Feb 17, 2020

What Does It Mean to be an Obliger?

When Gretchen Rubin was working on her book about habits, Better than Before, she came up with a framework that addresses how we handle outer and inner expectations. An outer expectation is one that comes from outside ourselves, such as a work deadline or an appointment. An inner expectation is one that we set for ourselves, like a New Years resolution to work out every day.

How you respond to each type of expectation determines whether you are an Upholder, Questioner, Rebel or Obliger, so Gretchen called her framework The Four Tendencies (and wrote a book about it). An Upholder readily meets both types of expectations. A Questioner meets any expectation that makes sense to them, essentially turning acceptable outer expectations into inner ones. A Rebel resists both types of expectations. An Obliger readily meets outer expectations but struggles with inner expectations.

What does it mean to be an Obliger?

I wish I was an Upholder, because I think I'd be a lot more productive. Alas, I’m an Obliger. I knew it even as I was taking the free quiz. Obligers are the largest group, so I’m in good company, and I’d love to know if there’s a genetic component to all this. (I’m married to a Questioner, which is the second-largest group. My 14-year-old is an Obliger like me, and I’m pretty sure that my 12-year-old is a Questioner like his dad. I’m also certain that my dad is an Obliger and my mom is a Questioner.)

What does it mean to be an Obliger? Unfortunately, it means that you can’t just say to yourself, I want to do X, and know that it will get done. You have to ensure that there are outer expectations in place so that you feel obligated to complete the task.

In my life, this means I often don't clean the house until it's necessary and I start feeling guilty about its state - in other words, until I feel obligated to provide a clean(er) house for my family. I've struggled most of my life to exercise and eat healthy, because that feels like something I'm doing just for me and therefore I'm not accountable to anyone else.

Obligers often do a lot for others - for someone like me, a stay-at-home mom who works part-time at home, that can translate to focusing on cooking, cleaning, and other family-related tasks, hours volunteering for PTA, and helping out friends who ask for favors like picking up their kids. If you work outside the home, you might find yourself the go-to person for others at the office. Usually, none of it seems like a big deal, until there are so many obligations to others that I don't have the margin to do anything for myself.

Outer expectations can build up and overwhelm an Obliger, resulting in what Gretchen calls Obliger Rebellion. If you're an Obliger, you probably know exactly what it means - the point when you decide NO MORE. This can be good, when it relieves the overwhelming pressure. But it can also be bad - if it means damaging important projects or relationships, disappointing others, or even hurting yourself. It's not uncommon for Obligers to take their rebellion out on themselves by eating poorly, not exercising, and so on.

Over the years, even before I knew what it means to be an Obliger, I learned to minimize outside obligations that I knew would upset me in the long run. For example, I've repeatedly turned down requests to become PTA president because I know I don't want to spend as much time as would be required to do the job right. But I've taken on individual projects with a finite time commitment, because it's important to me to participate at school.

One thing I've tried to become better at is creating outer accountability that works for me, and I'll discuss that more on Thursday.

Do you use Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies framework?

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