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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

On Feeling Obliged 

For some of us, our lives are guided – and hemmed in – by one overwhelming imperative: we must never let people down. Not just a few friends and family members, but pretty much anyone who wants anything of us. Perhaps someone wants to see us again for supper. We kept them entertained and now they want more. The problem is that we really don’t much like them – but we go anyway, because how could we not, next time and probably the twenty times after that. We give money to people we don’t trust, we stay up too late at parties we hate, we wind up on holiday with characters we have little in common with. We would feel a sense of obligation to someone we’d just met on a tram or to a dog that wanted us to keep throwing a ball. On our gravestone it might as well say: got here a lot earlier out of an inability to say no. 

It gets worse the kinder a person happens to be to us – and the more emotional the relationship. If we develop reservations about a partner, we’ll smile bravely when they speak of meeting up with their parents, moving in – or getting married. Who are we to have a contrary view? What gives us the right to turn away enthusiasm, simply because we happen to feel a little uncomfortable and intermittently somewhat nauseous?

There tends to be a history behind our feelings of obligation. Way back, people around us were likely not to have been overly interested in our sincere needs. What did it matter how we were feeling about school or a friend or the strange pain in our tummy – when they, the big important person, had something properly vital going on in their world? We might have needed to tread extremely carefully lest we encourage yet another bout of rage or self-pitying explosion. Probably best not to mention that we needed the bathroom or weren’t having fun in the museum or would really have liked another slice of cake. A  manic sense of obligation is the logical consequence of key people’s historic lack of obligation towards us.

The way out of our knots is to start to take them seriously. This isn’t just part of what everyone has to do. At this pitch, it’s an illness. We need to learn the foreign language of honesty: I don’t want to be with this person any more – even though we had some nice times. I don’t want to see this friend any more – even though they have some good qualities. I don’t need to give them what they want – even if they tell me they adore me.

We can be shocked by the discovery of our backbone. We had believed we were ‘nice’; now we sense an obligation to someone beyond the first person who believes we can be useful to them. 

Along the way, we learn that the consequence of disappointing people is almost never what we fear. Not everyone is like our fragile father or irate mother. Most adults can take a ‘no’, and may even be grateful to us for putting boundaries on their demands.

There is an option beyond the dichotomy of meek compliance on the one hand and volcanic fury on the other: we can be at once civil and firm, polite and definitive. ‘I would have loved to see you, but my health isn’t so good at the moment, so let me be the one to get back in touch when I’m up for it…’ ‘Thank you for your kind offer. I’d have loved to take you up on this, but circumstances make it sadly impossible, forgive me…’ ‘You’re an exceptional person, and I’ve so enjoyed our time together, but having thought deeply, I’m not ready to continue…’ There should be this sort of stuff at school for those of us who never got it at home – and remain awkward about asking where the bathroom might be.

We’ll have made progress when we learn to love being kind to ourselves more than we fear momentarily frustrating those who don’t deserve our lives.

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