Notepaper on refrigerator

Feeling a false sense obligation is a common problem with which many of us struggle.

Sometimes, our obligations are real. We have promised or contracted to do things that , although we may not feel like it, we need to follow through on.  If we don’t, we will experience guilt and remorse because we have not kept our word or have broken a promise.

At other times , however, we may feel obligated or have a sense of guilt when there is no rational or logical reason. This experience is called “false guilt”  and is the cause of much unnecessary unhappiness and frustration.

Recently, I experienced this problem myself as  the date for a professional conference,  which I didn’t really  want to attend, approached.  Although I had initially wanted to attend, as the time grew closer, it became obvious that being away would create a number of difficulties for me and my wife.   For days I felt uneasy and struggled with what to do feeling that I had no real choice and had to go . I thought since I had planned to go and had already paid for the airfare, conference and the like, what else could I do?  (You just can’t waste money like that and not go.)  Or can you ?

In talking with my wife, I realized that I had options and that I didn’t have to follow the advice of some old tapes that played in my head.  It is ironic that, even though I was an adult, I felt like a child who had to follow some nebulous rule.  The realization that I had options and that I had the right changed my mind, didn’t occur to me until after I had thought things through.

And so, having thought things through, I decided the cost I would forfeit by not going was not as significant as the hardship that I would  experience if I did go.  Thus,  I decided not to go.  The sense of relief that I felt  after making the decision was exhilarating and freeing !  This is the freedom that  you can feel as  well.

Here are some basic questions to help you detect a false sense of obligation and to help you discover viable options when you feel trapped or guilty:

  1. What is the basis of your sense of obligation ?
  2. What would you really prefer to do ?
  3. Are you aware that you are entitled to and have the right to choose to do what you prefer ?
  4. Is anyone harmed or wronged if you change your mind regarding a planned decision ?
  5. What are the results of a cost/benefit  analysis regarding the change ?

When all is said and done, it is true that we don’t always get to do what we want. However, there are many times when our erroneous expectations and our unexamined assumptions unnecessarily force us into going along with something and doing things that we don’t want to do.  A false sense of obligation  can force us  into doing things we don’t want to do which in turn causes feelings of resentment, unhappiness and adds to our stress.  On the other hand, a sense of false guilt arises when we fail to appreciate that we have a right to make our own decisions.  Taking time to think and carefully look at the reasons we feel obligated or guilty can result in the liberating and freeing experiences of  discovering options and given ourselves permission to make more favorable choices.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC        3 19 2018