We’re officially into the 12 Weeks of Self-Esteem of Self-Esteem Torment which runs from mid-November until just after Valentine’s Day when the fog wears off. The stress that people experience at this time of year about family coupled with the great number of people who agree to family arrangements with gritted teeth and who brace themselves for lots of drama, points to a great deal of acting from a sense of obligation. I empathise- my family are crackerjacks and decided to have an Alexis Colby and Krystle Carrington style showdown on Christmas Day last year, furs flying and all -but all of this family angst that so many of us go through got me thinking: Doesn’t all of this obligation that we pile ourselves up with cause us to come from a place of being forced and imposed upon? Doesn’t it say a lot about the way in which we see ourselves and our family when we say yes not because we want to, but because we feel that we have no choice and are fearing reprisals?
An obligation is where we feel morally or legally bound to do something.
It can also be that we experience something that causes us to feel a debt of gratitude, and of course debt is linked to owing which in itself creates an obligation to make repayments. The more obligations that we imagine ourselves to have (or that are imposed upon us), is the more that it begins to feel like a loan shark situation where no matter what we repay, the debt increases and leaves us feeling imprisoned and so duty bound to feel resentful.
Faux obligations are requests or expectations styled as obligations when they’re not. They’re duties and rules that aren’t actual rules that are treated as legitimate obligations, so they’re things we’re ‘supposed’ to do regardless of whether we want to or not.
We’re most likely to feel our strongest sense of obligation with family and this is regardless of whether we had a great, good, OK, bad, terrible or non-existent relationship with them. I can attest that in the past, I’ve felt loaded with obligations by family that I’d hardly spent time around in more than twenty years! Sometimes it’s them regarding and treating us as being in a ‘child role’ and sometimes it’s us feeling caught between a rock and a hard place where we in theory know that we’re an adult but we don’t want to ruffle feathers and invite criticism, conflict, or even rejection. We want to be ‘liked’ even though if we don’t have good boundaries, we won’t like us (or them for that matter…).
Most of the things that we feel obliged to do, family or not, are not legal obligations, so that means that when we feel obliged, we put ourselves in a bind because we feel as if the ‘house rules’ (read: family rules or even rules we’ve assumed) are principles about the “right way” to conduct ourselves.
These are a mix rules, norms and expectations that we feel fit our image of family as well as messages that have been directly communicated or inferred about what we are obliged to be and do. It becomes a question of us being right or wrong as opposed to whether we want to do something and whether what is being asked of or expected of us is fair and reasonable, or indeed even right or our responsibility.
What we feel obliged to do with non-family, very often feeds back to rules and ideas about life that have been fed to us about how we ‘should’ be that we’ve interpreted as pointers about how to be full stop, hence why so many of us have familial relationships on repeat with friends, coworkers and romantic partners – trying to right the wrongs of the past, looking for validation and trying to meet unmet needs results in setting us up for painful patterns.
Here’s the thing: Sure, we definitely have some obligations in life but everything feels and in effect expresses itself a lot better when we come from a place of desire and authenticity. It’s less teenager or even little kid dragging their feet and more about choice and owning our own and letting others own theirs.
What we want to do is often very different from what we feel obliged to do and if there’s too big a difference and the reasons why we feel so obliged are based on an overactive guilt thyroid and feeling ‘less than’, it’s a recipe for pain.
- The person who wants to go and see their parents once a week but feels obliged to go there three times, has a whole burdensome thought process attached to those extra visits.
- The person who wants to go for Thanksgiving dinner but feels obliged to stay for a few days even though staying more than one day always results in drama, ends up having a few stressful days instead of one good one that acknowledges that the family typically has only enough good tidings credit to last a day.
One of the biggest reasons why we don’t acknowledge where we are loading us down with faux obligations is that we fear being “selfish” but unfortunately if we don’t start taking responsibility for our well-being and also for our side of the street in the relationship, resentment will put a dent in it anyway.
And we’re not exactly being selfless when we do things out of a sense of duty because we’re not doing it wholeheartedly if duty hasn’t given way to, Well I want to do it anyway and I’ll enjoy giving without an expectation of what I should get back. We also forget at times that most people feel uncomfortable being around somebody who they sense doesn’t really want to be there or who has issues that they’re not voicing but that are showing through tension and even passive aggression.
What we also need to admit when we saddle ourselves up with these faux obligations is that on some level, we feel as if the person in question has not met what we feel are their obligations to us, hence we hope to create a tipping point and when they continue to disappoint us and/or we are not acknowledged and validated in the way that we hope to be, we feel short-changed.
Each time we act primarily out of obligation, we’re acting like a kid who still doesn’t have choices.
Family (and anyone else who seems to be unclear about our boundaries), will not know that we are different to how they perceive us or what the boundary lines are, if we don’t speak up or step up, which we can still do with compassion and respect.
It’s not easy to draw a line with family who have come to expect automatic compliance but the sky isn’t going to fall down either. Often the amount of drama that we anticipate is far less than the actuality plus we forget that when we do step up for ourselves instead of making us small, that we feel better about us which makes for a better relationship.
- Get honest about what you want versus what you feel obliged to do. This gives you an opening to bring awareness into the equation. Reflect and find the middle ground – a solution you can live with.
- Be honest about your motivations. I talk about this in episode one of The Baggage Reclaim Sessions but in a nutshell, locate the hidden agenda so that you don’t enter into anything from a place of trying to ‘get’ something. If you’re looking for reward or trying to avoid something, or trying to cultivate an image or even trying to ‘make’ them change, revise your motivations.
- Acceptance of your family does not mean agreeing with everything they do. It’s more live and let live from a place of reality.
- Approach everything from a place of being a grown-up. Yes you are somebody’s child but you are not a child. Respect doesn’t mean regression. If you put you in a child role, invariably you end up feeling like one and being treated like one.
- If you’re not going to do something (e.g. visit, have dinner etc), stop dragging it out and let them know. Don’t leave it until the last minute as aside from annoying the hell out of them, you’re also likely to backtrack and go because you feel bad about leaving it to the wire, which will make you feel worse. Be proactive rather than waiting for the awkward conversation and dreading the call or message – via phone or email seem to be the most effective but choose the appropriate channel for the relationship.
- Easy on the fluff. The bigger the explanation, the more it sounds like justifying, excuses or even lying. Start with the nuts and bolts and keep it lean. “I’m not going to be able to make it for Thanksgiving / Christmas / whatever it is this year”. Don’t assume that the silence afterwards needs to be filled with fluff or even backtracking. Hold fire. Most of the readers who’ve I’ve helped to make arrangements over the last few weeks did not need to get into a big explanation.
- Any follow-on explanations need to be brief.
- Be compassionate rather than guilty. “I understand that this is a surprise…” or “I understand you’re disappointed…” but you don’t need to fix their feelings; you can’t. I’m not saying that their reaction will be rational but if they get upset or feel disappointed, this is OK. Us humans aren’t fond of change but it is needed. Give it time.
- Say what you will do (if appropriate). “I won’t be there on ______ but I’ll see you on X date for lunch/dinner/fill in the blanks.”
- Keep it real. If like me you’ve pretty much spent every holiday with your family, it’s madness to beat you up over opting out this time!
- It’s OK to not want to spend every occasion, holiday with family. Your needs matter too. I love my family but they love a big ‘ole dramatic Christmas and I want to chill out and enjoy Em and the kids. I’m not going to ask them to change but my version of things is OK too.