Obligation: What To Do When It Steals Your Joy

It’s easy to make excuses. To think of a million reasons why you haven’t fulfilled your obligation… whatever the obligation is. I didn’t write a blog article for about six months… why?

In my case – it was winter, work got busy, family life was busy, I published my first book…

The thing is though, I know that these aren’t really the issue. I blogged consistently through last winter – irrespective of the temperature or the lumens… And I was no less busy then than I am now. The book could have been a thing… but I don’t think so.

No, the reality is that my sense of obligation was sucking all the joy out of it.

So today, we’re going to take a bit of a look at obligations, drawing a little on Gretchen Rubin’s fabulous book, The Four Tendencies, along with a few other nuggets I’ve picked up along the way.


What is an obligation?

This might seem like an obvious question, but there are two kinds of obligation really. So we need to clear that up before we begin.

There are internal obligations, things that we expect of ourselves, and there are external obligations, things that others expect of us.

Well duh! I hear you say.

The thing is though, these aren’t necessarily equal in their importance to you. And you handle them a little differently.

So effectively, an obligation is the sense you have that someone (you or someone else) expects or requires you to do something.

The Four Tendencies and how different people respond to obligations

How we respond to obligations – from ourselves and from others – creates what Rubin refers to as The Four Tendencies.

If you respond well to both your own expectations and those of others, you are an upholder.

If you respond well to other people’s expectations but have a hard time meeting your own, you are an obliger.

If you are great at meeting your own expectations, but push back on other people’s, you are a questioner.

And if you plain outright reject expectations of any kind, you are a rebel.

I am a questioner. I generally have no trouble meeting my own commitments and expectations, provided that I have actually made a clear decision to commit. But I resent and resist other people’s expectations of me, at least until I can figure out a way to internalise it.

So what was I resisting?

There seem to be two sides to this.

First, I felt like I had to write articles because people were expecting them.

I should be thrilled about this – that’s the point of blogging, right?


But if I had a strong internal drive to do it, I wouldn’t resist this sense of obligation, I wouldn’t even notice it was there, so something else is going on. Which leads to…

Second, I felt unclear as to why I would keep doing it. I’d lost sight of who I’m trying to help. I don’t feel like I have a clear purpose anymore.

I’ve ‘undecided’.

What was really going on?

As I explored these questions (and plenty more) I noticed something that seemed quite important.

The word ‘obligation’.

The more I bounced it round, the more I realised that the problem was the word… (or more importantly, the word was coming from how I was thinking about the problem…) let me explain.

Obligation, to me, seems more like something that is done to us. To me. The word itself conjures up a desire (at least in me) to rebel. Yet it wasn’t a word anyone else was using… only me! Why was I choosing to use a word that, due to my own definition of it, was creating resistance?

And more importantly… what would happen if I changed the word?

The power of words

I do believe that our choice of words – deliberate or through habit – can provide a lot of insight into how our brains work… which by extension means that when you become aware of how your words are affecting your thinking, you can change your words. Sometimes the effects can be profound.

So I switched up ‘obligation’ – which was creating a sense of victim-hood in me – for commitment… a positive thing. Something that I make myself, rather than something that is ‘done to me’.

And here I am!

I still feel like there are some things I committed to do that I haven’t delivered on yet… a book review, a podcast interview. I know I will do these things when I can best give them my full attention.

In the meantime, I’m back to carefully choosing words. Not only for your benefit, but also for my own! Because at the end of the day, it’s one of the most powerful obligations any of us have.

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