Duty. Noun. “A moral or legal obligation; a responsibility”.
When I got to thinking about the subject for today’s blog – duty – I had a peek in the dictionary to see exactly how the concept is defined. Those three words: “moral”, “legal”, “responsibility” – sound very serious and heavy. And that’s exactly the feelings we tend to have deep within when we think about it. Some people argue that duty doesn’t exist in society anymore – that thanks to Generation X, we’re all just looking out for ourselves. But I don’t know a single person who doesn’t do certain things because they feel they should. And these “shoulds” are usually related to feelings about a family member or someone who we think needs us, or who tells us they do.
I’m not going to look at the “shoulds” that accompany your feelings about work here, because your responsibilities are probably drawn into your contract and, ultimately, you have to do what is asked of you in your role or seek alternative employment. What I’m talking about are the relationships where you get a sinking feeling whenever the appear in your life: your mum’s number appearing as an “incoming call”, the playdate you realise you just have to return even though you intensely dislike your son’s new best friend, or the weekend you feel obliged to spend with the in-laws who you know disapprove of pretty much everything about you.
Why do we feel this way? Even the most assertive and self-confident person will carry a few of these “shoulds” in their bag, however emotionally enlightened they are. When duty calls in this way, we can run through a series of emotions with surprising speed. We may go from feeling a sense of irritation, passing through guilt, pity, resentment and then into full-blown anger. We often end up taking this anger out not on the people who have sparked this feeling in us, but on innocent bystanders, who become collateral damage in our passive aggression.
How can we better navigate our relationships when they are motivated by a sense of duty or obligation? Here are six steps that I’ve found helpful – I hope you do too.
1. Question your motives
First, be clear why you’re doing the thing you feel angry and resentful about. This isn’t the place to judge yourself, but try to be straight in your head as to why you’re doing something if you don’t want to. Is it because you think people will like you more? Because it’s what a good daughter should do? Because you think you can ask for a favour in return on another date? Because you’ll have your reward in heaven? Sometimes just being honest with yourself about why you’re doing what you’re doing can start a whole re examination of the thought processes. At this stage, you might even find it possible to drop the feeling altogether because you realise how ridiculous your “should” is, and feel freer to make a genuine choice as to whether to do the activity or not.
2. Set your own boundaries
If you’ve established that, yes, you are still going to see your mum/ visit the in-laws/ take your niece shopping and you are clear about why you’re doing it, give the process some thought. How could you make things more manageable or enjoyable for you? What amount of time would you like to dedicate to the activity? How often do you think it would be reasonable to call? Sometimes, our feelings of resentment grow because we feel out of control over a situation. Take back the power by setting some ground rules or boundaries. The other person doesn’t even have to know you’ve done this. But it will be good for you to know in advance that you’re going to spend two hours on Saturday morning helping your neighbour with their garden, and that’s it. You’ll make other plans for the rest of the day, ideally some you really enjoy doing. Just knowing in advance that you have an escape route or some mastery over the situation can be enough to help you retain a sense of calm and perspective.
3. Communicate clearly
This can be very tricky for a lot of us Brits. We beat around the bush, we prevaricate, we might accidentally say what we mean and then quickly follow it up with a lot of meaningless guff so that what was actually honest has been lost in it all. This doesn’t necessarily matter with close friends with whom the truth will eventually out. But indirect communication can be fatal when you’re dealing with a duty call, particularly because you can end up getting even more of what you don’t want. So, following on from the above step, once you’ve established your boundary, set it clearly and stop there. Say your aunty Joan who you’ve already spent the whole morning with, wants you to stay for another cup of tea. If you really don’t want to do this just say, “I’m afraid I can’t, but I’ll see you next Friday”, or something along those lines. Try not to add additional explanation or excuses. Not only does it weaken your position (Joan might find a really good reason why you don’t have to get back to the kids – in fact she’ll just call your husband now to make sure it’s ok) – but you lose your feelings of owning your power that you’d shored up. If you’re not used to saying “no” and not justifying it, or filling the silence that ensues, this may feel awkward for a bit, but it will pay dividends in the long term. And you might be surprised how other people like it now they know where they stand with you.
4. Deal with your feelings
When we begin to put boundaries in place with people to whom we feel a sense of obligation, a whole host of feelings can arise. The most common ones are shame, guilt, regret, sadness and anger. Often, these feelings are unconnected with what’s actually going on but are somehow linked to past events or people who triggered similar feelings in you a long time ago. Remember, feelings are just feelings. You don’t have to act on them. The more you let yourself feel a feeling, particularly a negative one, the more intensely you can sense it and locate it in your body, the quicker it will burn off and the sooner you’ll be free of it. If you can, try to separate your feelings about what’s happening from what actually is going on. Setting boundaries can bring up loads of old “stuff”. Deal with the stuff, and then carry on with your boundary.
5. Renegotiate regularly
Once you’ve set a boundary and communicated it with the other person, you don’t need to feel that it’s a one and done event, and that you’re now resigned to behaving in the same way with this person for the rest of your life. Be flexible. Now you know you can own your power within these situations, you may decide you can be even stricter as you feel more confident saying “no” to requests for your time or energy. Conversely, once you are feeling more relaxed and easy with saying no, you may feel less resentment towards the person and, ironically, more comfortable spending time with them! We’re humans, not robots, and it’s ok to listen to yourself and reset boundaries according to how you feel.
6. Create your own family
While the adage is true that “you can’t choose your family”, you can create a family of people you do want to spend time with. It’s perfectly natural to feel closer to a friend than, say, a sibling. For while they may not have shared the same formative experiences as you did with your brother or sister, you have probably sought out each other’s friendship because you share similar interests, values, or outlooks on life. Cultivate and give time and attention to this chosen family. They’ll be there for you when you’re struggling with your duty calls, and making plans with them will give you something to look forward to when you feel like you’ve done your time!