Demystifying Wellness: Obligation Versus Intention

Expanding on my first post Demystifying Wellness: 3 Ideas on Where to Start I wanted to talk a bit more about the concept of I should versus I want to.

When you were younger did your parent/grandparent/teacher ever correct you when you asked to do something by saying: Can I …leave the table?  

They would then correct you by saying, Yes you can: because you ‘re asking is if you are capable of leaving the table, but what you are really asking is for is the permission. You ask permission by saying: May I leave the table?

I should and I want to have a very similar dynamic linguistically, and I am using them as examples of the concepts of Intention versus Obligation.

The I Should Obligation

Should is the passive acknowledgment that there is something you are obliged to do that you are not doing. Obligation can have negative effects on the psyche.

We can end up using the idea of obligations to degrade or belittle ourselves.

A negative obligation is one that we use aginst ourselves when we say things like: I am terrible for eating the wrong foods, I should be making healthier choices.  Three things are wrong with that sentence:

  1. You are calling yourself a name before you identify it as a behaviour. I am terrible.
  2. You are identifying the behaviour as eating and the wrong foods are secondary to the act of eating. This makes eating the problem and not the choices. So at this point, you are saying: I am terrible because I eat.
  3. Finally, you are placing yourself before the healthier choices and the I should be is a self- accusation or self-shaming: I am terrible because I eat and I feel shame about my choices.  

There is nowhere to grow from there! Because we are making the “wrong choices” part of ourselves while removing our agency. We are identifying ourselves as wrong first, and the decision making becomes an act of that wrong-self.

Ultimately, our choices are about awareness, not judgment.

If we judge ourselves for the choices we make based on a bad or flawed identity then we are taking power away from our agency or our will to choose. We are telling ourselves that we are good or bad choice makers and not that we are choice-makers who have the ability to make decisions we feel are good or bad.

Then its easy to say things like: I will always make bad choices, so there is no point in trying.  As if the action is your identity and not something you have power over.

We are saying that there is an obligation to ourselves we have not fulfilled because of who we are. When in truth, the obligation or the ‘I should‘ needs to be looked at in terms of where it comes from and why we feel it at all…


The Obligation is Externally motivated:

Where did you come the idea that you SHOULD? Why do you feel this obligation? Keep in mind these questions are not answering why you DON’T do it (that comes later when we make friends with our excuses!) but rather, why do you want to do it in the first place?

Does it come from comparing yourself to others or from something someone said, or from an article you read?  Where does the idea that you are not doing something you are supposed to be doing, come from?

Why are you supposed to be doing it? Is that even something you want, or something that fits in your life?

I will give you an example:

I should be going to the gym. 

Okay, where did the idea come from?

I saw a girl on TV talking about working out and how she felt happier, more energetic, and fulfilled in her life when she started working out.

So you want to be happier, have more energy and feel a sense of fulfillment in your life… why do you think the gym is the right choice for you?

Yes, I think I would feel better about myself if I was fitter and more active. 

There are other ways of getting fit and being active. Have you been to the gym before? Did you enjoy the experience?

I had a membership once and I went for awhile nd then I didn’t have time and I wasn’t really motivated when I was there. The gym kind of makes me feel uncomfortable. 

Then, what makes you think that to achieve fitness, happiness, and fulfillment that you are supposed to go to the gym and not try some other ways of achieving the same ends?

Here we can see that the thing I was supposed to be doing, or the obligation I wasn’t meeting was motivated by the internal drive for really positive things, but the obligation to use a particular solution was not.

I was using someone else’s solution, I was holding the expectation that if it works for others it will work for me.

The Positives of Obligation

As I demonstrated in the little dialogue above the feeling of obligation or feeling like you are supposed to be doing something is a helpful indication that we are discontent with something and that we are ready to explore some solutions.


The I Want To Intention

Active, the energy is behind the idea and the motion has begun.

After the obligation dialogue, and we recognize that we are aware of our choices we will know when I should do this has become I want to do this because our energy will naturally shift to support our intentions.



3 thoughts on “Demystifying Wellness: Obligation Versus Intention

  1. Really good read and thought provoking questions. I think the idea of motivation is dangerous because it is fleeting. That is where ‘I should” and “I have an obligation to” tend to split hairs. I think focusing on discipline is a stronger foundation because despite the emotion and feeling surrounding the task, the discipline kicks in when you just can’t continue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am really interested in looking tinto discipline a bit more! Thank you for bringing that up! I’m curious What is discipline to you? How do you think people cultivate discipline in order to use it as a foundation?


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