Gretchen Rubin

A Little Happier: Ann Patchett’s Memoir Reminds Us Why We Need to Take Care of Ourselves.

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It took me a long time to come up with my Four Tendencies personality framework, and the effort just about melted my brain. But finally I was able to see the four types clearly: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel.

As I was trying to identify the four types, there was one kind of problem that I spent a lot of time thinking about. It was a problem that I didn’t really face myself, but I knew that from talking to other people, it was a very common problem.

And that puzzled me.

It’s the problem of taking care of yourself.

I don’t have trouble with this, and now I know why—I’m an Upholder who tips to Questioner, and this usually isn’t much of a problem for Upholders like me.

But it can be a tremendous challenge for Obligers, or, if we want to get technical about it, Upholders who tip to Obligers, and of course, Obliger is the biggest group of the four types. Lots of people are Obligers, so therefore, this is a common problem, and it’s often discussed.

Someone says, “I give 110% to my clients. Of course I don’t have time to eat right or exercise.” Or they say, “I’m so busy taking care of other people, there’s no time for self-care.”

I’ve found that when Obligers do face this problem of taking care of themselves, it helps them to think, “I have to take care of myself first, if I’m going to be able to take care of other people.” For instance, I very often hear people remind themselves of the line that we all hear every time we get on an airplane: “Secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others.” The idea is “I must protect myself if I’m going to be able to help others.”

And it’s also true that if Obligers get too overwhelmed or drained, they can fall into Obliger-rebellion, when after meeting expectations for a long time, they suddenly snap, and say “This I will not do.” Sometimes this takes a small, funny form (like “I’m not going to answer your emails for a week”) and sometimes it’s dramatic (like ending a twenty-year friendship or quitting a job suddenly).

It’s very important for Obligers to realize that they must preserve themselves, even if the only way they can justify that is by thinking of their service to others. In the past, as an Upholder, this argument always seemed unnecessary to me, but now I see why it may be necessary for others.

There’s a book that I’ve read a few times called Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. I love Patchett’s novels, especially Bel Canto, and I also love her work in essay and memoir.

In Truth and Beauty, she writes about her deep twenty-year friendship with the writer Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002, when she was 39 years old. Grealy was an extraordinary person, and among other things, she wrote Autobiography of a Face, about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer and her years of chemotherapy, radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries.

Here’s what Patchett writes:

I put my hand on Lucy’s back and felt her uneven breaths, the tremor of her shoulder blades. I was stunned by the rawness of her pain. I came to understand that night in the sports bar, safe from the blinding rain, that I could not worry about Lucy anymore. I knew then it was just too enormous for me to manage and that worrying about her would swamp me. If I was swamped by worry, I would be useless to her. It was even possible that I would desert her, and that was the thing that could never happen.
- Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty: a Friendship

It’s important to remember that if we’re going to take care of other people, we need to take care of ourselves as well.

Quote From the Podcast

If I was swamped by worry, I would be useless to her.
Ann Patchett

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