In my book The Four Tendencies, I describe my personality framework that divides people into four “Tendencies”: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.
Here, I’m going to explore a very particular—and very important—pattern of behavior seen in Obligers. It’s a phenomenon that seems very mysterious if you don’t know about the Four Tendencies—but once you understand the framework, this pattern is very easy to understand and spot.
It’s the pattern of Obliger-rebellion.
It’s important to understand this phenomenon because 1) Obliger is the biggest group, for both men and women, so anything that affects Obligers affects many people and 2) while Obliger-rebellion can sometimes be positive force, it’s often quite destructive.
What is “Obliger-Rebellion?”
When Obligers feel exploited, over-taxed, unappreciated, neglected, ignored, or disrespected, or when the weight of expectations feels unbearable, they begin to feel mounting anger and resentment. If expectations continue to press, the Obligers’ anger builds to the bursting point. Then they rebel.
So Obligers will meet, meet, meet, meet expectations, and then suddenly they snap. They say, “This, I will not do!” and they refuse to meet an expectation. Obliger-rebellion kicks in to give the Obligers an exit.
This rebellion can be small and symbolic (refusing to answer someone’s emails, refusing to cook dinner for a week, being deliberately late for work) or it can be huge and fateful (ending a twenty-year friendship, quitting a job, getting a divorce).
Signs that people are approaching Obliger-rebellion:
- they act out of character—for instance, they waste time, when they’re usually very focused and productive. In fact…
- they will often observe of themselves, “I’m not myself, I’m acting out of character”
- they seem listless and apathetic, without motivation or energy
- they do things that aren’t in their best interest; self-sabotage—for instance, fail to prepare for an interview; stay up late binge-watching TV during a busy time
- they feel burdened by activities they usually enjoy, such as organizing an office birthday party
- they don’t answer even simple requests, such as answering a text—they go “on strike”
- they may waste a lot of time, with activities such as scrolling or online browsing
- they may feel a feeling of constriction or discomfort in their bodies: tight jaw, tense shoulders, upset stomach, bad headache, back or neck pain, grind their teeth
- they procrastinate with tasks they’d usually complete promptly
- they’re resentful, snappish, curt
- they isolate themselves, they pull away, they “ghost”—in part, to protect themselves from further expectations
- they may begin to think about change—whether through fantasy (move to an island, work on a farm) or actual preparation (polish a resume, scroll through job postings)
Signs that people have indeed entered Obliger-rebellion:
- they explode, they blow up, they snap
- their anger seems to come out of the blue and may seem disproportionate to the situation (to someone who hasn’t noticed the warning signs listed above)
- they refuse to meet their responsibilities
- they announce a break: quit a job, end a relationship
Here are a few examples:
“A friend called me to say she had no time to make a charcuterie board for her husband’s birthday party. This is my area of expertise, so I would normally say, ‘I’ll do it,’ as I know she was hoping—but instead I refused.”
“I do things to deliberately push the envelope in breaking whatever rule annoys them.”
“After realizing that the workload in my household was way unbalanced, my resentment has sent my Obliger-self into full rebellion. I refuse to cook anything and just pick up take-out. This was accompanied by extreme fatigue, low mood, migraines, and zero desire to do “all the things.” I am not good at confrontation. I honestly was waiting to see if my husband would get a clue and start doing some of the things I usually do. No luck yet. I probably need to find a better way to deal with all of this.”
“I’ve long suffered from ‘perceived’ obligations that eventually lead to resentment and obliger-rebellion. For example, when the in-laws visit, I feel an obligation (unspoken and truly not expected by my in-laws) to prepare gourmet breakfasts, home-cooked dinners, and in general to be the ultimate host. When these gestures go unnoticed, I feel resentful, turn mean, and rebellion ensures. Whether it’s meals, free babysitting, running errands, etc., I go the extra mile and then start feeling resentful as I am doing it. What is my problem? How can I reconcile these desires to serve others without resentment? Maybe it’s the lack of praise and outward thanks that is missing, but why should I even need that?”
Sometimes, Obliger-rebellion is aimed at the self.
If Obligers don’t feel safe directing the rebellion outward, they may turn it inward.
This can look like self-sabotage. An Obliger refuses to prepare for an interview, when it really matters. An Obliger won’t complete schoolwork that could easily have been done.
It may emerge in the area of health. An Obliger refuses to exercise, even though exercise would help manage his back pain. An Obliger refuses to cut back on sugar, even though her diabetes is out of control.
The consequences fall directly on the Obliger, so this is a “safe” way to rebel (as compared to Obliger-rebellion at work, say, which might have significant consequences involving other people).
How to avoid Obliger-rebellion for yourself and others:
Here are some ways to take action or re-frame expectations to try to avoid Obliger-rebellion:
- remind the Obliger that to say “yes” to one person means saying “no” to others
- encourage everyone to speak up for Obligers—is work being unfairly divided? are a few people picking up the slack or the drudge work?
- keep a journal to identify patterns
- consider the “future-self”—”My future-self will be really angry that I agreed to accept this responsibility; I need to say no to protect my future-self”
- remember, “If I don’t do it, someone else gets the opportunity”
- think of the duty to be role model for others for setting boundaries, working reasonable hours, etc.
- ask, “Are these outer expectations real? Is anyone actually expecting me to do this—plan the icebreaker activity, host the holiday party—or am I assuming this?”
- remember that if you want to care for others, you have to care for yourself; as the cliche goes, put on your own oxygen mask first! Here’s a story I told about that challenge.
How to deal with Obliger-rebellion once it starts:
In general, once it starts, Obliger-rebellion needs to run its course. During that time, if you’re an Obliger in rebellion, it can be helpful to:
- tell people that you feel overworked, unappreciated—or both!
- explain the phenomenon of Obliger-rebellion to others, so they understand why a puzzling behavior actually makes sense—you didn’t explode after one simple comment; that your resentment had been building for a long time
- keep a journal to identify responses and patterns
- take a vacation, turn off all devices for a weekend, play hooky—sometimes, to keep going, we have to allow ourselves to stop
- consult with a friend—do they think you should ask for a break, tell people “no,” etc? If they advise you to draw a boundary, ask them to hold you accountable for doing so
Frequently Asked Questions:
Do Upholders, Questioners, or Rebels also experience their own form of Obliger-rebellion?
Some Upholders, particularly UPHOLDER/Obligers, sometimes experience Upholder-rebellion, but it’s far rarer. Upholders are usually good at drawing boundaries, taking time for rest, and saying “no,” because it’s so important to them to meet inner expectations.
Sometimes, too, Upholders may seem to rebel, when in fact they’ve decided that the rules have changed. For instance, one Upholder told me, “During the pandemic, I decided that every contract I had with myself was voided by force majeure and stopped doing everything.” So they are, in fact, meeting outer and inner expectations.
Questioners don’t fall into rebellion because they don’t do anything that doesn’t make sense to them, and Rebels don’t fall into rebellion, because they don’t do things they don’t want to do.
Can Obliger-rebellion lead to positive outcomes?
Absolutely! While it can sometimes have destructive effects, Obliger-rebellion is meant to be a constructive phenomenon—it’s the emergency parachute that allows an Obliger to escape from a situation where expectations are just too high.
Obliger-rebellion can allow someone can get out of a bad marriage, a bad job, or a bad relationship. If you want an example of how Obliger-rebellion might have saved someone, read The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. If the main character Stevens had been an Obliger instead of an Upholder, Obliger-rebellion might have made his life much happier.
Here’s what one Obliger said:
Eleven years ago before I knew anything about the Four Tendencies, I quit my job of 19 years and left a 4 year toxic relationship. This happened in a span of a few months. I wanted to share the message that I don’t think every obliger rebellion is a bad one and perhaps trying to prevent them from happening is not always the best course of action. In my case, I went on to find a job that I love and also met the man who’s now my husband. If I had just continued obliging and tried to suppress what I was feeling, I would not be in the happy place that I am today.
What are some things not to say to someone in Obliger-rebellion?
- “You need to learn to take better care of yourself.”
- “Nobody asked you to do it.”
- “If something’s important to you, just do it.”
- “I don’t want to help. If you want to do it, knock yourself out. But don’t expect me to play a part.”
- “You just need to cut yourself some slack.”
I would love to see other examples of Obliger-rebellion. Can you point me anywhere?
Even if the creators aren’t aware of the term “Obliger-rebellion” or don’t know the Four Tendencies framework, it’s very common to see the Tendencies depicted in movies, TV, and books. Because people act according to these patterns all the time!
See if you can spot the pattern of Obliger-rebellion in these movies and novels:
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- 27 Dresses
- Kramer vs. Kramer
- The Devil Wears Prada
- My Struggle: Book Six by Karl Ove Knausgaard
- Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin
- Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam (read my discussion)
- Us by David Nicholls
- Wayward by Dana Spiotta
Here’s a striking description of Obliger-rebellion from Who Is Rich?
I attempted to interpret my irrational action. Had I ever done this kind of thing before? No. A life in the arts requires vigilance and restraint. Was my behavior out of character? Yes, technically, and also terrifyingly, although it was possible that this was merely the culmination of a period of interior deadness and anger, that something had been building for months, or years, that the recent and ongoing stresses had pushed me over the edge.
If you’ve ever experienced or witnessed Obliger-rebellion, does this description ring true to you? How have you realized that Obliger-rebellion was brewing, and what have you done to handle it?