Note: the information in this article was gathered from personal experience, reflection, and work with my own feelings. Take it as you will.
What is Obligation?
Obligation is defined here as the sense that one must make certain types of choices, such that other choices or deviations from that are bad or wrong to make. It is usually accompanied by a sense of guilt, shame, or fear at the very thought of doing differently. Sometimes it can seem like one is powerless to act any differently, or it can become so ingrained that it is merely seen as “the way things are”.
Why is Obligation Harmful?
When you ignore other inner motivations for the sake of what is mentally dictated, then you are essentially suppressing yourself and your true interests for the sake of those ideas, ideals, dictates, or mandates.
Obligation points to its own justifications, but it does not acknowledge its limitations. Your own self can get squashed in the mean time, and it can become customary, even necessary, to continue on one’s current path. It can blind you to what is important to you, and cause you to suffer under your current path of choices, because you refuse to take care of or act on the broader scope of who you are, as indicated by feelings, emotions, and impulses, which may be dismissed, belittled, ignored, denied, or put off. Such refusal to work with or take care of yourself does have consequences. The needs you fill by pursuing obligations are done at the cost of conflicting needs, which would bring you their own benefits, growth, and realizations.
For instance, say that you spend the day doing chores because you feel obligated to do so, but are meanwhile feeling like spending time with friends. Note that there may be times when you’d do chores out of freedom and joy, but not in this instance. By not acknowledging your interest in connection, you could become contentious, irritable, bitter, even towards your friends! You could actually cause harm in an area that’s valuable to you, all because you’re not taking care of yourself by acknowledging your real interests.
If you’re being affected by making choices out of obligation, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:
- Feeling bored, unfulfilled, listless, unsatisfied, on a small or large scale
- A lack of enthusiasm for life
- Pain at the activities you seem forced to engage in
- Feeling like the world, other people, circumstances, or even your own mind are out to get you, and like you’re not being left alone
- Being overly serious
- Finding a lot to disapprove of when it comes to behavior you find “foolish” or “childish”
- Feeling like you always have to have things planned out
- Intense or persistent suffering
- Anger at your circumstances or the people around you, even if this happens only irregularly
- Feeling like your life was chosen for you, or that the “role” you’re in doesn’t feel right
- A sense of unfairness at what you do or are “being asked/told to do”
- Like you have no room to maneuver in life, like you can’t live up to your full potential
- Like you have to do everything perfectly in your life, and are severely upset inside when you fail to succeed – that is, you feel dependent on success, embarrassed or terrified by failure. This can be due to a commitment to your sense of obligation.
- You are extremely proud of what you do to an extreme, that is, when people criticize you, you feel disdain, resentment, or anger
- Sensitivity to criticism
- Having a set plan for life that you regularly try to keep yourself to
- Making resolutions for what to do, and regularly failing to meet them
- Feeling disruptively bad when you make mistakes
The first step in healing obligation is acknowledging where it exists in you. Where do you feel a sense of obligation in your motivation? But then again, how can you do that, when obligation can often masquerade as doing what’s important to you?
The key is in how the prospect of a choice makes you feel, and to have discernment over what feelings are a positive motivation for you. If a choice truly makes you feel bored, then own that! If a choice fills you with a sense of curiosity and excitement, then own that! No matter how silly a positive choice makes you feel, no matter how noble a boring choice is, be honest about your feelings! Doing so helps you to be more honest with yourself emotionally, and to begin shifting your choices to better enable you to flourish, be yourself, and feel whole, relaxed, balanced, fulfilled, and happy.
In other words, don’t ignore your own happiness!
And don’t ignore your own sadness.
It can be very easy to stay stuck in a life of obligation. There are many roles we can fill, many paths that seem so good, correct, or safe. But are they a path that feels right to us? Are they really so rewarding? How deep can your commitment to yourself really go? This is a personal question that only you can answer – for you can commit your entire being to it! You can risk your life to live a fulfilling life, if you so choose! And you can protect that life, even if it means living boldly in the way of opposing forces! That is your choice, and even just a little step of commitment to yourself can help bring you happiness.
But society, other people, the world, well-meaning words, and happenstance aren’t going to give you lasting happiness or fulfillment, or show you what you actually need to find those things! But your feelings can. They’re always speaking, always looking to be acknowledged. If you choose to pay attention to those signals, to do a little introspection, self-reflection, and expression to yourself, then you can pick up on the things they’re saying, and inform your choices. Then you can start making choices that are independent from any sense of obligation.
The Lure of Obligation
Of course, it isn’t so easy to just abandon obligation. It sounds good on paper, but it’s also important to acknowledge the various benefits that are there to trap you into behaving according to obligations, rather than your more deeply personal interests. Here are some:
- Avoiding conflict. A lot of times, we do things out of obligation because we observe that other people, or society at large, thinks we should do certain things. Rather than try to reconcile our interests with those of other people, we can choose to ignore, deny, or suppress those interests. We avoid conflict, but we also avoid ourselves, leading our life to feel more hollow and constricted. We might try to live according to other people’s expectations of us, or become committed to a path of being “the best” – leading to egotistic behaviors or a desire to be as perfect as possible. Rather than see how we’re off the course that we’d personally connect with, we can commit to a false path, and try to identify with that. It doesn’t work, though, because we’re denying our real interests and keeping up a mask, potentially confusing the mask with our true selves in the process, as we ignore the feelings within us.
- Feeling safe within a group. Acting like we’re a part of a group, by mimicking their behaviors and taking on their requests, can make us feel safe and protected, like we “blend in”. But like with avoiding conflict, we can end up forgetting ourselves in the process. Owning our conflicts with others can help establish our identity within a group and make sure that while the group might support us, we also support and take care of ourselves. How will we know what to ask of others when they offer support, unless we know and are self-supportive ourselves? Furthermore, how will we know what group is right for us? There’s always the option to search for new communities and connections.
- Feeling like your life is taken care of. Sometimes, you don’t want to have to think. You don’t want to reflect, or consider – you just want things to make sense. Following a set plan for your life is a way to do that, but it isn’t ultimately fulfilling. It’s hollow, and lacks the fruits of self-reflection, patience, and taking the time to understand your feelings, emotions, and where you’re coming from.
- The sense that things will change. One of the best examples of an obligation lure is the idea of doing a New Years Resolution. If one dramatically resolves to take up on obligatory path, things will change, right? No, your feelings will not change. A complete change of habit, lifestyle, or condition, takes an openness to not knowing the results, and a sensitivity to the feelings you bring to those changes. Unless you can deal with your attachment to an old way of doing things, how can you move on to another way? Obligation advocates forcing and ignoring yourself, but this is ultimately harmful.
- Feeling like bad things will not happen or stop happening. There are many things we can feel obligated to do because they seem necessary to stop something terrible from happening or continuing to happen. “If we just do this, if we just keep going in this direction that feels bad, we’ll be okay! We’ll be fine. Nothing terrible will happen, right?” The problem comes in identifying outer things as the source of your bad feelings. You can feel good despite bad circumstances, and work that helps protect or sustain can feel satisfying, if it just so happens to. If you make working under duress a way of life, then you will return to it as a default any time there’s something tough to take care of! Your feelings are trying to tell you something – if you stop and listen, over and over until you feel better, your understanding can grow over time, and you can escape this trap. Essentially: don’t avoid your bad feelings by acting to correct something that isn’t the source of the problem.
- It feels good enough. One insidious form that obligation can take is when you feel like life is good enough, and you overlook or fail to look for what you would normally feel is off or missing if you were to fully open yourself to your feelings. This is not to say that contentment is not important, but this is a reinforced contentment, intent on avoiding inner conflict, rather than the deeply, emotionally satisfying kind. This is when life has a self-imposed ceiling, wherein you convince yourself of your own contentment without feeling it deeply. For many parts of you can be content, even while others are suppressed or dismissed. Contentment is not the only element that can be a part of your life. There is joy, wonder, mystery, passion, fulfillment, wildness, excitement, rapture, creativity, flow, deeper connection, emotional understanding, and empathy! If people tend to think you never have a problem with anything, or you have a hard time reaching your emotions, you may have an issue with obligation here. To counter this, it may help to really dig deep into your subconscious, to explore dreams, childhood memories, self-healing techniques, meditation, and so on. Connecting with energies and states beyond your usual ones can help you to enliven your own experience.
- Feeling safe. In addition to feeling safe within a group, a major lure to obligation is the idea that certain actions will keep you safe from harm. The thing is, not only can harm be random and unexpected, even with the best preparation, but sometimes risk can be worth taking in order to support something else that’s important to you. You can’t necessarily avoid risk and make fulfilling choices, in every instance. Sometimes risk, taken conscientiously and not recklessly, can be worth it.
- Loyalty, commitment, and pride. Sticking to a set of choices can bring with it a sense of pride, like through self-sacrifice you’re upholding something important. But we become too attached to that pride, we can ignore other important things in our life, or even when the choices we’re protecting aren’t really all that important to us anymore. Emotional honesty, humbleness, and flexibility are important in order to see past this one. Sometimes it’s hard to put aside what you’ve always done, or scary to question it. But it’s important to grasp the potential beyond that obligation, for the truly important things that your choices could help you support.
Exercise: Finding and Questioning Obligation
Here is an exercise you can try to help you get in touch with where you might be affected by obligation. It then guides you into questioning the mandates of that obligation, so you can see beyond it, to the feelings that are truly important to you.
- Write a list of the major things that you feel you have to or should do, in each of the following categories: (1) the next day, (2) the next month, (3) the next year, (4) the next five years, and (5) over the course of your entire life. Try to pay attention to include mostly the things you feel you should do, not the things you want to do.
- Go through your list, and write out how you feel about each one. Or, if you want to prioritize any, go with the ones that evoke the most intense emotional responses, such as you strongly not wanting to do something.
- Next, for the ones you wrote about (or whichever ones you want to prioritize now), write out why you feel as you do, being honest with yourself, including where you’re uncertain as to your reasons.
- Lastly, what are other choices you can make, large or small, given the knowledge of those feelings and reasons? What new directions can you take, what other options can you look into? Or if you want to just journal about what you found, reflecting on what came up, you can do that too, and see where it takes you.
This exercise can help you figure out the choices that you are actually interested in making, on a level that feels more deeply important to you. Feel free to modify or skip around in it to fit your own personal needs!
Benefits of Working through Obligation
Here are some of the probable benefits to working through obligation:
- A more fulfilling life
- A more abundant, dynamic, adventurous life
- Deeper sense of satisfaction
- Deeper connection with yourself and others
- Knowing one’s self
- Owning one’s own choices and direction in life
- A greater sense of power and empowerment
- Clarity with regard to one’s choices
- Peace on the inside, rather than just on the outside
Obligation can be persistent, harmful, and easy-to-miss. It can cause us to ignore or purposefully put aside the kind of choices or life we’d find most rewarding. It can bring intense suffering, and separate us from what’s truly important in life. So keeping an eye out for it is important. If you want to live life in a way that feels right to you, look at where you might be motivated by obligation, and see what else you can do! This can help you find a new direction.
Anxiety – Anxiousness can cause you to hesitate over decisions to behave outside of obligation, even as you’re conscious of the things you want to do, so working on that can help a lot with you being able to live your life more freely.
Fear – Living in fear will make it hard to act against or question your obligations, and it can disconnect you from what you really want. Living in accordance with what you feel is important to you takes being grounded, as well as the courage to be vulnerable to life’s uncertainties
Strengths – By knowing what can help you out in life, you can live more abundantly, freely, and in accordance with what really matters to you on a personal level