beware imagined and self-fabricated duty

Duty and obligation are virtues, but we forget that duty to yourself is the most important duty of all – and imagined and self-fabricated duty can be highly corrosive.

Duty and obligation are two words that have dominated my life. They are, of course, virtues; doing your duty is better than shirking it, fulfilling obligations preferable to abandoning them. According to the dictionary, as well as having legal connotations, they share a moral imperative.

Duty: a moral or legal obligation; responsibility
Obligation: an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound.

Legality aside, it is the moralistic aspect that make duty and obligation highly subjective and open to wide interpretation, meaning that some of us assume far more than our fair share, while others restrict their efforts to the more measurable realm of “responsibilities”.

The Quarter Gap Year, with its focus on self, has led me to reflect on my own approach to duty and obligation; the balance between duty to oneself and other people; the distinction between real and imagined duty; and the corrosive impact of self-fabricated duty.

Duty to self
The oxygen mask has become a clichéd symbol of the wellness world; put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. On an airplane, the reality is that you only have time to put your own on before you pass out. In life, the theory is that if you are not healthy you won’t have the energy to support those around you. In other words, the rationale for looking after yourself is that it will enable you to help someone else.

That would have been my line until fairly recently. I’ve been uncomfortable with self-care my whole life, whether it’s about taking the time and effort to cook and eat well, prioritizing exercise, making space for meditation, or carving out opportunities for creativity. Too often, I’ve worked late and missed family life, scheduled back-to-back work trips rather than putting my need for routine first, drunk wine to keep a friend company when I would prefer a sober evening, or agreed to early morning calls rather than saying no for the sake of a good night’s sleep.

Perhaps the most important goal of the Quarter Gap Year is reversing this tendency. After a shaky start brought on by a disconnect between my ambitions and fitness level, I have found a new rhythm of activity focused on my health and wellbeing – and it’s an absolute revelation. This week I’ve exercised 2-3 times per day, short low intensity bursts of 20-60 minutes each. It’s not just the feel-good effect of endorphins, it’s the joy of prioritizing my day around my health, and then working out how other tasks will fit around it.

Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all

I’m not doing this because it will make me a better wife, daughter, friend… I am doing it because it will make me a better me – happier, healthier, calmer, fitter. That’s reason enough. Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all.

Real versus imagined duty
After duty to self is duty to others; knowing where your duties lie and how much of your time and energy they deserve relies on careful prioritizing. If you have problems with boundaries, as I do, this can be tricky; I tend to imagine duty where it really doesn’t exist.

Here are a couple of classics from recent years: offering a professional contact to stay rent free in my apartment while I took extended travels (he looked at me confused and politely said thanks but no thanks); re-working my personal schedule on a precious trip back to the UK to see family to incorporate a “nice to have” but non-essential work commitment I wasn’t even paid for – and as a result missing time with my parents. There are dozens of other examples.

Close friends lovingly roll their eyes and reassure me it’s ok to say no (or not make the offer). Only recently have I started to follow their advice and it required me to adopt a rather formal system for categorizing the people in my life and working out how much time and effort are appropriate for each: close family, close friends, friends, people you spend time with, close colleagues, and your wider professional network. This has allowed me to counteract my in-built ‘duty alarm’ and find the most appropriate response.

We should give 80% of our energy to the 20% of people who bring 80% of the joy to our lives

If someone hasn’t already said this, they should have done: we should give 80% of our energy to the 20% of people who bring 80% of the joy to our lives. I’ve come to appreciate that the smaller my circle, the richer my life. I only owe “duty” to my inner circle. Outside them, I have responsibilities, usually codified in a contract or a quid pro quo.

Self-fabricated duty
The most corrosive duty of all is that which we impose on ourselves for no good reason; setting aside logic, rationality, and what’s right in front of us, we choose to place the whole burden on our shoulders alone.

A few years ago during an especially tough time at work, I sat down to figure out what was wrong. Honestly wasn’t the best policy – it was the only policy. Things really were that bad. Taking out a large piece of paper, I jotted down all the thoughts, frustrations, challenges and gripes I could think of – it was painful reading.

One phrase jumped off the page – “I always think I am the only solution to every problem.”

I didn’t mean this in a narcissistic way; it was due to a lack of self-confidence rather than a big ego. I was afraid to ask for help because I thought everyone expected me to have the answer and would think I was a failure if I couldn’t fix things on my own. Instead of reaching out, I became the martyr and victim and was stuck.

A linguistic tweak was all it took; instead of asking myself “how can I solve this?” I started asking my colleagues and board members “what are we going to do together to overcome this problem?”

No-one ever expected me to have all the answers; I had fabricated a duty that didn’t exist

This tiny change was transformational; it altered my perception of the situation, helped others to see the problem and understand their responsibilities, signaled a wider effort was needed, and ultimately created better and more sustainable solutions. It turns out no-one ever expected me to have all the answers; I had fabricated a duty that didn’t exist.

Duty and obligation are valuable concepts that encourage us to think about our wider debt to family, friends, colleagues and society as a whole. They generate pride, morale, self-worth and tremendous public and private good. But beware imagined and fabricated duty – and don’t forget that your first and most important duty is to yourself.

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