Gretchen Rubin

My Fellow Upholders: Do You Experience “Tightening”?

My Fellow Upholders: Do You Experience “Tightening”?

For my book Before and After, about habit-formation, I’ve been developing my framework of the four Rubin Tendencies. I’m obsessed with understanding these tendencies. (If you want to be notified when the habits book is available for pre-order, sign up here.)

In a nutshell: the Rubin Tendencies describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a work deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (like my friend who said, “In high school, I never missed track practice, but I can’t make myself go running now”)


I'm an Upholder -- which, it turns out, is a very small category. Rebel is the smallest category, but Upholder is also very small. So many things became clearer to me when I realized that fact.

Today, I have a question for my fellow Upholders, based on my own experience:

Upholders: Do you experience what I would call...tightening? That when you uphold expectations, they sometimes tighten on you?

I get the impression from other people in other Tendencies that often, as people try to meet expectations, they start off strong, but then slacken over time. They look for loopholes, they find exceptions, they become less conscientious.

This definitely happens to me, too, with some habits. But sometimes, I find, I experience a kind of tightening. It becomes harder for me to make an exception, to loosen up, to loosen an expectation. And that can be good -- but it can also be bad.

For instance,  an Upholder friend had a lot of muscle pain, and I convinced her to try my strength-training gym.  She exercises regularly, but I thought this regimen might help. So she did try going, and she cured her pain, and now she wants to stop going -- the gym is in a very inconvenient place for her, and she gets regular exercise elsewhere.

But, a trainer at the gym told me, although she keeps saying she wants to stop, and that it would make her life easier to stop, she can't seem to stop.  Ah, her Upholder nature has locked in, and won't release! Strength-training is on her to-do list, and now she can't cross it off, even though she wants to.

I've seen this happen with myself. My eating habits are a long story for another day, but the bottom line is, I eat low carb. (Read Gary Taubes's book, Why We Get Fat, if you want to know why.) Here's the odd thing: when I started eating low carb, in the zeal of the first months of it, I was much less strict. Now that I've been doing it longer, I'm more strict. The rules have tightened. Which is helpful in some ways, but a bit of a pain in other ways.

In some situations, being more vigilant about an expectation is good -- but sometimes, it's not good. But maybe other Upholders don't really have an issue with this.

Or Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers -- do you face this tigthtening? or some version of it, depending on your Tendency? I'd be very curious to hear from people, about how their response to an expectation changes over time.

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