Are We Obliged to Feel Obligated…Or Is There Another Way?

January can feel like one almighty crash back down to ‘real life’ after the somewhat surreal suspension of reality that is Christmas and it was interesting, as this year got going, to observe how I was both part of that and somehow not.

For those of us who work for ourselves and especially those who rely on the creative juices flowing before they can even get started, it can feel like the slow grinding of rusty wheels as we get back into the swing. Ours isn’t the short-sharp shock of returning to a desk thickly strewn with empty Quality Street wrappers and abandoned Christmas cards and feeling, instantly, like we’ve never been away (and believe me, I’ve been there). It’s the challenge of having to drag an iota of motivation from somewhere and pump it full of enough fresh-squeezed inspiration to get going as though from scratch and, all the time, with the nagging voice in our ear that tells us that this “needs to be” our best work yet. No pressure then! For those that work alone, its the combined shock and pleasure of all the hubbub of Christmas and family being abruptly switched off, the house emptied and of finding ourselves – at last – all alone with our thoughts and with nothing left to keep us from, well, getting on with it!

Don’t get me wrong, I tend to be brimful of new creativity, burgeoning ideas, exciting new urges and great intentions at this time of the year as the very concept of having a whole ‘new’ year spread out in front of me can infect me with much the same enthusiasm as does a blank canvas just waiting to be painted.

The times that I experience the most difficulty with ‘getting going’ are when I feel I have to do certain things, in a certain order, to a certain timescale – and it always hits me hardest at this time of year, when the mule-like quality that is familiar to those who know me well becomes particularly overt and stops me in my tracks as soon as any kind of imperative comes along. Welcome the January stalemate!

As this week got going, I was already struggling to reconcile what I wanted to be doing with what I should be doing when a couple of events got me thinking about the whole idea of ‘being obligated’ and how that affects us or, more often, serves to keep us from reaching the greatest heights of personal achievement. Like some sort of glass ceiling on our capabilities, obligation seems to turn us back in on ourselves and stop creativity in its tracks.

To be clear what we are talking about here, the OED definition of ‘obligation’ is  “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment“. Sound like a familiar component of your life?

The difficulty I felt I had, in particular, this week was that there seemed to be an overriding necessity to get straight back to my paints, post haste.  After all, I haven’t painted for over a month now and I have galleries expecting new work, a commission to fulfil, an exhibition coming up, submissions to start planning for…if I don’t start painting IMMEDIATELY, and given how long it takes for new work to be completed, dried, varnished, framed – it could be months before anyone sees anything new from me; they might even forget I exist! The voice in my head seemed to be chanting a mantra that only I could hear: “Come on, come on, I have to get on with it, no time to hang around now…get those paints out”. And the more I heard this, the less inclined I felt to get started.

Helen White Artist

The thing is, for the first few days of January, I just didn’t feel like painting…not quite yet; it just didn’t feel right, the inspiration wasn’t there, the thought of sitting over an easel simply wasn’t grabbing me at all as I yawned my way back into early mornings and the school run. Above all, I just wanted to be left alone to write.  In fact, the urge to write has taken me over so much this week that I’ve been waking at 5 or 6 am. to find fully-formed sentences pouring from my head so rapidly that I’ve had to jump out of bed and perch shivering on the edge of the bath just to tap them into my iPad!

All things being equal (now there’s an interesting phrase within the context of feeling obligated, since it means “something not affected by external factors”…), shouldn’t I be celebrating this creative burst and running with it? Still, the dark form of an overriding obligation to be doing something else continued to cast a dark shadow over all of my enjoyment of easing into my January and going with the flow of my creativity for much of this week…and that’s when I started to see that all things aren’t equal in a world so hooked-up on our entrained sense of being morally and legally bound. Good grief, most of us even carry around a vague sense that as soon as we are enjoying ourselves as much as I do when I’m in the flow, we must be doing something wrong or letting somebody down…

It occurred to me that, in this case, the sense of obligation I was labouring under was largely, if not entirely, self-created; one of those self-made prison cells that we are socially conditioned to construct for ourselves prior to stepping inside, locking the door and, often, throwing away the key! With new-found clarity, it struck me that the people to whom I felt obligated weren’t making me so at all – in fact, they couldn’t be more reasonable, applying no timescales, no demands of any kind (that’s one of the reasons I do what I do),which makes me very I’m fortunate, I know, since my life hasn’t always been this way.  In fact the main person banging the drum shouting “jump to it” in my world is me!  On closer scrutiny, I realised that it was just force of habit making me feel overwhelmed before I’d even started, as though I was looking for an imperative whose line I needed to toe, after years of jumping to the sound of life’s starting gun at the beginning of each new year.

English: Alarm clock 日本語: 目覚まし時計

This feeling , I realised, was the ghost of a thousand other obligations that I’d been under across all the busy years of my life, stretching back to earliest childhood, triggering a well-practised response that was attempting to hurl me back into the safely familiar mind-prison that had been my home for many of those years-gone-by. Once in there, its almost easier than having to think –  we just have to knuckle-down and get on with what we have to do, drawing comfort from some vague sense that we belong to the world’s biggest club and are a loyal compatriot of all those other people who subscribe to this mass perception that life brings endless toil and worry, is a place of hardship and struggle and that there is never enough time to get everything done!

What’s more, the walls of this imaginary prison cell are often ironclad with all the heavy symbolism of commerce that runs deep through our culture because, as soon any kind of transaction takes place (involving that all-powerful token of servitude that is coming under ever closer scrutiny as its systems crumble; namely, money) the well-trained subconscious declares from the depths of its social conditioning that our time is no longer our own; it has been purchased.  In fact (and the syntax is crucial here), our training at sub-conscious level leads us to understand this as we have been purchased!

  • If you dont know what I’m talking about, look to your own life and ask what are you working on right now that you would rather have put much further down the priority list except for the fact that you feel that your time has been purchased by another – either directly or indirectly?

To be purchased by another is nothing short of serfdom, bondage, slavery; an outmoded practice, you may think, and yet it still persists in our minds to a very large degree, kept alive by the fact that we continuously feed this belief to ourselves (and our children). The alternative is to declare to ourselves and to others that what we do is what we choose to do and that we are willingly exchanging our talents for things that we want or need. Subtle difference, you may say – but the latter allows us to exist in a state of empowerment, the former makes us feel we have all but no choice in the things that we do and, in thinking this, we ensure it becomes our reality sooner or later.

The concept of being “at work” is another mental construct that has become so heavily laden with all the negative associations of our culture that it can have the immediate effect of imprisoning us the moment we slip those all-powerful words “I Am” in front of it (and to explain why you may want to carefully consider what you use to follow up the words “I Am…”, I refer you to James Twyman). Had this been a typical January “its time to get back to work” moment for me, I would have found myself a slave to the sense of obligation that was doing its best to hover over me, would have yoked myself to my most urgent task (determined by “where the money was”) in a way that would have had me employing work methods and timescales that were counter-intuitive and the very least likely to draw out the creative spark and inspiration that I rely upon to produce my best results. There’s something that most artists will agree upon and that is that great or even good art cannot be whipped out of you, on demand!

As it was, I found myself stepping back to where I was able to witness these old patterns taking shape and so recognise that there was a way out, I could alter the way I felt about this in an instant. By the simple process of communicating realistic expectations to those to whom I had been feeling obligated, by explaining my thoughts, my intentions, my preferred timescales, by being honest with them (now there’s a radical idea!) I managed to dismantle the very walls and doors of my self made lock-up and find myself in a new and gloriously expansive space at the start of this fresh new year. Phew!

Happy new year

  • Irony is that, now that utter freedom has been reinstated, I am starting to feel the creative juices flowing in respect of the very project that, just a day or so ago, felt like a burdensome obligation. Its as though the lid has been lifted and I’m starting to flow. Funny that!

That ties in with the fact that, creatively speaking, I’ve always experienced a conflict between what it is to be in flow and the concept of being obligated (and this is a conflict shared by many creatives, one which often trips them up on the way to making a commercial success of what they do) so that as soon as any kind of imperative comes into play, I start to feel the creative juices all but dry up. It used to be a paradox that flummoxed and frustrated me but I find I now accept it as part of the dichotomy of all that I Am. It also tells me that the state of being obligated, of having to do something, being forced by something outside of yourself (and you will come to recognise what comes from outside once you realise that anything truly motivated from the inside can only come from a place of love – put quite simply, it will feel right!) is a left-brain construct and is not a natural component of ‘flow’. The very fact of striving to be creative, on demand, acts exactly like putting your foot on the breaks of creative flow since there are no imperatives in that state – it just is.

This works on the same principle as the fact that we can only experience flow in ‘the now‘ whereas, as soon as we become embroiled in a sense of obligation, we are using the experiences of the past to worry about the outcome of the future – and that has the effect of keeping us from a full and meaningful experience of what is happening in the present moment, which is all we have.

  • Any wonder that people who live their life heavily burdened by obligation can seem to go through most of it as though they are not really with us, their minds taken off elsewhere and the vibrancy of their immediate experiences dimmed to something they hardly seem to notice!

A recent circumstance involving my daughter demonstrated to me just how quickly and thoroughly our children become infected with this whole culture of doing things out of a sense of obligation rather than feeling they are allowed, or even well-advised, to follow their heart.  In this case, it was a teacher laying down the obligation and it was disarming to  witness one so young having to struggle with the feeling that they had to do what was being asked of them by another (something outside the remit of lessons and which should have been a matter of choice) rather than what felt comfortable or right. I now see that I need to double my efforts to remind her – and everyone else –  that the very fact that you feel uncomfortable with a set of circumstances is a fairly big clue that it is transgressing that intrinsic part of yourself, the part of you that you can be sure always has your best interests at heart. Unfortunately for our young ones, they are born with this innate wisdom but it is generally trained out of them by the time they are just 7 or 8 years old!

  • Just like the story of the young elephant who is tied to a tree for so long that, by the time he is an adult, he can be tied to a small twig and will act as though he has no choice but to stay there!

The alternative to all this reliance on compulsion to make things happen in our world is to learn to interact with each other – primarily – in a place set away from all the muddle of perceived obligation so that we can find the intersection-point of our mutual needs and desires, combined with the various skills we have to offer, and use that as our starting point.  In so doing, we could sweep away a great many of the current stresses that we toil under, the sea of imperatives, deadlines and over-stretch that leads to short term misery, longer term health issues and a generally over inflated idea of the hardship of our life-condition (that old adage “life’s a bitch and then you die” that so many people seem to live by). I am quite convinced that we are actually NOT here to interact with each other in a way that results in so much stress, hardship and tit-for-tat pressure upon each other; a system that relies upon training our young to jump to it as soon as the volume is turned up (which, in our current system, is pretty early-on in their young lives). This world of contractual obligation at all costs is an illusion of our own creating and there is (always has been!) a meeting place, a common ground where – if we allow it – something new and altogether more inspired, creative, flowing and limitless could come about between us.

Again, think to your own life and ask “why do I do each of the things that currently take up most of my time?”  Slip them into mental columns according to whether you do them out of love or obligation. If the latter, ask yourself, do you NEED to be obligated to that person and why? Will that person suffer if you don’t fulfil that obligation (in which case you are really acting out of choice or ‘love’ – not obligation) or is it an outmoded set of social mores, or a financial handcuff, that puts you under that obligation? If you are working to tight deadlines, are those deadlines necessary or would a new way of working be considered if you could show that you would produce better, more inspired results under less pressure? Then, with less pressure and more time, would new skills find room to surface, would your health improve, would there be more room for love in your life, would the benefits just keep spiralling outwards? If you could recognise what you do as a choice rather than an obligation, would it alter how you feel about the whole of your life; would it make you feel more empowered, more fulfilled, more joyful? If you really are ‘locked into’ an obligation that you would rather not have, is this something that you could unlock for yourself if you could only remember that its you that holds the key (because you do)? Does just knowing that you possess that key – that you had it all along – make you feel instantly better about everything, so that the obligation can be dispensed with or turned into something that you celebrate choosing to do, so releasing all of that creativity, all of that inspiration that was otherwise locked up in so much resentment?

  • Ultimately, it all comes down to a state of mind – there is literally no prison cell that can hold us once we remember that we create our own reality, that thoughts become our world and that everything in that world is something that, at some level, we have invited into it.


For many of us, there has been an overt sense of stepping into entirely new territory as we turn the corner into 2013 and this first week has already made me feel that this is my time to re-examine old patterns and play with the possibility of sampling new ways of ‘being’ as we go forwards. For me, that starts with dissolving the remainder of those old mind-constructs that I have allowed myself to be held by so that I am left with tangible reasons for whatever it is that I’m spending my days doing; something that I intend to check ‘feels right’ in each and every moment so that I don’t fall back into the old habit of doing what conditioning tells me I must. Its something that Neale Donald Walsh refers to as “living deliberately” and it is the way forwards for all of us that wish to create an extraordinary and fulfilling life.

Why is this important? Because it seems to me that it has become the scourge – the tragedy – of humanity’s recent history that people tend to become so embroiled in one obligation after another, from almost the moment they go to school until the day they die, that should the question “what was it all for  form on their lips as they draw their final breath, most are very likely to choke on the irony that the heavy sacks they have felt obliged to labour beneath for what seems to amount to most of their life have been entirely of their own creating and, in fact, could have been stuffed full of feathers yet still the effect would have been the same, so convinced were they that they were struggling under a heavy load – and all because they had allowed themselves to see things that way.

To quote Dr Wayne Dyer “Change your thoughts, change your life” and this, I’ve decided, is the year to do just that.  Join me if you want to!

Invaluable resources:

Dying to Be Me” – Anita Moorjani: a life-altering read that will give you real perspective on life.  To quote Anita, who survived a near-death experience, “Before, without even realizing it, everything I did was to avoid pain or to please other people. I was caught up in doing, pursuing, searching, and achieving; and I was the last person I ever took into consideration. My life was driven by fear; fear of displeasing others, of failing, of being selfish, and of not being good enough. In my own head, I always fell short. This way of living finally drove me to illness. Now, however, after healing, I understand that I only have to be myself and follow my heart. I don’t worry any more about trying to get things right or complying with rules or doctrines. I make my everyday choices from a place of love instead of fear, which means doing what brings me joy instead of doing things out of a fear of the consequences. I now know that I can’t go wrong when I live this way. Ironically, I end up pleasing more people than my old self ever did, just because I’m so much happier and more liberated! And this way of living has a huge positive impact on my health as well!”

Wishes Fulfilled” and all other books by Dr Wayne Dyer. Internationally renowned author and speaker, proponent of the opinion that everyone is capable of living an “extraordinary life”, Dr Dyer’s books have helped transform my thinking on so many levels.  Also recommended, the film in which he stars,  “The Shift“, which will get you really thinking about the things we tend to prioritise in our lives and the way that a small shift in perception can literally alter everything!

The Moses Code” by James F. Twyman combined with much of the work of Dr. Wayne Dyer in which he also explains how pivotal those words “I Am…” are to our life-experience when we follow them up with the negative and self-critical thinking that most of us are prone to (and we do it without even thinking – to illustrate, just watch how you are currently using those words)! Conversely, when we follow those words with positive affirmations of all the great things we believe we are or are capable of, we can create a whole new reality.

The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle – I know, I keep referring to and recommending this book but it was my own personal starting point on this journey and is so fundamental to understanding that ‘the now’ is all we have and so we need to make it the focus of everything. Also pertinent to this subject is Tolle’s central tenet that “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thought about it”.

Conversations with God” Books 1-3 and “The Only Thing That Matters“, Neale Donald Walsh – because these dialogues explain so thoroughly what ‘living deliberately’ is all about and because the very basis of what these writings convey is that “Enlightenment is understanding that there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nobody you have to be except exactly who you’re being right now”.

And that, I believe, is it – in a nutshell!


With thanks: “2013” photo credit vmabney on Flickr, some rights reserved

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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5 Responses to Are We Obliged to Feel Obligated…Or Is There Another Way?

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