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Going on an "Ought" fast

Posted on | Tags: Personal development, self care, duty, guilt | Comments (4)

A few years ago, a friend said to me, "You're very driven by duty, aren't you?"

Sunbeams through moody clouds

It's true; I do things because I feel I ought to. That sense of obligation extends well beyond my immediate circle and out into the wider community. Fed up wih the government? I ought to do everything I can to change it. And so I've given a good chunk of the last five years of my life to the Labour Party (by the way, have you voted yet?)

A little more recently, another wise friend recommended that I do as she's done, and replace "should" with "could". I have no doubt about the wisdom of this advice, but I've struggled to take it on board. A sense of obligation is so intrinsically woven into my thinking that it's hard to disentangle it. I still try, but even thinking about the question, I catch myself thinking, "I ought to try and do that."

Why should I? Or to put it another way, why did my friend recommend this? Because it would be good for me. Being driven by a sense of duty leads to guilt. I inevitably fail to do all that I feel I ought, and then feel terrible for failing. And the the guilt becomes debilitating, I get depressed, able to do less, and feel even worse. This is not healthy.

It might be better if my duty was more clearly defined. Or defined at all. With only my conscience to guide me, the scope is virtually limitless. It's easy to say, "Just do the best you can. No one can expect more of you than that." but what is the best I can do? That depends almost entirely on how much of my life I give to the issue in hand. What do I give up in order to do my best at this endeavour? What do I sacrifice? My leisure? My income? My marriage? My health? What exactly counts as doing my best?

I've had these thoughts in the back of my mind for the last few years without making much progress. Yesterday evening, whilst half-listening to YouTube's choice of TEDx talks, as I am wont to do, something struck me in the middle of one by Caroline Myss. She describes an exercise she uses in her workshops*:

Come back with one word that you're going to give me, and you will never use it again. Never. And I get to have everything that comes with that word... Think about if you really had to yank a word out of your head, which meant you had to take the whole world that went with that word out of your head.
As I listed to this, one word immediately came to mind: "Ought."

What if I gave up that word entirely? Not just the word, but the concept and all concepts closely enough related to be essentially part of the same idea. "Should," for a start, and "duty," and "obligation". What if I simply didn't have that concept available as a reason for doing things? Nor, of course, as a measure by which to judge other people, but for me that's less of a problem than judging myself.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Image credit: J. Finkelstein [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Instead, I'd have to frame my reasons in terms of "want" and "need". I'm not allowed other people needing me to do things, that's still duty. My needs. As a side point, I generally think of needs as conditional, with an "in order to" attached, e.g. "I need to submit my tax return in order to feel secure and not worried that I'm going to get into trouble." This way, they come back to the set of needs that Maslow listed in his hierarchy.

This framing doesn't preclude doing things for other people, but I have to be clear with myself that I'm doing it because I want to, not because I feel I ought to. There's a generosity of spirit in wanting to do things for others that's lacking from the sense of obligation. Christmas presents may be given because that's what you're supposed to do at Christmas, but they lack the warmth of presents given because, "I think you'll like this and I want you to have it".

I'm not ready to commit to giving up "Ought" entirely, but I'll try an experiment: I'll avoid it until the solstice. That gives me six weeks of challenging myself: Why am I doing this? Not because I feel I have to, that's not allowed... Do I really want to?

I'm committing to the experiment here and now. I'll let you know how I get on at midsummer.

*You'll have to listen to the whole section - I've linked directly to it - to get the sense of what she says about the power of words. The rest of the talk is well worth listening to, as well. Return

Comments (4)

  1. Anneli:
    May 07, 2021 at 04:49 AM

    Good point here, Rachel. Sometimes we just don’t analyse why we’re doing what we do.


  2. Paul campbell:
    May 07, 2021 at 04:55 AM

    This is just a quick reply. I’m going to re read your post and formulate a better reply later on today. You make some good points and I want to view the talk you mentioned too. So for now, have a good day


  3. Paul Campbell:
    May 08, 2021 at 04:50 PM

    I think we all get this kind of guilt when dealing with things. We all ought to do more for the environment, but we need to get to the shops, so we drive or take the bus because carrying all those bags is just too much. We ought to check on our elderly neighbours more, but other things get in the way, then it's too late to visit, so we just phone instead. We ought to eat healthier, but when at the supermarket, don't those sugary treats look nice. Replacing ought with should is a good idea. We should be doing these things and our sense of duty to the community does help here, but you also have to balance what is healthy for yourself too. If you are giving your time freely and totally to other things, you will neglect yourself and your own needs. You have to make sure you have a balance. It's true that sometimes our community does need our help, I help out in mine whenever I can and have free time, but this doesn't mean that I ignore my own needs just to fulfil the communities needs. I am a carer for my parents, so that does take up some of my days, then work obviously takes up time too, but I do try and get involved with community projects whenever I can, such as helping to clean our local river, planting flowers under street signs to make them look more pretty, volunteering with the local drop-in centre and helping to organise walks for the local ramblers, whose membership is almost all 65+ so I am pretty much the youngest there at almost 50. I do these things because I like helping people, not because I should. However, I do have things that I "should" be doing but just think "yes I ought to do that." So yes I will challenge myself too.
    You seem like a person who "goes out and does things" and gets on with it, pretty much without the need for motivation. The things you have written so far in this blog and the videos show that you are committed to doing things, without the need for someone to tell you to do them. Or have I just totally missed the point here? I realise you are critical of yourself as I have read this before on your blog, but sometimes we can be too harsh on ourselves, so I just want to say, you are doing fine.


  4. rseabrook:
    May 18, 2021 at 08:11 AM

    Sorry not to have replied. I'm not in a very good place at the moment. Thanks for sticking with me x


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