A Little Happier: As an Upholder, I Needed an Obliger Friend to Tell Me the Right Thing to Do

I often talk about my “Four Tendencies” personality framework, which divides people into four categories.

If you want to find out whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel, and get some info on how to use that insight, you can take the free, quick quiz. (More than three million people have taken this quiz.)

In a nutshell, the Four Tendencies framework is based on how you meet or resist inner and outer expectations. We all face two kinds of expectations: outer (like a work deadline) and inner (like your own desire to keep a New Year’s resolution).

Depending on whether you meet or resist inner expectations and outer expectations, you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.

For this discussion, I’m talking about the difference between Upholders and Obligers.

Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations. They meet the expectations of others, but their expectations for themselves are just as important—sometimes, more important.

Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. Obligers say things like, “I always meet my promises to other people, why can’t I keep my promises to myself?”

In my observation, each of the Four Tendencies has great strengths, and each Tendency has the corresponding limitations. For instance, Questioners are great at doing research, but that means they can sometimes fall into analysis-paralysis, where their desire for perfect information makes it hard for them to make a decision.

Each strength comes with its weakness.

Over the years, many people have said to me, “I’m an Obliger, and I don’t want to be an Obliger, I want to be an Upholder.”

And I always say, “Don’t worry about being an Upholder! Obliger is a great Tendency. Just tailor your surroundings and your schedule so that you can achieve your aims for yourself.”

I’m an Upholder myself, and while I do love being an Upholder, I know very well the limitations and weaknesses of that Tendency.

And one of the limitations I’ve experienced is being so focused on following a rule that I disregard—even without realizing it!—the practical consequences of following that rule.

In life, sometimes we need to understand when a rule needs to be bent, broken, or re-interpreted, out of consideration for the effect that it’s having on others. As an Upholder, I’ve realized that I can be bad at that. Obligers, with their greater awareness of the weight of outer expectations, can be far more attuned to it.

Here’s an example from a few years ago.

During the dreadful Covid period, for her final semester in college, as a senior, my daughter Eliza was allowed to return to live on campus. She wasn’t going to be able to attend classes in person, or visit the library or the dining halls, or have roommates, but she would be back on campus. She was thrilled.

She got a list of instructions, which, among other things, said to “pack lightly.”

Upholder that I am, I thought, Okay, bring as little as possible. Pack some clothes, your phone charger, your water bottle, and go.

But around this time, I went for an outdoor walk with a close friend who is an Obliger. (This was during Covid, so we had to see each other out of doors.)

As we walked, I told her about Eliza’s return to college. We were going to drive her up, I explained, so she didn’t have to take the train. And I mentioned how she was supposed to pack lightly, so she wouldn’t have much with her.

And my friend said, “Eliza is going to be spending endless hours in that dorm room on her laptop. If I were you, I’d get a throw rug, a coffee machine, a backrest pillow, that kind of thing. You’re driving her up anyway, you’ll have room in the car. The school won’t care, and it will make a big difference for her time there.”

The thing is, it had literally never occurred me to reflect on those instructions, to form my own judgment about them. What did it mean to “pack lightly?”

The minute my friend said that, I knew she was right. Right then and there, I texted my husband Jamie and Eliza to say, “New plan. We need to go to Target asap.”

And when we got to school, it was obvious that it was fine that she was bringing those items, and that other seniors were doing the same thing. The school wanted to discourage people from bringing in masses of quantities of stuff, but the amount she brought was perfectly acceptable. And it made a big difference to her comfort.

As an Upholder, I’ve found, often rules are stated overly strictly, because the people issuing the rules know that most people tend to bend them a bit. I need to remind myself of that! Is this a rule that’s meant to be taken literally? Or is it okay to assume a bit of flexibility? Or am I interpreting the rule too strictly or too literally? The school said “Pack lightly.” My interpretation of “lightly” wasn’t actually very realistic.

Having those items to make her dorm room more comfortable made Eliza’s life much more pleasant during that difficult time. I feel lucky that I had an Obliger who could tell me, “Yes, I know you want to stick to the rules, but think about how they’ll affect Eliza.”

Each of the Tendencies has its weaknesses, and each has its strengths.




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