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Obligation: The Ties that Bind Your Intuition

An article by Jennifer Halls

Picture this...

It's the monthly neighborhood BUNCO game night, and once again, you have to bring your famous shrimp dip. You brought it one time last year, and everyone immediately asked that you make it every month. It's a bit of a pain to make, and it's not cheap, either. Plus, you don't really feel like BUNCO this month. As a matter of fact, the only reason you're going is so you won't hear how everyone missed your amazing appetizer. So, you begrudgingly go to the store, whip up your specialty and take it to the game, resenting the fact that you're at BUNCO instead of curled up with this great book you just started and the fact that you're obligated to be the Shrimp Dip Girl every month.

Obligations. Everyone feels their pull, the ways that we are morally or socially expected to behave. We feel obligations toward our partners, our work, our children, our jobs. To be considered a good wife/husband/parent/employee, there are certain duties we think we are bound to perform; duties that just "are," and don't allow us to choose. It makes sense, the word obligation does stem from the Latin obligàre, to tie to: ob, to + ligàre, to bind. And binding implies "no choice." If we are bound, therefore we must. Are we still back in the dark ages where we have to be told what is right? I believe we have evolved beyond that, especially when we involve our intuition.

Put in more simple terms, moral obligation is the duty/compunction to do the right thing. But who decides the best action? What is the right thing? Not everyone will have the same idea. At the end of the day, obligations are duties that are laid upon us by others and can become internalized. Have you ever had anyone say to you, "You have to do thus-and-such. You're obligated." Yes, sometimes that voice can even be our own. Consider the idea that this is just a way to manipulate you into doing something that you might not want to do, something that you might not even feel good about doing. Going ahead and doing it is settling for a choice made for you by someone else, without the wisdom of your intuition.

But how can fulfilling our obligations be anything but the right thing to do? Aren't we being responsible? Aren't we acting like adults? Aren't we accepted by our peers based on how well we fulfill our tasks? Well, here's the thing about obligations: they simply are mental constructs that exist solely to make us behave in what our culture has defined as correct ways. Having obligations or feeling obliged to behave in a certain way robs us of our ability to choose, which in turn gives rise to resentment. And when we're stewing in the resentment borne of obligation, our intuition shuts down.

In believing that we have no choice, we seal off our innate connection to that which exists to keep us present and allows us to make the correct choices for ourselves--intuition.

Everyone has intuition. Everyone. And that inner voice's "job," at least in part, is to assist us in making the wisest choices for ourselves as individuals. It's not a voice that says "This is the right thing to do if you're going to be a good scout leader/parent/PTA member/deacon, etc." Intuition says, if we are open to it, "This might be the wisest choice given the current scenario." And what is right for you may or may not always correlate to your obligations.

For your intuition to work, look at obligations as choices. It's not that you're obligated to make that shrimp dip every month, it's that you choose to make the shrimp dip for whatever reasons you might have. Our heroine thinks she has to make the dip every month, when in fact, she has many choices:

  • show up to the BUNCO game without the shrimp dip
  • make the dip and eat it herself while reading her book
  • bring some chips and salsa to the BUNCO game instead
  • stop by the BUNCO game just to say hi and drop off the shrimp dip, then go home and read

Granted, all choices carry consequences, some comfortable and some uncomfortable. But the point is, there are choices. And once you are able to frame "obligations" as "choices," you free up your intuition to help you make the wisest choice for you. To get a little “me” time, you must be willing to have a few disappointed BUNCO buddies. On the other hand, you might decide that the satisfaction you get from making shrimp dip and watching others enjoy it is a big enough draw to get you to BUNCO, dip in hand. There's not necessarily a right or wrong choice, but there is a choice. There is always a choice.

Sure, the shrimp dip scenario doesn't involve earth-shattering consequences, but the same ideas apply to more monumental choices. Why do you think it is that we say we "are obligated to go to work," but we "decide (choose) to take a mental health day." What we're really saying is that we have no choice but to go to work. Except for when we choose not to. That doesn't really make much sense, does it? Just as we choose to take a day off, we choose to go to work, too. Of course, the consequences of habitually not going to work are generally negative and pretty severe, but we always have a choice.

Once we can look at obligation through the framework of choice, we can decide whether or not to meet them. When we choose, we are empowered and in control. And when we feel empowered, there is no need to be resentful. It is much more empowering to say, "I'm making the shrimp dip tonight because I know it makes my friends happy," than to say, "I'm making that stupid dip again because I have to."

Think of it this way: Intuition is empowering because you have to be in the moment to hear it and follow it. When you act out of obligation, you aren't really present at all. You're on autopilot. Autopilot is great in some situations. You don't always want to have to think about everything you have to do. "How do I unlock a door? How do I empty the dishwasher?" But in other situations, autopilot can be bad news. If you, as the pilot, decide to switch on autopilot, you are all of a sudden unable to adapt. When the pilot is actively flying an airplane, she is able to alter course to deal with obstacles. If a storm pops up, the pilot can climb to fly above it. If the weather looks too bad, he has the option to change course to another airport or even make an emergency landing. Autopilot just flies on and on, never deviating and never making course corrections. And flying into a storm on autopilot is never a wise move.

Hopefully by now you're beginning to realize that an obligation omits the power to choose and can feel like a forced choice dictated by our social and moral norms. Every time we give in to an obligation, every time we deny we have a choice in the matter, we are giving up a little bit of our power. While I'm certainly not endorsing immoral behavior, I do think that we have a responsibility to ourselves to listen to our intuition in every situation and take the wisest course. Much of the time, we will choose to act in accordance with societal norms, but we should always remember that we have a choice. When we feel forced to do something--when we feel we are obligated--it is natural to feel resentment towards those to whom we feel obligated. On the other hand, when we make a conscious choice to act in a certain way, there is little room for resentment.

Let's talk about the feelings involved in obligatory social transactions. Back to the BUNCO. If you make the shrimp dip because you have to and then take it over to the game, you might end up having a good time. But it is also likely that you end up just going through the motions while you really wish you were home. Of course, the other BUNCO players will sense that you're not really into the game and start to wonder why you even showed up at all. Then, they start to feel a bit resentful of you, sitting there all grumpy and bringing everyone down. The negative energy on your end is picked up by the others and is reflected back to you. This leads to no one having fun.

Think about that the next time you find yourself falling into the obligation trap. When you act from your inner knowing, not only do you make wiser choices by being present, your actions will mirror your feelings. Allow your intuition to be your guide. Like a muscle, your intuition can atrophy if you don't exercise it.

Whenever you face an obligation, frame it as a choice and let your intuition aid you in making the wisest choice. Remember that obligation can be a form of manipulation, that it switches you to autopilot, and that feelings can get hurt all the way around. Save yourself the pain and use your intuition. It's why you have it. Oh, and pass the shrimp dip, would you?!

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