Imagine what would change if you determined to remove any commitments driven by Fear, Obligation or Guilt in 2005? What would you stop doing? What would you do instead?
What would it look like if you committed to living in freedom? What if you set out to resolve at least some of those situations in which you experience these three life-draining conditions?
What doesn’t energize us exhausts us. Fear, obligation and guilt deflate the human spirit. I’m not referring to the occasional wave of emotion, but to a sustained state. I’m referring, for example, to a routine of Monday morning dread, or those situations in which you are continually coercing yourself to press on. Here are some examples I’ve witnessed in the past few months:
• An executive grinding out work under a contract that has long since lost life for her
• An employee five years from retirement, dragging himself through the weeks
• A parent with three very active kids, constantly feeling overwhelmed
• An executive whose boss seems unreasonable, unappreciative and unresponsive
• A contractor fed up with demands from a key customer
• A business owner whose company seems to be running him, who sounds trapped by his own success
As draining as these situations may be, they seem commonplace. Our tolerance for pain keeps us trapped in our own webs. In other words, we allow our emotions to determine our lives. We resist pro-active steps to relieve our anxiety because of the fear of possible consequences. So I don’t talk to the boss because he might fire me. I don’t draw boundaries with a customer for fear of losing the business. We accede to living in one emotional state because the alternative raises an even scarier emotion. In fact, fear, obligation and guilt often seem intertwined, e.g.: “I stay in this miserable situation because of my obligation to feed my family. I fear what would happen if I leave, and I’d feel guilty if my family had to sacrifice.”
In this sense, we unconsciously choose the familiarity of misery over the hard work of self-responsibility.
The fundamental invitation here is to self-responsibility and self-care. This includes some sobering and challenging recognitions, e.g.:
• My emotions are my own
• Nobody is doing this to me
• My health is mine to foster or to waste
• My fate is determined more by my attitudes and actions than by my circumstances
If I find myself exhausted by circumstances, the most fruitful tactic I can take is to focus on what I need to shift. I’ve found this insight from David Steindl-Rast especially applicable in my own life: “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. It’s wholeheartedness”. What do I need to do to assure that I’m wholeheartedly engaged in my life?
If you’ve ever attended a stress management seminar, you’ve likely seen these basic choices in one form or another:
• Commit to the situation and change your attitude, or
• Commit to changing the situation, or
• Get out of the situation!
1. Commit to the situation:
First, I’ve established a helpful distinction between “responsibility” and “obligation”. I consider a responsibility as a commitment I’ve freely chosen. An obligation is a commitment that has in some way been assumed or imposed on me, and which I haven’t (yet) freely chosen. I can rally for a responsibility, but an obligation always feels like a weight. So if the present situation feels like a weight (obligation), I need to either get in, or get out.
My mother recently passed away after 93 amazing years. Especially in the past few years, if I slipped into seeing her as an obligation, she felt heavy. But when I saw her as a responsibility, freely chosen, I would delight in being with her and attending to her needs! The difference was rooted in my attitude.
If the responsibility is mine, and I have agreed to it, and still do agree to it, then I need to shift my attitude, e.g.:
• Recognize this as my own choice
• Commit to following through without complaining
• Re-claim my motivations for agreeing to this in the first place
• Refocus on what I love about it vs. what is challenging
• Embrace the big-picture “rightness” of it
• Reject self-pity as an option – manage the emotions when they come up, but don’t act on them
2. Commit to changing the situation:
If the general situation is “right where you belong”, then what do you need to do to shift how it’s going? This typically involves engaging in challenging conversations, discussions that up until now you have not had, or that you started but did not carry through to a satisfactory resolution, e.g.:
• What exactly do you need to see change? Who needs to hear this?
• What limits do you need to set on the unreasonable invasiveness of others? (Pathogens cannot exist in a system without the complicity of the host.)
• What responsibilities are others failing to meet; what have you been doing that enables their under-functioning? (A common trap for leaders)
• What coaching conversations are needed with those who report to you?
This, of course, is where the prospect of reducing obligation and guilt fosters fear! You’ve probably known these answers intuitively for some time – may even have articulated them to others – but not to the appropriate “others”! You may have had these crucial conversations in a dream, or in the shower – but not in reality. For help with this, I highly recommend Susan Scott’s bestseller, “Fierce Conversations”. This is a dangerous book, however. You may never again be able to claim, “I can’t say that to him/her!”
3. Get out of the situation:
If Steps 1 and 2 don’t fit, you have a fundamental choice: Become accustomed to a victim posture, an exhausted spirit, a “poor me” drumbeat of complaining, an image of yourself as the over-functioning but under-appreciated hero. OR, get out:
• Plan an exit strategy (for many leaders, owners especially, this amounts to leadership succession planning)
• Commit to a timeline for ending the situation
• Develop a vision of what will be next for you, and begin to actively explore that (See “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow” – an unusual title for such an utterly practical book – by Marsha Sinetar). View your present situation as a stable base while you prepare for your next venture
• Enlist the support you’ll need to make the radical shift (family, friends, a coach or mentor, etc.)
These are basic choices. When we operate in freedom vs. FOG, all other resolutions (lose weight, exercise, stop smoking/drinking, etc.) become either unnecessary or much easier. I’m convinced, from my own experience as well as my coaching practice, that so many of our negative, self-inflicted, self-abusive behaviors stem from a sense of fundamental compromise in our lives. When we set straight those foundational commitments, or our mindset regarding them, that self-caring, self-responsible step becomes a natural catalyst to other positive life choices!
These questions might help you assess any FOG in your life:
• What commitments in your life seem more like “obligation” than freely chosen “responsibility”? What would it look like if you became clearer on where you stand – i.e., if you either got in or got out?
• What commitments are fueled by guilt? Again, which of these options fits, to gain clarity and relief?
• What current activities are fueled by fear? Or what activities are you avoiding out of fear? What do you need to do about that? Which choice fits?
May you choose life in abundance in this new year!