I have a very common fear: the fear of commitment.
My entire life, I’ve struggled with decision-making. Whenever I had options, I feared picking the wrong one and regretting my decision. Although not having options stressed me out by backing me into a corner, it was an easier alternative to swallow than it was to have the results weigh on my shoulders: if I made the decision, and it didn’t work out, it was my fault. If an ultimatum was handed to me, and the results were equally disastrous, at least I could shake my fist at the sky and blame the universe.
As a kid, I floated between sports and hobbies, never committing to any one thing. I played soccer and danced ballet and swam, but never gave anything my all. I deeply feared that if I were to give something my all, and not succeed, I would be crushed. So for years I danced between teams and activities, jumping ship the moment someone noticed I showed promise or noticed I had potential if only I were to fully commit.
When I entered high school, my peers started dating, and I lingered behind them from a safe distance. In my mind, any kind of relationship seemed fruitless: you were either doomed to break up or destined to get married and live happily ever after. The first alternative seemed far more likely. I didn’t understand why kids my age- 14 at the youngest, 18 at the very oldest- were getting into relationships that were unlikely to last more than a few years, especially as the end of high school crept closer and closer as the years went on. Why would they bother to commit to something so unlikely to work out? What was the point? Didn’t it seem like setting yourself up for disappointment?
At the end of high school, I was faced with a decision, and it was arguably one of the biggest ones of my life thus far: where was I going to go to college? I figured I’d throw out a ton of applications into the universe, and hope that they’d dwindle down my options for me. Unluckily (or luckily, depending on how you look at it), I got into all but one (thanks, Stanford). My grand plan to create an ultimatum for myself had fallen apart, and now the choice lay in my hands: where would I choose to go in my first foyer out of my parent’s house? I skirted around the issue as long as I possibly could, finally picking a school at the last minute that, luckily, felt pretty good in the end, although it did leave some things to be desired that I ignored as I chose the first option that felt “at least kind of okay.”
Commitment is a theme that has arisen in my life time and time again. I refused to commit to the fact that I had an eating disorder, and as a result bullshit my way through “recovery” for a long time before truly committing to healing myself from the inside-out. I refused to commit to my current relationship with my boyfriend for almost a year because I “didn’t see the point” in willingly entering a part-time long distance relationship from the start. I refused to commit to anything that didn’t fit within the lines of a perfectly linear and predictable plan. I refused to commit to anything that didn’t promise the exact results I wanted to see.
There’s a book called The Paradox of Choice by psychologist Barry Schwartz that addresses this idea within the context of consumer choices. Essentially, Schwartz goes against what we generally think is the key to happiness- freedom- and proposes the idea that with less choices, we’re actually happier. Because here’s the thing: choices make us anxious. If we make the wrong choice, it’s our fault. And the more choices we have to pick from, the higher the likelihood we’ll make “the wrong one,” and the higher the likelihood that we’ll be to blame for our own unhappiness.
The work of psychologists David Myers and Robert Lane corroborates Schwartz’s ideas on happiness and choice. Their work concludes that the huge amount of freedom and choice we now have is inversely related to our happiness: the more choices we have, the less happy we are. They point to a study conducted by Sneena Iyengar and Mark Lepper that, interestingly enough, used jam to prove their point. People who had a vast array of jams to choose from were less happy with their choice than those who had fewer choices. Why? Because of the lingering doubt: what if that other jam would’ve been better?
Obviously these studies and findings have a lot of value for advertisers, marketers, and retailers, but I think they can be equally applied to our own lives.
Recently in my psychology class, we were discussing the idea of personality development, and in particular, the formation of identity. According to Erik Erikson (the psychologist with arguably the coolest name in the field), there are two steps that lead up to the formation of our identity: exploration, and commitment.
Now, these two steps can take years and years to complete. You can’t really explore one day, commit the next, and go, “Boom. There’s my identity. That was easy!” We spend the vast majority of our lives exploring- traveling, switching our majors a few times, dating around, quitting our jobs and finding new ones- before we finally commit and “form” our identity. This is a normal part of life, and one you could argue is the organic definition of what it means to be alive.
And I think a lot of the time, we’re given this idea that commitment sucks and exploration is the best thing ever. Dating around? Best thing ever. Jumping from country to country for your entire life? Best thing ever. Being a Jack-Of-All-Trades and never having a stable job? Best thing ever. Commitment, though? That’s scary and boring and for suits. That’s for old people and people who are too scared to explore anymore. That’s settling down, giving up, and accepting your life as a suburban dad who runs 5ks on the weekends and whose idea of adventure is trying a new brand of wine.
And yet, I’ve found throughout my life that the times I’m the happiest are the times I’m fully committed. Floating from sport to sport and hobby to hobby left me feeling unfulfilled and unwanted. Avoiding romantic and unromantic relationships that seemed “doomed” by the inevitability of an end left me feeling lonely and dull. Hanging in the empty space between high school and committing to a college left me feeling scared and undirected. Throwing myself into yoga and teacher training, dedicating myself to writing and sharing that writing through my blog, and picking a college even when I “wasn’t sure”,” though? That made me happy.
I was happy because, even if it wasn’t all going to work out, even if it all wasn’t going to be perfect and fit into a plan and results that I had in my mind, it was something I had and could build upon. Committing to teacher training didn’t guarantee me a damn thing: it didn’t guarantee that I was going to teach, it didn’t guarantee that it would give me a sense of purpose, it didn’t guarantee that I would find my passion and start loving my life again. But it gave me the opportunity to work towards that reality. Instead of dancing in empty space between commitments and lingering in my current situation, it gave me the ability to create.
It was the same with my blog. For years I played with the idea of writing online. In fact, the blog you’re reading right now is the fourth or fifth one I ever started. But it’s the first I ever committed to. It’s the first I gave my all. And it’s the first that has ever giving me the return I wanted.
But each of these things was amongst a sea of options. I could have done teacher training or started a blog, sure, but there was an equally fair opportunity for me to go join my high school’s swim team or start a band or take up photography. Just like I had the choice to date my boyfriend or date one of the other seven billion people on this planet (or no one at all). Initially, I was paralyzed by these opportunities. I was paralyzed by freedom. I was paralyzed by choice.
But when I committed, I was all in. And now the result, more than being my fault, was my choice.
A lot of the time, the choice is arbitrary. No matter which college I would have chosen, it would have been up to me to pick the right classes, find the right people, and build the experience I wanted to have. No matter which person I chose to date, I would have chosen how successful and healthy the relationship would have been. No matter which “hobby” or “job” I picked, it was my choice to welcome in the lessons of self-care, empowerment, and hard work that came along with it. Of course, there’s some obvious room here for things like passion and love or whatever to play their part, but ultimately, you can commit to anything. And you can find joy in anything you choose.
And the studies corroborate what I’ve found to be true in my own life: the more committed we are, the happier we are. Lingering in choice, lingering in doubt and fear, is stressful. Throwing yourself into something you love, however, is powerful.
You have to commit. You have to commit to your choices, you have to commit to possibility, you have to commit to life. Exploring is important and valid, but life isn’t just about exploring. It’s also about finding those constants that make life worth living. It’s about finding the places and people you can call home, the projects and causes that you want to make a difference with, the jobs and hobbies that fill you up.
It’s about committing with your whole heart.