Are You an Obliger? Here’s the Secret to Balancing People-Pleasing and Self-Care

We’ve long been intrigued by the work of personal well-being expert Gretchen Rubin, author of blockbuster best-seller The Happiness Project. But it wasn’t until we stumbled upon her book The Four Tendencies that we gained essential insight into our entire way of being, you guys.

In her book, Rubin breaks down humankind into four distinct categories, determined by how we answer the question, “How do I respond to expectations?” And there are two types of expectations, she clarifies: External (work deadlines, Tax Day) and Internal (New Year’s resolutions, self-care, etc.). The respondent categories are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers and Rebels. There’s even a handy quiz to determine which one you are. But if you’re anything like us, you’ll know instantly if you’re an Obliger. No quiz necessary.

It also probably won’t surprise you to learn that out of all four categories, Obligers are likeliest to feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied. Explains Jennifer Liu of LearnVest: “Obligers are most likely to put others’ needs ahead of their own, which can make them feel unfulfilled in their work—a leading cause of burnout.” The good news—sort of? “Obligers excel at meeting external demands and deadlines, and go to great lengths to meet their responsibilities, so they make terrific colleagues, family members, and friends,” writes Rubin. “Others rely on them tremendously.” Just don’t count on them to treat themselves with the same respect. “Obligers take their commitments to other people seriously, but generally let themselves down,” writes Rubin. “Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations. They’re motivated by external accountability; they wake up and think, What must I do today?”

a woman relaxing in a pool floatie

If you’re an Obliger, of course you’ll be at the PTA volunteer meeting/second cousin’s baby shower/office happy hour send-off for Morris in accounting. But your path is likely littered with unmet #goals, a to-do list that never gets done (yes, your car’s “change oil” light has been blinking for six months, come to think of it), and even meaningful accomplishments left unaccomplished (unfinished PhD, anyone?). Per Rubin, Obligers tend to feel “‘Commitments to others should never be broken, but commitments to myself can be broken’…They work hard not to let other people down, but they often let themselves down.”

So no matter how much you want to eat more salads, forest bathe and read that new novel, it simply isn’t going to happen unless someone or something else is holding you accountable. And therein lies the secret! “Obligers may find it difficult to form a habit, because often we undertake habits for our own benefit, and Obligers do things more easily for others than for themselves.” Bingo.

a woman throwing her work up in the air creating a mess

Turns out doing things for others—or at least convincing yourself you are—is the secret sauce when it comes to making yourself a priority. Writes Rubin: “For Obligers, the key to forming habits is to create external accountability.” How? One way is to seek out what Rubin calls “an accountability partner.” Want to eat cleaner? Hire a nutritionist who will ask to see your food diary. Hoping to get in better shape? Book a personal trainer and pay her in advance so you’ll have someone to let down if you back out of a sweat session. Want to learn a new sport? Sign up for tennis lessons or rock climbing with a friend and split the fee with her so, once again, you’ll have a person you’ll piss off if you bail. Want to get more sleep, contain your temper, breathe mindfully through stressful situations? “Consider yourself as a role model to children, employees, friends and the like, to be an example of fulfilling commitments, showing respect for yourself, or modeling good behavior,” writes Rubin.

Here’s the bottom line: Obligers aren’t necessarily self-sacrificing martyrs with low self-esteem; we simply need a little extra outside pressure to get motivated. In other words, you may be an Obliger, but you don’t have to be a doormat.