • streaked lights July 20th, 2012 4:22 AM

      Hah, I’m pretty sure BBC Sherlock can cure you of any stress.

  • Adrienne July 20th, 2012 1:14 AM

    Oooh god I’m probably the most indecisive person ever! Whether it’s dinner or clothes or anything! And I absolutely have NO idea what I want to major in or do after college…. and I’m going to be a junior in high school next year.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Abi July 20th, 2012 3:56 AM

    I love the illustration! It’s amazing.

  • streaked lights July 20th, 2012 4:21 AM

    I COMPLETELY relate! If we’re ordering food, I’d rather NOT EAT than have to decide between two things.
    Choosing a university was also terrible, and I ended up letting my parents decide for me, even though it wasn’t my ideal school choice. This all backfired, of course, and I ended up dropping out after the first semester because I hated it.

    So now, when I chose a small fine arts school (something that my parents didn’t really like the idea of before), they were actually thrilled because I finally chose something for once.

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

  • ivoire July 20th, 2012 5:50 AM

    I have this very same problem! But less severe. Shopping takes about six or seven hours and I end up buying a pair of socks or a book. And now I’m pressured into the world of CAREER! God. I have no idea, I am so lost.

  • Livy33 July 20th, 2012 1:17 PM

    Thank you SO much for this!! I have been struggling SOOO much recently with choices. Actually I always struggle with choices, but now that choices about where I want to go to school, what I want to do and if I even want to do any of it have come up.. I’m FREAKING out. This article means so much to me, because its so nice to know that I’m not the only person that gets anxiety over everything, from medical stuff to life choices. I’m working on my anxiety now, and this article has only helped me (and so has the entire Rookie website!). So thanks again from the bottom of my heart, I hope to see more stuff on anxiety and choice making on Rookie, b/c I think its something that effects a LOT of girls around the country.
    <33333

  • geriballmeow July 24th, 2012 7:09 AM

    I’m EXACTLY the same! I’ve realised though that it’s because I just think way too much about everything. I am a very deep thinker, very introspective, and I love that about myself and it makes me who I am, but in some situations, it’s best to turn my mind off, stop thinking and just ACT. I have a motto for when my mind starts overanalyzing: “what’s the worst that can happen?” and then I remember that it’s really not a big deal at ALL. :-)

  • boringbrick October 5th, 2012 9:17 PM

    That is funny. I would never let other people make so many choices about my life.
    I think we have to take the risks and learn from the mistakes. I think it leads a big part of personal growth.
    Of course that at the end of the day, everybody depends on everybody. But “everybody” doesn’t know what you like, your tastes, your interests. And letting everyone make choices about your life is kind of saying that you’re uncappable to make your own choices, and it’s a bit of commodism, too. It’s like admitting you want to be a child forever. But everyone have to grow.