Almost everyone feels that there are things that we have to do, be, say or contribute to others, especially after we have received something from them. Our trained hyper-awareness to the affairs of others contributes heavily to our weight of perceived obligations. I have no interest in defining why we might feel obligated. My coverage in past articles of our preoccupation with how others perceive, assess and judge us has receive an overabundance of attention. What I would like to focus on here is what it is that we feel we might lose if we don’t address our accepted obligations. Notice, I said accepted. There are many obligations that others attempt to impose on us that we might ignore or blow off owing to the fact that their assumption has no merit or that we recognize that it is simply a ploy to extort favors or preferred behaviors of us. When we accept an obligation, whether by desire, need or social expectation, we go through a process that determines what it is that must be returned or repaid. Within that assessment is also a consideration of what we will be faced with should we neither acknowledge nor repay our perceived “debt.”
It would seem obvious to most of us that if we neglected to repay or return favors that future favors from the same person would not be forthcoming. We would also recognize that our reputation with that person and others they are connected to might suffer. But there is still an assessment or judgment that occurs within us on a deeper level.
Our interplay with others is always a factoring of our regard, or lack of same, for the person we’re interacting with. Do we like them? Do we respect them? Do we need them for survival? Our social connections? For future favors? It’s a constant process of balancing and weighing our options on continuous changes. Because our interpersonal relations are so fluid and life circumstances seem to change just as quickly, our standards for judging how we decide to behave can be difficult, erratic and sometimes downright unnerving. Because of this fluidity we are encouraged to move our focus toward establishing some sort of value system or code within which we can feel some sense of consistency in order to base our decisions on. Sometimes the boundaries we’ve set up for our behavior can also be challenged and we find ourselves having to compromise on things that leave us feeling very uncomfortable about where and to whom we’ve assigned our value. If we are a person who tends to put more stock in what others think of us than what we think about ourselves, our compromising may feel much more compelling and limited as we’re being held hostage by our beliefs.
According to Etymonline.com obligation is defined as a binding or a pledging. We can understand what a binding implies. All of us are familiar with the term as it applies to contracts. However, the pledging implies a voluntary agreement. So, there are things that we agree to do or be and there are other things that we feel bound or constrained to have to do. We will juggle these two approaches depending on how the person we’re obliged to feels and whether they feel that we may evade the “payback.”
If we believe that we lack self-esteem or Self-Trust, we may tend to substitute for our perceived inferiority or inadequacy with an obligation where it acts as a justification of our value and competency in the eyes of others. Or, simply put, we may tend to acquiesce more toward being obligated as an opportunity or even requirement to compensate for our perceived inadequacy. In even a simpler form, we might tend to more readily agree to being over committed to others if we believe that we lack value, Self-Trust or competence. In this case I think we would see our obligation as more based on our choices and beliefs than anything else. If we feel that we have been cornered into agreeing with an obligation, we will see it more in terms of a coercion. This second perspective will foster a corresponding anger, indignation and resentment in us toward the person to whom we’ve become indebted. This anger will subconsciously be felt at ourselves for allowing the obligation to take effect but will be directed at the person “imposing” it. The lack of Self-Trust and feeling of inadequacy will be what create the feeling that we should have known better. This all feels very convoluted but I think you get the idea.
The Japanese have a name for obligation. They call it giri (pronounced giddee). The basic perspective is that if you don’t feel an obligation, you don’t have one. Failure to follow through on your acknowledged obligations will result in shame which dovetails with the effects of a lack of Self-Trust. However, fulfilling obligations in old Japan was seen more in terms of applying honor rather than confirming inadequacy and its existence through feeling obligated to compensate for it.
In our culture it seems like committing to a new obligation is to be avoided like the plague except where we’ve already committed. Being seen as moving toward fulfilling one is seen as work or a counter to being lazy. This is so deeply ingrained in us that we even find it difficult accepting a compliment due to fear that an additional obligation or request may not far behind.
It is not uncommon to find individuals who perfect ways of obligating others in order to be “kept” and taken care through creating a reservoir of people from whom they are owed “favors.” They do this by strategically and socially manipulating coerced commitments. We see this, accept it, allow it and even expect it business. It is also carried over by most of the same people in their personal relationships but is generally hidden and vehemently denied if exposed to others. It’s almost like an unwritten rule that it is perceived as shameful by most if carried over into their personal lives. In a twisted way, there are some who are proud of its carry over. This practice in business and its carry over is able to occur due to two distinct reasons. First, because we are such a materialistic culture we have come to only seeing giving and receiving in terms of tangible rewards and advantages and, second, because most of us have been raised with such battered self-esteem our perceived feelings of unworthiness leave us no other option than to manipulate others into tending our needs so we can feel valued, loved and responsible. This type of reasoning may seem radical and outrageous but we must realize that there is a plethora of undercurrents occurring within our social structure that allow “wiggle room” for absolving ourselves of our accountability. This is due to the existence of so many conflicting moral imperatives in our “melting pot” culture.
So, is obligation a necessary “evil” in our culture? I think not. I believe it is simply a response or counter social evolution created to compensate for our tendency to evade accountability due to our fear of inadequacy which has been inbred throughout our contemporary child-rearing practices. Is there another way? Yes. If we were to be raised to have trust in our own judgment and decision making potential, the need for obligation, especially the coercive brand, would evaporate into the love, compassion and consideration that naturally develops when we can feel loved, valued and competent about who we are and can truly believe that about ourselves. To wit: healthy people have no need to obligate others. They simply follow their heart and all that is needed is taken care of.