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March 11, 2022

The Unhealthy Dynamics of Obligation (& How to Break Free).

 

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“I’ve got another confession to make,
I’m your fool,
Everyone’s got their chains to break,
Holding you,

Were you born to resist or be abused?
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?
Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you…”

“Best of You,” The Foo Fighters

 

Years ago, these song lyrics resonated with me, a survivor of abuse and bullying.

“Is someone getting the best of you?”

That is the million dollar question.

As someone who has been in recovery from these traumatic experiences, looking at things within the safe confines of therapy, I have seen my life play out like those lyrics sing. And I have learned, yes, indeedy, I am a Foo Fighter.

Not a bandmate of Dave Grohl’s. No, rather, I am Foo: Fawning-Over-Obligation. I am battling daily with this recognition, as I am learning more about the abuse I survived.

The Fog

Within, especially, narcissistic abuse recovery, there is a trusty acronym, “FOG,” that is often used to differentiate between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship. Distilled to its simplest explanation, typically, any relationship that contains fear, obligation, or guilt is not seen as a healthy, safe setting.

I have been in many foggy situations in my life. Yes, fear is dominant. Yes, guilt was also a suffocating force, adding its own misery to my life.

I can expound on both fear and guilt for days, especially concerning the abuse I have survived. But what has gotten more of my attention within the last few years has been that of “obligation.”

Obligation is a different animal, perhaps more nuanced, confusing, and complicated than fear or guilt. We can tap into and understand the reasons we are afraid or guilty. But obligated?

Why obligation, in the first place?

Obligation: we learn it

We are taught what we should and should not do since childhood. It’s part of making sure we, as children, are “brought up well.” We are good citizens, well-mannered, pleasing, and reflecting well on our parents and the other assorted adults around us. Most adults do not want to be regarded as people who create or tolerate hellions, demons, or rabid animals when it comes to children who are in their care. It’s not a good look.

So, the instruction lessons of obligation start as soon as we learn to walk and talk. The adults decide we need to learn how to be obligated so that we can be perceived as polite and make it in the world.

And, in darker extremes, if our family system is abusive, we learn obligation so that we learn how to keep a secret, protect the abuse and the abuser perpetuating the harmful behavior, and meet the needs of the toxic entity. It is in that toxic entity’s best interest, not ours, to train the impressionable children on how their “no” is wrong, especially when it comes to displeasing an adult.

“Yes,” being subservient, agreeable, manipulated, and quiet are the much-preferred responses. If children are “successfully taught” how to be obligated to another person, they are more easily controlled.

And this is what some people desire when it comes to the response of another person: being easily controlled.

Obligation: we live it

Feeling obligated, therefore, often feels normal and natural for us. We do it because it’s “right”; it’s expected of us.

Plus, many of us believe this obligation is “love.” We want to love and be loved. Obligation, in our minds, is the necessary tool to achieving that love.

How many of us that come from abusive families have believed, at some point, that our situations are “normal?” Everyone screams at each other. Everyone threatens, hits, and punches. Every family has terror and unpredictable chaos as a baseline environment.

This is “normal.”

Obligation is part of that normalcy package. It’s “normal” to do things we don’t want to do because family wills it so. It’s normal to feel pressured to go against our conscience and intuition because “it’s best for the family.” It’s normal to deny, suppress, and reject ourselves and who we truly are because “the family will not like it.”

Acting in this manner can be the path of least resistance, and many of us have learned that taking that path can spare us from getting hurt or violated more. We want to avoid further pain. So, we learn that obligation (at least in the short-term) can keep us safe and alive.

Survival. Obligation is survival.

Obligation: we love it. (We need it)

Survival, through obligation, is about protecting ourselves from more than just another in the family. Sometimes, it protects us…from us.

Ah, tricky. We don’t always want to face ourselves, do we? We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we can love having the excuse to be so much in survival mode that we never ask and answer for ourselves the basic of questions, like “Who am I?” and “What do I want?”

If a prehistoric caveman is running for his life from the sabre-toothed tiger chasing him down, this is not the best time for thoughtful, meditative self-reflection. No! You and I had better run! If we don’t, we’re going to die. Existential and luxurious questions of identity and purpose can wait when it comes to immediate life or death. Now, let’s get away from the tiger already!

Many of us prefer and choose, on some level, to stay in the fight-or-flight state of emergency because that’s less scary than facing the truth and discovering who we truly are. If we’re constantly in crisis, we cannot actively stop and change. Our lives can still be predictable, even as they are miserable, unhealthy, and unsafe. At least, they are familiar.

And we don’t want to admit the truth: we love the familiar. Obligation can, therefore, keep us safely entrenched in our familiar surroundings. No fear of the unknown for us.

We know this monster. And that’s comforting to us.

We are a freedom fighter

Why be a Foo Fighter then? Why fight against City Hall?

If you and I love the familiar so much, are scared of what freedom looks like, why fight against that at all? Why not just accept?

I believe there is something within each of us that demands self-choice. Without choice, there is no freedom.

Obligation, at its most toxic, strips us of choice, in glaring and subtle ways.

One of my favorite scriptures, especially as I try to clean up the mess of being a people pleaser:

“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” ~ Matthew 5:37

“OWN,” not obligation

Is someone getting the best of you and I? Does it have anything to do with our overdeveloped sense of obligation? Do we feel like you constantly “owe” someone, even if it costs us dearly?

Baby steps of healing can start when you and I start to ask and answer what we truly own. Maybe some of us have never contemplated that concept. “You mean it’s not all my fault?” That may be the first question we need to ask and answer for ourselves.

And here’s the short answer: no, it isn’t.

Obligation can dominate our lives; however, if we intrinsically believe everything is our fault, translation, our responsibility.

Job. Duty. Lot in life. Role and function.

Whatever the semantics, it all comes back to how we give, even to the point of giving out and how we self-sacrifice.

Recently, I learned a succinct healing principle that has served me well: self-care first!

Who would have thought that taking a shower, exercising, eating healthy, getting sleep, and saying “no” first were all so mercenary? But they are! Part of the fight over obligation for those of us susceptible to it is to fight—fight for ourselves.

That is where our true obligation lies.

~

 

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