(I am) Much Obliged

Here’s a fact about me: For many years, Saturdays were the bane of my existence. Although during the rest of the week I could easily comport myself like a reasonable adult human being, Saturdays would generally find me aimlessly drifting around my apartment, anxious and rudderless. Here’s another: I only cook for other people. If I’m the only one eating, as far as I’m concerned there’s no sense in cooking — even if I’d like something cooked. And one more: Even though he swears he doesn’t mean it this way, when my husband makes a mild suggestion I invariably hear it as if it were an imperative. Which makes me chafe, as you can well imagine.

What’s the common thread here? Until recently, I couldn’t tell you — until I read Gretchen Rubin‘s book The Four Tendencies, that is. But now I can tell you that those things are true because I’m an Obliger. We’ll get to what that means in a moment.

Gretchen Rubin has made a bit of a name for herself writing pop psychology books (among other things), the most famous of which — The Happiness ProjectHappier at Home, and Better Than Before — largely deal with the power of habit. As readers reached out to her about these books, she started noticing patterns relating to how they either could or couldn’t form new habits. It seemed to relate largely to how people dealt with expectations (both external and internal). Further research led her to a system that divides people into four camps: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.

Upholders have the easiest time forming habits (as well as many other things, it seems); they easily meet both outer and inner expectations. Questioners resist outer expectations but meet inner ones; Obligers are their opposite number, meeting outer expectations but resisting the inner. Rebels resist both outer and inner expectations. (Just those descriptions may be enough to tell you where you land, but you can also take her quiz here.)

Realising that I’m an Obliger clarified a lot of things for me. It’s why Saturdays used to be so hard — without the external schedule provided by a church day or the regular work week, I found it so hard to come up with a schedule on my own because self-imposed structures don’t “count” for me ( though I can deal with Saturdays well now because my children impose an external structure: no matter what day of the week it is, they still have to be fed, amused, napped, etc. at regular times). It’s why I can’t bring myself to cook if I’m the only one eating. And it’s why I hear suggestions like commands, even though they’re not meant that way: because an external expectation carries so much more weight than something I want or decide for myself. It’s why I have so many half-finished projects sitting around; there’s no motivation to finish them if I’m the only one expecting them to be finished. But it also explains why I thrive in activities or situations where I have some external accountability.

Knowing that, I can look for ways to set up external accountability systems where I need them. For example, in order to be able to function, I know that I need to be asleep by 10 o’clock at the latest, which means that I need to be in bed winding down by about 9:30. I’ve asked my husband to hold me accountable to being in bed by 9:30 — and it works. He doesn’t even check up on me, really. Just knowing that I’ve asked him to and that he can has been enough to get me in bed by 9:30 for close to two weeks now.

Rubin’s chapter on the Obliger tendency’s strengths and weaknesses was also helpful to me in her discussion of “Obliger-rebellion”:

Because they’re susceptible to feeling neglected or exploited, Obligers sometimes show a striking, harmful pattern. If they feel overwhelmed by relentless external pressure, Obligers may reach a point of Obliger-rebellion, where they simply refuse to meet some expectation — often dramatically and without warning. In Obliger-rebellion, an Obliger who has been meeting expectations suddenly decides, “No more!” and refuses.

Obliger-rebellion may be a one-time action or it can become a consistent pattern of behavious; it can take the form of minor, almost hidden refusals — or dramatic, life-changing explosions. (130-1)

What can trigger Obliger rebellion? Rubin provides a list of outer expectations that can provoke rebellion, including things like unrealistically ambitious expectations; expectations that are accompanied by shame, nagging, or disapproval; that unleash feelings of guilt or embarrassment; and others (131-2). This is helpful for me in terms of being able to recognise situations/expectations that could potentially trigger my own rebellion, and also in reminding me to be thoughtful in how I communicate with my also-an-Obliger husband. We’ll have to make an effort to start replacing “you should” with “have you thought about”, for one thing. Though maybe we’ll need some outside accountability for that too!

The Four Tendencies was a very useful, insightful read. Rubin also includes sections on communicating effectively with people with other tendencies, broken up into categories such as spouse-spouse, parent-child, bosses and coworkers,and healthcare provider-patient. I can think of very few people who wouldn’t benefit from giving this one a read.