Every summer vacation that passes by marks another homecoming for all the college students that diverged their separate ways after high school. And although the number of returners dwindle down every year, we make it a point to reconvene when most people are back in town. It always starts the same way- someone suggests a date, time, and location and from there, discussion erupts. Someone is always unavailable at the proposed time. Another person is busy the entire day. The only logical solution would be to change to a time that works for everyone, right? But factor in the number of people involved, the undoubtedly busy schedules of each individual, and the different tastes and preferences across the board, and the chances of finding something that works for everyone quickly become downright impossible.
That being said, we will try to ensure that as many people as possible can make it when we finally reach a decision. But before we ever settle on a time, there will always be a long, drawn-out conversation to figure out what works best for everyone, usually coupled with profuse apologies when someone absolutely can’t make it. There has never been an instance where everyone was able to make it. There is always someone too busy or unavailable and everyone always feels guilty for picking a time that ended up excluding a small handful of the group.
It may not seem like a big deal, this yo-yoing we do in an attempt to get everyone together for brunch or coffee, but it’s rather representative of our disposition to work our tails off to accommodate those around us, no matter how much effort it might take or frustration it might cause. I’ll often find myself feeling guilty if someone gets left out simply because the time didn’t work out in his or her favor. Lunch with the girls isn’t a big deal, but finding similar compulsions to please everyone in my other daily interactions with friends, peers, and family? Potentially problematic.
In a lot of ways, it makes perfect sense that we often function on other people’s approval. From a young age, we are thrust into a world of uncertainty and unknowing, and we look to the people we admire and respect to make sure that we’ve got the right idea, that we’re heading in the right direction. After all, when we’re lost in the thickets of unfamiliar territory, sometimes all we need is a bit of confirmation to feel reassured about our decisions.
But what happens when that need to have someone validate our choices becomes less of a backup diagnostic and more of a lifeline? What happens when we no longer just gladly accept other people’s approval- when we end up needing it instead?
I’ve been in situations where I’ve been stuck at a crossroads, unable to settle on a decision. It’ll be a matter of proposed events for the semester for my student organization or a career choice that might seem foreign to those around me. No matter what it is, I always end up experiencing a major bout of cognitive dissonance- an unshakable discomfort that increases proportionally with the number of people who are unhappy with me. There are these constant battles in my mind: What can I do to make things better? How can I optimize the situation so that people aren’t upset with my choices? Is there a way that will ensure that people won’t end up resenting me?
Though this uncertainty has dominated my thoughts for years, I have been working to reassess exactly what it is that drives my decision making process. We are all conglomerations of our influences, no matter who or what they might be, and it’s difficult to separate our own will from the will of others. How can I know for certain what is purely me and what is made up of the opinions of my peers? Regardless, I’ve learned that if I spend too much time stressing over the way my perspectives stray from those around me, I will never truly be content with my decisions.
The only way that I can be at peace with my choices in life is to recognize the differences that might arise between my friends or family and me and be practical and careful about choosing which disagreements to attend to. Sometimes, other people will have incredible insights that I would never consider on my own, and neglecting them can be myopic and restrictive. But other times, it pays to trust a gut instinct. And worrying too much about how other people might not agree will simply create extraneous stress. Stress that is neither productive nor helpful.
Because sometimes we will wait impatiently, heart pounding with anxiety, for the world to slap gold stars on our foreheads, to pat us encouragingly on our backs. Because sometimes we attribute other people’s approval with our own success. But maybe sometimes, we have the power to define our own good judgment, our own accomplishments and triumphs, our own sense of rights and wrongs.