"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. So what does comply mean? We put others' wishes above our own.
We can say no. We are not the extension of someone else, nor are we obligated to agree with them. But complying to others 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, giving ourselves up 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 betrayal a felony against self.
Years ago, I was an adept at reluctant agreement.. The majority of my actions revolved around pleasing others or keeping the peace. I was a serial people pleaser! 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 acquiescing, some interesting insights occurred to me. When I followed the breadcrumbs, they all led back to the same destination: my unhappiness and my inner conflict. Conforming to what I thought the easiest way to peace was directly connected to my happiness meter going down. Energy never lies.
Symptoms We Are Compliant and NOT in Full Agreement
I started to understand how my feelings and reactions were linked; my resentment with saying yes when I wanted to say no. Perhaps some of my observations will be helpful to you:
Symptom #1: 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 conceding 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.
Symptom #2: resistance (inverted autonomy)
My observations: Even though I acceded, 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.
Symptom #3: withholding my best
My observations: When I consented (but didn't really agree), 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 compromise and/or that we're not fully committed.
Symptom #4: 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.
Symptom #5: a lack of accountability
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 a lack of accountability, ask yourself: Is my heart in this decision, or am I giving up something important to me?
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.
The Cost of Neutral
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.
Even after getting in touch with what I wanted and learning to listen, I still had to learn how to set healthy boundaries because without boundaries, it's near impossible saying no. Being true to yourself requires self-awareness, emotional fitness, and skills that stretch us out of comfort zone. But without a little discomfort, we can't grow.And how do we and others benefit by our honesty, by setting healthy boundaries, and forthrightness without complying?
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.
And of course, 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. This choice is made from a place of emotional maturity. 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.
Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity Founder
As an Executive Coach and Relationship Strategist, Jennifer's specialty is emotional intelligence with an emphasis in utilizing brain science to create transformation. She works with entrepreneurs and small businesses to remove the obstacles to authentic communication. Her passionate mission
is to create thriving relationships and teams at home and work. Jennifer coaches individuals, parents, and couples to help build healthy lives and loving families and communities. She is married to her beloved husband of 38 years and is the mother of three grown children.