Commitment avoidant was not something I ever wanted to be.
When our defenses contradict our deeper values, it provokes cognitive dissonance. And the whole idea of commitment hesitance seemed to oppose my own proclaimed valuing of meaningful connection. It’s typically associated with player dudes, fickleness, and emotionally unavailable people. Individuals causing unintended harm. Avoidants who create pain and confusion by keeping others at arm’s length.
And yet as a kid and teenager I dreaded team sports. Unless I knew them extremely well, I had a hard time taking trips or even carpooling with other people. I’d drive my own car to events, so that I could leave whenever I wanted. Knowing that I had an out should I need it gave me peace of mind.
The commitment anxiety even extended to finishing and publishing things; I once had more unfinished drafts on my computer than I could count. Completing them and sending them out into the world felt so final and scary.
Before becoming a medical interpreter, I worked as a ride-share driver. I reveled in the flexibility of a freelancer’s life — the ability to take breaks whenever I wanted, set my own schedule, try new coffeeshops and hiking trails on a regular basis, and not be “trapped” inside an office from nine to five.
The rewards of commitment
At the same time, I rationally knew there were also benefits to commitment.
As Nathaniel Lambert, PHD put it, “When you’re fully committed to something, you have a different posture than if you’re only partially committed. When partially committed, you’re hesitant. You’re not confident. You’re unsure and undetermined. However, once you become dead set on something, all of the mental fog goes away. You become clear on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You stop thinking about the other options available to you.”
William Damon, in the Psychology Today article “Why Purpose is the Antidote to Self-Deception” wrote about how the psychological benefits of purpose “lie in strengths that forward-looking commitments bring: motivation, energy, achievement, hope, and resilience.”
I notice how when I flit between a book, checking emails, scheduling appointments, swiping on dating apps, and logging into Facebook, the rewards of any one of those activities elude me. Committing to one for a while is calming.
Sharks are good at committing. When hunting, they need to focus on a specific target; indecision or a change of mind will result in a loss of prey. So even if a new[er] target ends up drifting closer, they’ll still keep their eye on the original.
How can I be more like a shark? I used to wonder.
Simply saying, “commit to things more” is like instructing a person with anxiety to “just calm down” or someone with depression to “just think happy thoughts.” More helpful and effective, I think, is getting to the root of why the aversion is there.
In my case, I realized I hadn’t had enough positive experiences with commitment throughout my life. For a long time the negative ones outweighed them. I learned early that committing led to feeling trapped and pressured. To people demanding things of you without regard for your needs in return.
For a long time I associated commitment with uncomfortable feelings — with the dismissal of my needs, cast aside to make space for the common good (I believe in doing this at times, but not when you’re always accommodating).
My response to that perceived demand was to rebel. It was to say: I will reserve my energy for the people, groups, and work environments that do regard them. Whether or not they’re even out there. I’ll hold out until I find them.
I’ve also since realized that when applied to the work-force, commitment hesitance is sometimes a symptom of an unsupportive environment — not a clear-cut sign of poor work ethic. In much of the work-force it feels like there’s a blatant disregard of one’s individualized needs, with companies demanding the output of what to / those who to them are nothing more than cogs in the machine.
I never realized the issues I struggled with (depression and mental health issues, ADHD from a young age, social anxiety) were huge contributors underlying my commitment anxiety. I’d been taught instead to just push on. Any resistance, I attributed to personal deficiencies — rather than a response to unmet needs, or a poor fit between temperament and environment.
If you’re noticing yourself hesitant to commit, ask yourself:
Do I feel like the rewards aren’t worth the effort I’m putting in?
Did there seem to be little accommodation for my needs — or that the expectations outweighed the support provided in return?
Maybe you’ve had experience with others whom you felt saw you more as a product or emotional ATM machine than as your own separate person.
As I came to understand it, my resistance served to keep me from committing to a person, role, or endeavor that wasn’t a good fit for me. Had I been in a situation wherein I could confidently say that the people valued my needs, I felt passionate about the mission, and my skills matched the work, I have no doubt that I would have felt more inclined to.
I now feel that my commitment issues no longer grip me as tightly as they did in my younger years. They’re not entirely gone, but I know now to have a dialogue with them. I also know myself better, as well as what motivates my resistance.
I participate in this dialogue because years of chasing freedom taught me that on its own, freedom can feel empty. Commitment with the right fit can allow for a more powerful and satisfying form of it.
As Viet Thanh Nguyen put it in The Refugees: “During different tours in the late sixties and early seventies, he launched from Guam, Okinawa, and Thailand, never finding himself freer than in the cockpit’s tight squeeze.”
My words to anyone in a similar boat are that I understand your apprehensions. And they don’t make you a commitment phobe or a flaky person; they make you a human with needs that not everyone understands. It makes sense to not want to give yourself over to those uninterested in gaining that understanding.
I believe that when you find a person or a company who is willing to work on meeting you halfway, commitment doesn’t feel formidable. You trust that your needs will be regarded, and therefore feel more motivated to dedicate your best in return.
It’s not easy to find this in our modern-day world; I don’t mean to imply that it is. But it’s an ideal to strive for and stay open to.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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