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The Terrain Between Commitment and Obligation

The terrain between commitment and obligation Where the lines between what we choose to do and have to do begin and end.

A few weeks ago, I started with a new client who hired me to help her explore why on earth she was staying in a job which in her words, “was draining the life out of her.” She didn’t need the job for money right now, she has a successful real estate venture up and running (providing her the income she needs to support her family) and a side consulting business that she’s eager to invest her time into. “I have so many ideas, even clients waiting for me, but I don’t have the time to put into the new business as long as I have the day job. And the day job is absolutely not working for me, but I can’t leave yet.” What’s going on? “Oh, I’m committed to staying and helping my friend grow her team. She brought me in, she has more hiring and training to do, she’s got a lot on her plate, and I’m committed to helping her.” And the story continued to pour out of her, all the ways this longtime friend (now her manager) had invited her into the organization when she’d wanted to land somewhere stable between business ventures, how this friendship goes way back, and how many times they’ve been there for each other. Does her friend understand how miserable she is in this job? “I’ve never told her directly, but she knows me, and I’m not sure how good I am at hiding at how done I am. Like I said, I’m committed to her and seeing this through.” My client is done with this job in every way, but commitment to her friend is holding her in place. So, is that commitment? Is that an obligation? Is there a difference between the two? By the look on my client’s face when I offered the word ‘obligation,’ I’m starting to think so. I’m sure that’s true for all of us. We have people who helped us, and in many cases, we’re committed to them in return. We’re committed to reciprocity, a sense of balance and fairness. We commit ourselves to the people, the teams and the organizations that we care about and have done well by us. That commitment is a choice. We keep choosing it. We’re in it, again and again, even when it’s hard. Think relationships, creative work, a fitness routine, faith. In a commitment, there’s a draw, a desire, a want. I WANT what happens as a result of that commitment. Being committed to something doesn’t mean it’s easy, only that it’s worth it. What my client notices is that while her love and commitment for her friend is unwavering, her feelings about staying in this job as a form of honoring that friendship are heavy, devoid of purpose or connection, burdensome. This has tipped into obligation. Experiencing her feelings is helping her know the line between commitment and obligation. As we get older, there are things each of us has to do – activities with extended family, annual physicals and taxes come to mind. At first glance, these seem to carry the weight, the unpleasantness of obligation. I try to zoom out a little to rediscover the want attached to those obligations: a strong connection to our relatives, good health, being in good graces with the IRS. This sometimes helps something I feel obliged by to be a little less burdensome – I can move back into ‘commitment’ territory – a choice I’m making. Sometimes all the zooming out in the world won’t reveal a ‘want’ behind the things I have to do…some social events, some ‘voluntold’ opportunities at school…it’s just not possible to find the meaningful purpose in there. Now I know I am in obligation territory, and I have some decisions to make. I’m learning, like my client, that commitment and obligation can feel quite entangled. I might care deeply about a relationship, but an ask from that same person to take on a piece of work that isn’t aligned for me starts to carry the dreaded weight of obligation. The negotiation of the nuance between where a purpose-filled, worth-it commitment ends and a leaded obligation begins is ongoing work for each of us. For me, for my client, this is not about having an answer, but about asking ourselves better questions. It’s an exercise in letting those feelings be a guide, honoring ourselves, and having courageous conversations. It’s certainly a work in progress. I’d love to know: how are you navigating the terrain between commitment and obligation?

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