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, they have both legal and moral imperatives.

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

It’s the morality bit that make duty and obligation highly subjective and open to interpretation; some of us assume far more than our fair share, while others restrict their efforts to the more measurable realm of “responsibilities”.

After stepping down from a decade and a half of work running two non-profits that support hostages and their families – where duty really is the watch word – I’ve been reflecting on my own approach; 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; fit your own oxygen mask before helping others. It’s become a shorthand way of saying that you can’t help others unless you first help yourself, and it’s certainly a phrase I’ve used in training volunteers working with former hostages. For those of us at the far end of the duty spectrum, self-care is justified as a means to caring for others.

That was my line until recently; I’ve been uncomfortable with the wellbeing thing all my life, whether 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.

What they don’t tell you in the airline safety briefing is that you’ll only have time to put on one mask before you pass out due to the loss of oxygen. It’s not self-care to allow you to then care for others; it’s self-preservation or die.

As I take a few months for myself, I know I’m late to the game on this. For the first time in my life, my days are focused on my health and wellbeing; I exercise and meditate every day, I cook from scratch, I’m scheduling time for things I love to do – reading, photography, calls with family and friends, fresh air and lots of sunshine. It’s an absolute revelation; it’s not just the feel-good endorphins, it’s the joy of prioritizing my day around my health, and then working out whether and 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, although I have no doubt it will. I’m doing it because it will make me a better me – happier, healthier, calmer, fitter. Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all.

Real versus imagined duty

After duty to self comes duty to others. How much? To whom? Why? If, like me, you have boundary issues, you might imagine duty beyond where it exists. Close friends for years have lovingly rolled their eyes and reassured me it’s ok to say no. I didn’t listen. Net result: over-extended, assuming others’ responsibilities and blurring the lines between colleagues and friends.

Only recently did I step back, see they were right, and adopted a rather formal system for categorizing the people in my life: close family, close friends, friends, people you spend time with, close colleagues, and your wider professional network. For each group, I classified the time and effort appropriate for the relationship. It has counteracted my in-built ‘duty alarm’, helping me to shift the balance to my nearest and dearest.

We should give 80 per cent of our time to the 20 per cent of people who bring 80 per cent of the joy to our lives

If someone hasn’t said this already, allow me: we should give 80 per cent of our energy to the 20 per cent of people who bring 80 per cent 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. During an especially tough time at work, I sat down to figure out what was wrong. Honestly wasn’t the bestpolicy – it was the only. 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. I 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 our problem?” It was transformational; it altered my perception of the situation, helped others to see the problem and 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.

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 our problem?”

Duty and obligation are valuable concepts that encourage us to think beyond contracts towards a more holistic social covenant that can 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.