"Sure, I'd be happy to babysit your kids." "Absolutely, you can count on me for that committee." "No problem—I'll finish this project if I have to stay at the office till midnight!"
We are creatures wired for relationship. Before we even think, agreement and caring responses slide off our tongues. Growing up, many of us learned that the safest and fastest way to be liked and to belong was to comply. We just couldn't say no because we loved seeing others happy. We discovered that we could make friends, avoid conflict, and dodge rejection through compliance. The relief by avoiding conflict was addicting. But at what cost? Does compliance contribute to inner peace, cultivate wholeness in relationships, energize families and organizations—or not?
According to Webster's dictionary, compliance is "the act or process of complying to a desire, demand, proposal, or regimen . . . ; a disposition to yield to others." This definition says nothing about free will or choice. We can say no. We are not the extension of someone else, nor are we obligated to agree with them. But compliance requires us to go along with others instead of listening to and honoring our own needs, desires, and goals. In both the short and long term, compliance cannot create a win for the people involved. Whenever we put someone else's will or desires above our own, whenever we neglect to set boundaries, we have betrayed the inner authority that keeps us whole. I call this a felony against self.
Years ago, I was adept at compliance. The majority of my actions revolved around pleasing others or keeping the peace. And I was miserable. In fact, I felt like I was dying inside. One day I woke up to the realization that whenever I agreed to do something that went against my inner truth or if I neglected to check in with myself in the first place, things ended poorly. Or if I said yes when I really wanted to say no, an inner unrest built up inside of me. But once I started declining opportunities and requests when I didn't feel a resounding "yes" inside me, I felt more energetic and alive.
As I began paying closer attention to my habit of complying, some interesting insights occurred to me. When I followed the breadcrumbs, they all led back to the same destination: my unhappiness and my inward conflict. Compliance was directly connected to my happiness meter going down. Energy never lies.
I started to understand how my feelings and reactions were linked with my being compliant or with saying yes when I wanted to say no. Perhaps some of my observations will be helpful to you:
Symptoms of Complying without Full Agreement
1) Symptom: resentment
My observations: If I went against what I really wanted for myself in order to please someone else, I resented both the decision and the person.
Ask yourself: Am I feeling resentment about this decision? When we give up ourselves on any level (emotionally, mentally, physically, psychologically, or spiritually) through compliance to the will of others, we will automatically resent it and find ways to prove we cannot be controlled. Resentment signals that we have overstepped healthy boundaries and we have said yes when we wanted to say no.
2) Symptom: resistance (inverted autonomy)
My observations: Even though I complied, I would say no in indirect ways: I procrastinated, made excuses, did a lousy job, forgot meeting times, got sick, dragged out the commitment, complained frequently, was passive in my participation, or backed out altogether.
Ask yourself: Am I resisting this commitment? Failing to show up in our daily activities and commitments often reveals that our choice was not made freely and/or we are not in full agreement with what we've committed to.
3) Symptom: withholding my best
My observations: When in compliance, I did not give my best efforts, and most often I withheld my greatest assets and talents—trying to maintain power. When I was in full agreement with the decision or commitment, I gave wholeheartedly.
Ask yourself: Am I withholding my best? When we sense ourselves holding back, it may indicate that we are complying and/or not fully committed.
4) Symptom: blaming others
My observations: Blame was a common theme whenever I complied. But when I followed my heart, I wasn't looking for people to blame.
Ask yourself: Am I blaming other people? Blaming can often be a sign that we said yes when we wanted to say no. When our decisions and actions are aligned with our truth and core values, blame is usually not an issue.
5) Symptom: nonaccountability
My observations: Whenever I surrendered my will to someone else through compliance, I felt I wasn't accountable for my actions in the same way as if I had made my choice freely. I had a sense of not being responsible for outcomes because I could blame others, right? I wanted to say no, but they "made" me say yes.
Ask yourself: Am I feeling a lack of accountability for quality, communication, decisions, or outcomes? When we act freely on our decisions and they are aligned with our values and personal well-being, we take full responsibility for the quality of our work and relationships while accepting accountability for our mistakes. Personal responsibility increases with ownership. Personal accountability increases when you set healthy boundaries.
Let your feelings be your guide. The next time you agree to do something and then feel resentment, resistance, withholding, blaming, or nonaccountability, ask yourself: Is my heart in my decision, or am I just being compliant?
As we learn about these clues that we are being compliant, they can teach us how to live from a more authentic place. When someone requests something of us, we need to first check in to see if it is in alignment with our values and resources. If I agree to babysit your kids when I am exhausted and sleep-deprived, I am putting your needs above my own, which isn't loving to either of us. If I act on a committee but my heart isn't in it, I will at best be a passive spectator and at worst sabotage the success of the cause. As Seth Godin recently said in his blog The Cost of Neutral, "Not adding value is the same as taking it away." When I agree to stay late at work but I have to cancel a special date with my spouse or a good friend, the sacrifice may make me feel entitled to take long lunch breaks and cut out early from work without authorization. When we give from a place of sacrifice without considering our own needs, we will usually have "pay-back" agendas simmering in our mind.
And how do we and others benefit by our honesty, by setting boundaries, and forthrightness without compliance? Genuine cooperation, ease, creativity, and synergy with others. When we give from a free place inside ourselves, then cohesive, trustworthy, thriving relationships are possible. We can fully cooperate when we listen and act on our own behalf knowing that it is okay to say no. This doesn't mean that every time we're going to get what we want. However, it does mean that we need to know what we want and what is important to us and be prepared to honor it.
From a place of emotional maturity, we sometimes choose to give when it's inconvenient or demands greater effort or isn't perhaps our burning desire—but we care enough for our self and others so that giving in that moment IS our truth, not compliance. We avoid committing a felony against our self while contributing to the greater whole. Then we can say yes wholeheartedly, withholding nothing and giving our greatest value.