Doing things for someone else so that they’ll be obligated to do something for you on the return trip is a dangerous trap. Worse, people don’t think they’re hanging out in that space, when they are.

When the trap of obligation is exposed, it sucks for everyone.

“I loved you all these years–and now you mean to tell me that you don’t want to continue this relationship?”

“I helped you promote your stuff–and now you won’t help me promote mine? That’s it–I’m never helping you promote another thing.”

“I made time for you–the least you could do is make time for me. It’s not too much to ask, especially give all the time I’ve given you.”

It creates a cycle where people don’t feel they can give an honest and true “no” to someone’s request. After all, they’re obligated, aren’t they? What if they say “no” and then the help or the love or the goodwill simply stop?

I’ve seen it happen, after all. I bet you have, too.


Six Truths about What Obligation Creates

Truth #1: The trap of obligation erodes trust between two people. If people are playing that game, we never know whether or not someone has done something nice because they believe in the person/the work, or if they’re being nice because they want something in return, later. The trap of obligation makes the establishment of new online relationships a tricky one, for me–is this person offering to support my work because they are genuinely behind it? Or are they hoping that supporting my work today means they get my support on theirs, later? And if I don’t have the time, resources, or desire to offer that support, what then?

Truth #2: The trap of obligation creates mediocre work. It becomes more difficult to offer up honest assessments when one is caught in the obligation of “being nice” because someone else has always been nice to you. Someone says, “Here’s my new thing/product/idea/what I’m doing with my life. What do you think?”

It becomes difficult to state what’s honest, because it’s critical: “You’re my friend and I love you–and my truth is that the writing you’ve shown me is flat in paragraph 4. My suggestion would be….”

We fear that then someone will email/call all of her girlfriends, angry at the person who dared to be honest, no matter how kindly the honest person tried to phrase it. To avoid that hassle, so often people are dishonest and decide to leave it at: “You’re my friend and I love you. Of course your writing is great!”

Or, they say nothing at all. The phone doesn’t ring. The email isn’t answered.

Truth #3: The trap of obligation creates resentment. Sally Sue asks Billy Bob for help with something, and she’s helped Billy Bob before. Billy Bob feels obligated to help, even though his truth is that he doesn’t really want to. He feels resentful at the system of obligation to reciprocate.

He’s a good person who wants to share, to help, to reciprocate, but just not in this instance–and he doesn’t like the heel at his neck that is the social expectation that you obligatorily reciprocate. If he says yes to Sally Sue, he feels resentful towards her for asking. If he says no, Sally Sue feels resentful that he said no, and calls him “selfish.”

Truth #4: The trap of obligation creates fear. Fear of being left, fear of not being helped, fear of not being loved. People say yes to obligations because they fear being left more than they fear gritting their teeth and doing it anyway.

Truth #5: The trap of obligations creates a life lived for others, rather than for yourself. The obligations pile up. There are work obligations, family obligations, friendship obligations. People feel overwhelmed. Sometimes they shut down entirely, not starting a new friendship or new endeavor simply to not feel obligated.

Truth #6: The trap of obligations creates isolation. Some of us start doing everything on their own, because they don’t want to ask for anything, for fear of being asked for something in return and not having the desire, energy or resources to accommodate the return of the favor. Then there’s the fear of being left, being labeled as “selfish,” being talked about behind one’s back, being unloved. It becomes easier to “just do it yourself” than be trapped in a cycle of obligations.

The Antidote to Obligation

Here’s the thing: you are not obligated.

You do not “have to.”

–And furthermore, no one owes you.

The antidote to obligation is to act from a place of love, every time.

It’s not love to help people in the hopes that you can stock up your “reciprocation savings account.” That’s manipulation.

It’s not love to get pissed if someone else doesn’t help you promote your shizzle after you helped them to promote theirs–that’s manipulation (why this belief persists online is beyond me; I don’t promote Byron Katie or Eckhart Tolle’s work because I expect them to promote me back, after all. So why do people expect this of each other on the internet?).

It’s not love (for yourself) to ask someone for feedback on a project and then get your panties in a twist when they actually offer it (didn’t you get exactly what you asked for?)–that’s manipulation.

Yes, there are all these pieces in here about helping one another and the necessity of working together. Let’s do that.

I’m just an advocate for doing it from a place that is honest, and true, and not manipulative.

I’m just an advocate for help and support that I can fully trust because I know that it comes from the wellspring of beautiful generosity that someone feels authentically inspired to offer.

I’m an advocate for the kind of love that allows people to say no, change their minds, and really show up as who they are, even if that means that it’s inconvenient for me, because then I know that I’m really getting that person–not a shell of that person who is afraid to say “no” for fear that I will leave.

I’m also an advocate for the kind of love that might have you choosing to create your closest and most reliable relationships from those people who share similar values, who want to share and reciprocate in the same ways that you do, and who are willing to communicate that.

When there’s a shared vision about what reciprocity looks like, no one is getting hurt.

And when there are obligations? Well, revisit #1-6, there.

Declare sovereignty from obligations. It’s a dangerous game, like playing with fire–and eventually, as the cliche goes, obligation will burn.