06/28/2011 11:59 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2011

Do Our Friends' Choices Make Us Regret Our Own?

Remember when you were a kid, and you wanted to pierce your belly button or stay out all night, and you'd say to your mom, "But mooooom, everyone else is doing it!"? And then she'd say, "If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?" And then, if you were feeling especially petulant, you might say, "Well yeah. There'd be no one left to play with."

No one wants to be left behind. (After all, how much fun would it be if all your friends had jumped off the bridge, leaving you standing alone, like the proverbial cheese?) And, in a way, that feeling never goes away.

Once we're all grown up, how much do such feelings interfere with our decisions? How often are the things we pick for our lives influenced by a little unconscious-and not so unconscious-desire to head off becoming the cheese? How often are the milestones (marriage, advanced degree, corner office, fat apartment in the city, fat home in the 'burbs, fat baby in the stroller) we shoot for not, if we were to think about it, the result of us really assessing what we want for our lives, but just sort of assumed? Everyone else is doing it...

It's not that we're mindless lemmings, of course. But have you noticed how the nuances of friendship play a role in our choices -- and how our choices play a role in our friendships? Conflicts, particularly between women, have a lot to do with choices. Defending what we've chosen for our lives -- and what we've chosen to leave behind. Judging our friends' choices. Interpreting the fact that our friend has chosen something different as her judgment (and rejection) of what we've chosen for ourselves. The distance that grows when we feel like (because we've chosen differently or believe we would choose differently if we were in her shoes) we can no longer relate to the women to whom we're closest.

Like the kid afraid of being left all alone on the bridge, each of us, at one time or another, has been left feeling like the oddball exception. And that feeling can mess with the decisions we make -- and often, the really important ones. The ones that take our lives in one direction or another. How often do we steer ourselves into what we believe is the culturally-approved path, what we think we should do, what we should want?

Take, for example, those of us who secretly just want a "paycheck job," the kind you show up for at 9, leave at 5, and don't think about til 9 the next day. But we've absorbed the idea that it's not enough, that there's something wrong with us to merely want a job when we can have a career -- so we kill ourselves to meet some grand milestone we think we should want, quietly wondering all the while: Why am I doing this, again?

Maybe the conventional ideas about the 'American Dream' are the ones that tug at us: steady career path, home ownership, husband, kids. Everybody else seems to want those things, right? Surely we must be insane for being more interested in adventure than security. So we opt for the safe path, daydreams of running off to join the circus growing all the more tantalizing with each mortgage bill.

Or maybe it's the notion of having it all, the Superwoman icon that keeps us quiet. We see other women smoothly managing it all. Or so we think. So we struggle to keep our heads above water, never letting on that we're one cupcake away from going postal, never even questioning what parts of "it all" we really want, what is really worth wanting for us -- because, well, let's be honest, who has the time?

The thing about women having the unprecedented number of options we do today, having all sorts of ways to structure our lives, to cobble together our own reality made up of some parts work, some parts fun, some parts family -- well, it's new. We don't have centuries of role models to look to for guidance. And nothing's perfect. And so, when we're having One Of Those Days, maybe we start to question the way we're doing it. We wonder: should I be doing what she's doing?

But instead of all of this silent comparing, the assumptions and judgment, what if we instead took a moment to think, to realize that we each have our own path -- and just because our friends are doing something different doesn't mean they think we're making a mistake. That they might have just as many moments of questioning themselves and their decisions as we do. And if that's the case, then maybe the best way to deal would be to start talking. Maybe, if we can all summon up the bravery to be a little more honest, we'd realize that we're actually in good company. No matter how different our choices.