Pierced by Need and Obligation
Few things are more viciously dangerous to human freedom than the twin fangs of need and obligation. I would dare say that you rarely see one without the other. When punctured by one…look out. The second wound is not far behind.
Behind every obligation is a need – either yours of someone else’s. For example, if you desperately need to have the approval of others, you are obligated to behave in a way that is pleasing to them (not to you) in order to gain approval. If your spouse needs you to be with him at all times to slate the hungry thirst of incessant insecurity, you may feel the obligation to avoid bringing him pain, thus alter your daily life and ignore your own needs to satisfy his. Many women have sacrificed entire careers, personal freedom and meaningful world contribution at the altar of one man’s ego. This is not just an opinion. History is full of such examples. Certainly, the opposite can be true as well.
Here’s something to remember, though: you can only be held captive by someone else’s need if you allow it to happen. People can attempt to obligate you, strike hard and fast to sink their fangs into you and attempting to never let go…but you can put up one heck of a fight to dislodge them. There is always a choice to accept or reject any such obligation based on your own needs and desires. A good punch to the snout (figuratively speaking), usually backs them off you and sends them howling into the night in search of easier prey.
Having said that, though, there are some roles we are truly obligated to perform because we chose to enter into that role. The moment you give birth or adopt a child, you are indeed obligated to care for them in a healthy way. There is no avoiding this obligation. And if you can’t, then you are obligated to do the personal work you need (i.e., mental fitness skills) to be capable of being the parent they need or to place them in the care of someone who can. This type of need and obligation duo is expected and right. However, this doesn’t mean that your needs as a human – despite the fact that you’re a parent – have to go largely unmet. Good parenting requires a healthy parent.
It is interesting that people often confuse true obligation with optional obligation. You might me truly obligated to work to make a living, but what you specifically do for work is optional. You might feel obligated to hang out with family members, but if they are mistreating you, they type of relationship you have is actually optional. For example, in the last years of her life, one of my friend’s mother was viciously cruel, in part due to mental illness. While my friend felt the obligation to ensure that her mother had food and a roof over her head, she was not obligated to subject herself to this woman’s cruel.
De-Fanging Lesson #1: Meet Your Own Needs, Buster
We all have needs such as the need for food and shelter, love and approval and creative outlets. The need is not actually the problem. The problem is that needs are often dismissed out of hand, shoved down or met in unhealthy ways. Once we become adults, no one owes us anything. Yes, you can say that family has obligations to us. Okay, sort of. We do expect more from our family members, but once we become functioning adults we have every obligation to take care of ourselves and then include family into our lives for social benefit, shared interests and mutual love and acceptance. Their loyalty isn’t owed to us, though. It is earned. We do not have the obligation to include anyone in our lives that disrespects us or mistreats us, regardless of family ties. I firmly believe that when you abuse or mistreat another person, you have forfeited the right to expect anything, whether they are family or not. For example, parents do not have the right to expect loyalty, obedience and concern from children whom they have abused. The abusive behavior forfeited that right.
To be mentally fit is to be able to meet our own needs by finding appropriate resources. Just like a foraging animal may have to travel far and wide to find sufficient nourishment, shelter or a mate, we have to let go of entitlements and poisonous obligations in an attempt to find a short cut by taking advantage of others because we’re too selfish or lazy to make our own way. Yes, we have a need to be loved…but not by any one specific person. There are millions of potential people to love us, so if someone is rejecting, we can’t sink our fangs into them in an attempt to force them to love us through one-sided need and obligation. We must move on and get our need met in another way. There are millions of fish in the proverbial sea.
This applies to parent-child relationships as well. If your mother or father is incapable of being a good parent, there are many other people in the world who can actually fill the role, sometimes for a day or a month or a year. It happens all the time. We don’t start calling that person “Mom” or “Dad” or expect them to financially support us, but they can serve parts of the essential role by giving us advice and showing care and concern. If we are willing the think outside of the box, we need never feel abandoned or adopt the role of orphan. In essence, the world is your mother, brother, sister and father. In my own life, I essentially had no mother or father, but I can tell you that as an adult, I do not feel orphaned. So many people have swept through my life over the years who have served and do serve the essence of those roles. That hole in my heart has long since vanished.
De-Fanging Lesson #2: Don’t Rooffie Someone with Obligation
Think about how you feel when faced with an obligation. By nature, it is a task you feel you must do but have no desire to do. This has a mind-numbing, hypnotizing effect, causing us to forget why in the world we ever agreed to it in the first place…or why we cannot seem to say no. Placing someone else under obligation erodes the relationship, causes deep resentments and says something very negative about you. Namely, that you must resort to biting someone with obligation because you don’t feel you can win any other way. Ergo, go back to Lesson #1. Meet your own needs. Needless to say, if you have to drug someone to have sex, this says you are not only grossly incompetent in relationships, but a criminal to boot.
De-Fanging Lesson #3: Own Up to Your Shortcomings and Learn the Needed Skills
Finally, it takes skill to learn how to engage with others in a healthy way to mutually benefit. In a committed, close and loving relationship, the needs of both parties are met. It is not one-sided. It also takes skill to say no to people who attempt to obligate you to something and to abuse you for their own gratification. Regardless of whether you’re the fanged perpetrator or the hapless victim, skillful maneuvering can resolve the interaction without damage to either party. Do I really need to hate a snake because he bites me out of need to be safe? No, of course not. But I might learn how to watch where I’m stepping or avoid places where snakes congregate if I don’t want to get bit. Or, I could wear high boots and wander where I like.
De-Fanging Lesson #4: Embrace Common-Sense Skills
Skills are so common sense, yet we make them seem so hard. In part, I think this is because we have become so distanced from honest interactions and have instead embraced pretense across every area of our lives from putting on a front a work, watching the deceptive antics of politicians, believing wholesale the fairy tales of romance and engaging in exaggerated pretense of Facebook. By honest, I mean being perceptive and accepting of our own needs and our responsibility to care for ourselves, while also not unnecessarily damaging others. If I genuinely dislike another person for whatever reason, this may be my honest reaction. But it doesn’t mean I have to talk about that person, make fun of them or attempt to warp them into something acceptable to me. I can simply walk away and not include them in my life and let them be.
I might not want to cuddle the snake in the grass, after all, but I don’t have to annihilate them either. These creatures have every right to breathe and exist, just as I do. And if my first reaction to a snake is to tear its head off, what would this say about how I handle stress or fearful situations or others whom I do not know or trust? What it would clearly say is that I need other methods of coping besides attempting to destroy the thing I fear. The good news is that these are skills that can be learned. It is up to each of us to dive in.