Vague Sense of Obligation

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A vague sense of obligation is a feeling of being obligated to do something without knowing why. The vague sense of obligation is a phenomenon or topic that has come up in numerous contexts in the discussion in Why This Way.

The word "should" and vague senses of obligation

The word should is often used in such a way that expresses a vague sense of obligation. One of our reasons for eliminating the use of the word should in our dialogue, as described in our rules of communication, is to eliminate vague senses of obligation.

Handling vague senses of obligation

We believe that whenever such a vague sense of obligation is detected, it is best handled in one of two ways:

  • Finding good reasons for doing whatever action you feel a sense of obligation to do, and then acting out of a genuine desire.
  • Realizing that there are no good reasons or insufficient reasons for you to genuinely want to act on this sense.

In either case, the vague sense of obligation is removed. It is either replaced by a genuine desire followed by action, or replaced by a resolution to not act, and to accept the choice not to act. The process of sorting through these vague senses of obligation is related to mindfulness, and can help one to act more purposefully.

Examples of a vague sense of obligation

  • People may attend church out of a vague sense of obligation.
  • People may feel vague pressure or expectations to behave a certain way in certain social situations, even when no one has communicated that they want them to act in a certain way.
  • People may feel an obligation to listen to someone, or to not interrupt a speaker, even when that person is speaking without their consent.
  • People in school may feel a vague sense of obligation to do assigned readings or complete their school work.
  • Women may wear makeup out of a vague sense of obligation.
  • People may buy gifts for people for birthdays, Christmas, or other holidays, out of a vague sense of obligation.
  • People may feel like they need to vote in elections out of a vague sense of obligation. People may also feel a vague obligation to vote for the candidates of a specific political party, without knowing the candidates or even without knowing much about the parties with candidates on the ballot.
  • Vague senses of obligation, even if they are not the sole motivator, can contribute to major life choices, such as the decision to get married.

Examples of harm caused by a vague sense of obligation

Vague senses of obligation can cause harm in several different ways: one way is by motivating people to do things that are not the best use of their time or resources, thus wasting their time or resources; another way is by leading to unnecessary guilt when they do not. In some cases, people might even act in ways that are counterproductive or harmful.

Harm caused by acting on vague obligations:

  • Unwanted gifts -- Someone may buy someone a gift for Christmas out of a sense of obligation, and it may be a gift that the person does not want or need. The person receiving the gift might have preferred to receive no gift, and might feel uncomfortable with the gift, now faced with the choice of discarding, returning, or giving away the gift (and risking offending the person), or keeping a gift that they do not want.
  • Withholding communication -- Someone may withhold information in a close relationship, for example, about something that the other person is doing that is making them uncomfortable, because they have a vague sense that it would be rude or would hurt the person's feelings to share that information, but the other person might actually prefer them to be open about it.